Law enforcement is still trying to figure out why, on Friday, 26-year-old Esteban Santiago shot and killed five people and wounded six in the baggage claim area after arriving on a Delta flight from Alaska (via Minneapolis). Santiago deboarded the plane in Fort Lauderdale, retrieved the checked bag containing his pistol and loaded it in a nearby bathroom. He tucked the weapon into his waistband until he pulled it to start shooting indiscriminately in the Baggage Claim area.
You can see the event unfold in the video below.
As is always the case, we are all left stunned and stupefied in the wake of these events, struggling to make sense of how something like this can happen. The first inclination for some is to believe that more laws will fix the problem — that this wouldn’t have happened if Santiago, who by all reports had clearly been struggling with mental health issues for months if not years, hadn’t been legally allowed to own a gun. But we all know when it comes to getting a gun in the U.S., where there’s a will, there’s a way. So, changing the gun laws is not a real solution. But, watching for red flags and in-depth treatment of mental illness are real solutions.
Let’s not kid ourselves. There were plenty of red flags going up this time.
There were multiple agencies that intersected with Santiago at least once and could have identified him as at-risk. Based on news reports, Santiago had been struggling with mental health issues since he was deployed in Iraq as a combat engineer for Alaska’s Army National Guard, where he received a general discharge in August for “unsatisfactory performance.” So, the first agency who should have seen to it that he got some help was the DOV (Department of Veterans Affairs).
Santiago had been arrested multiple times in Anchorage for incidents of domestic violence. While he was working in Anchorage as a security guard, he lived his life bordering on homelessness. His struggle with his mental condition had gotten so bad by November, that he showed up on the doorstep of the FBI field office in Anchorage — leaving his newborn baby and a gun waiting outside in the car — and reported to agents that the CIA was controlling his mind and that he was being forced to watch ISIS videos against his will.
The FBI followed up with a brief investigation into any possible terrorist ties, but turned him over to local police to deal with. After confiscating his gun and incarcerating him for several days, Anchorage police sent him to a local mental health facility where he stayed for a short time and then was released. The police returned his gun to him a month later.
And there it goes again. Another individual — a veteran at that — with acute mental health issues, unable to function in the real world, back on the streets again. Law enforcement is fully aware these individuals are out there. And they know many of them are potentially dangerous. Remember Aaron Alexis? In 2013, Alexis was the shooter in a Washington Navy shipyard. This vet and contractor also sought help for his psychosis, but the situation ended the same. Promises to “do more” have clearly fallen short. What will it take to get the VA and DOV to pay attention to this ongoing problem?
Jails are full of people who aren’t getting help with the mental health issues that cause them to behave irresponsibly, and there aren’t always mental health resources available to offer these people. So they’re thrown back in with the rest of us, like ticking time bombs. Some of them, like Santiago, are even armed with military training.
To prevent tragedies like these from happening, would-be shooters, and especially veterans, need more than just fleeting help before a moment of crisis turns tragic. Psychiatric intervention, medications, and therapy can go a long way toward helping those like Santiago with mental illnesses to safely function in society. But, first, they have to have access to ongoing treatment…such as the DOV should have provided. Now we have innocent lives lost, a man that many are simply seeing as “evil” and worthy of the death penalty, and families destroyed due to an incident that could have been prevented.
In the case of veterans like Santiago, the DOV is the most culpable here. If they had provided the care he really needed, it’s possible this tragedy might never have happened. But there need to be more resources and criteria in place for those who need help with their mental illnesses, veterans or not. For those of us who are fortunate enough to be healthy mentally and emotionally, there is sometimes a tendency to think that it’s not “our problem.” However, those who survived the terror that Santiago unleashed on Friday might just disagree.
Does mental illness excuse the behavior of individuals who lose control and aim their sights on innocent citizens?
Of course not, but the correlation between mental illness and mass shooting cannot be ignored, either. In the case of veterans who volunteer to put their lives on the line to protect this country, shouldn’t they at least know that the services they need will be provided for them…especially when they show up at the FBI with talks of a lack of control over their own minds?