Many in the media have agonized over possible motives that may have led Aaron Alexis to kill twelve co-workers at the Washington Navy Yard last week. Had he had a dispute with his co-workers or employer? Was he in danger of being fired? Was he in debt? And so on. A senior law-enforcement official was even quoted as saying, “When you are dealing with crazy people, sometimes there isn’t a clear-cut reason.”
In fact, Alexis had a very clear-cut reason for undertaking his rampage killing, and he spelled it out so that everyone would understand. According to media reports, he had etched the following phrases onto the side of his shotgun: “Better off this way” and “My ELF weapon.” This elf does not refer to the singular of “elves” — rather it’s a common Navy shorthand for extremely-low-frequency radio waves with frequencies from 3 to 300 Hertz. Such waves can penetrate water, so the Navy uses them to communicate with submarines. ELFs are a form of electromagnetic radiation and have been said by some people to have a harmful effect on the human body, including the brain. An ELF Navy transmitter facility in Wisconsin was closed in 2004 as a result of public controversy over its possible ecological and health effects. All of this would certainly have been known to Alexis as a Navy reservist, and indeed the information is available even on Wikipedia.
Alexis almost certainly had acute paranoid schizophrenia, and his illness was worsening in the weeks prior to the shootings. Five weeks earlier, he had called the police to his hotel in Rhode Island because people were following him, or so he believed. According to the police report, those people were using “some sort of microwave machine to send vibrations through the ceiling, penetrating his body so he cannot fall asleep.” The people were also sending voices through the walls and floor, and Alexis went to other rooms in the hotel searching for the source of the voices and, presumably, the “microwave machine.” When he came to Washington, the “vibrations” and “voices” probably continued and may have worsened. It is not yet known what the voices were saying, but it would not be unusual for someone with paranoid schizophrenia if the voices were telling him to kill himself. Alexis apparently concluded that the Navy, with whom he had had problems during his four years of active duty as a reservist, from 2007 to 2011, was responsible for his continuing harassment and that they were using extremely-low-frequency (ELF) machines to send the “vibrations” and voices to him. Obviously tortured by his symptoms, Alexis decided to die but to take revenge on his persecutors in the process. Thus “Better off this way” and “My ELF weapon” were etched onto his shotgun.
I have seen more than one hundred individuals like Aaron Alexis with acute paranoid schizophrenia. They have a disease of their brain and, if it becomes acute, they need immediate hospitalization and medication to control their symptoms. They should be regarded as a medical emergency, similar to how we regard an individual in the early stages of a stroke or subdural hematoma. Alexis had no awareness of his illness — this is commonly the case with schizophrenics because this brain disease affects the part of the brain that we use to think about ourselves. He was absolutely convinced that the Navy was sending the ELF waves into his body: This was the motivation for his rampage, as the FBI recently concluded. It’s unlikely that any rational argument could have cured him of this paranoid delusion. For him, successful treatment — if he had had access to it — would have entailed an involuntary hospitalization.
By calling the police, Alexis was unconsciously reaching out for help. But the police in Rhode Island, in contrast to many other states, have not been trained to address psychiatric issues. His contact with them was the one real opportunity we had to avoid this tragedy. But rather than taking Alexis to an emergency room to be evaluated by a psychiatrist, the police merely told him to avoid the people who were following him.
And the rest is history.
— Fuller Torrey, M.D., is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center and author of American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System.