IN THE weeks before his murderous shooting spree at Washington’s Navy Yard, Aaron Alexis was exhibiting bizarre, if not alarming, behavior. Employees at the motel in Rhode Island where he was staying noticed it. So did police, who thought it so erratic that they alerted Naval authorities. Apparently even the company that employed him to do sensitive military work viewed him as unstable.
So, how is it that Mr. Alexis, toting a shotgun and sporting a clearance pass, breezed onto a supposedly secure military installation and started a shooting spree that left 12 men and women — regular people showing up for a regular day of work on a Monday morning — dead? The lapses that enabled these events are not just heartbreaking; they are scandalous.
It was of little comfort to hear about “hindsight” from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “When you go back in hindsight and look at all this, there were some red flags, of course there were,” Mr. Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday. “Why they didn’t get picked up, why they didn’t get incorporated into the clearance process, what he was doing — those are all legitimate questions that we’re going to be dealing with.”
Mr. Hagel was careful not to assign blame, but responsibility must be assessed. Mr. Alexis was a young man with a history of problems (including arrests for gun infractions and a spotty record in the Navy reserves) who was clearly spiraling out of control. But the system was unable or unwilling to deal with the dangers he presented.
Foremost among the failures was the Navy’s lack of action following an Aug. 7 report from Newport, R.I., police that Mr. Alexis, one of the contractors cleared to work on the local naval base, was hallucinating and hearing voices. Security officials at the base promised to look into the matter. But, apparently without interviewing Mr. Alexis, they decided he wasn’t a threat. That judgment becomes even more suspect in light of revelations by the New York Times of the struggles of employees at the motel where Mr. Alexis was staying to cope with his troubling behavior.
Particularly damning was information obtained by the Times indicating that the firm that employed Mr. Alexis, The Experts Inc., had made inquiries about him during this time, considered him “unstable” and was recalling him. The company, which previously said it was unaware of the issues involving Mr. Alexis and offered the implausible explanation that it thought Mr. Alexis’s complaints about hearing voices referred to noisy neighbors, didn’t respond to our phone call or an e-mail requesting comment.
Much is still unknown about Mr. Alexis. His death, following a shootout with police, means many questions will go unanswered. It’s possible, as some have speculated, that he struggled with schizophrenia, which underlines the need for new strategies to manage risks associated with this illness. The vast majority of people with schizophrenia never commit a violent act. But that doesn’t mean that when there are warning signs — as was the case with Mr. Alexis and, before him, James E. Holmes, Jared Lee Loughner and Seung-Hui Cho — they can be ignored.