Politics & Policy

Mall Madness

Pope Francis blesses a disfigured man in St. Peter’s Square.
How can we help the tormented among us to know they are not disposable?

‘He was just kind of left by himself,” a friend of Richard Shoop’s commented to reporters.

I never met Richard Shoop, but I nearly ran into him a few nights ago at a Nordstrom in Paramus, N.J. He had just shot a rifle in the air there, and an alert couple with keen instincts for self-preservation had run up the down escalator to escape the line of fire. Like every other customer and worker there, I am unharmed — Richard Shoop evidently wasn’t prepared to hurt anyone but himself. I just can’t get him off my mind.

Hours later — after the “lockdown,” after our close encounters with Garden State law enforcement and SWAT teams cleared us to leave in the morning of the next day — we would learn that the 20-year-old had wound up shooting himself in the head in a remote area of the mall.

#ad#From what his family and friends told the media, it seems that Richard Shoop was trying. He went to work. But he would fall into addiction. He would fall into confusion. He would fall into violence. He was not alone. Yes, people have free will, and some of them make the choice to walk into a Navy Yard or a shopping mall with a gun, but why? And where did they get the idea? American culture isn’t exactly innocent. Few of us would be totally exonerated from a share in the guilt.

In her Men on Strike, Dr. Helen Smith writes that in 2010, more than 38,000 people killed themselves in the United States — and over 30,000 of them were men. Why would Shoop go firing off a rifle at the Garden State Plaza, only to end his own life? Perhaps because we don’t really take notice of suicides unless they make it onto TV. Perhaps because we don’t notice people until they do something really crazy.

“People care almost as little about suicide in young men as they do about men in general, which is to say, not a lot,” says Smith, also the author of Scarred Heart, about teens who kill. She adds: “We have deserted the mentally ill in order to save money and feel good about ourselves. The mentally ill no longer are locked up, but there is no community help for them. In our world, everyone is so busy and the culture is full of hostility for men and boys — their inner psychological life is taboo unless it conforms to the societal ideal of expressing their feelings in a particular way. Add to this a constant barrage of cable news giving media time to mass shooters over and over, and it is little wonder that a confused young man thinks that the way to gain recognition and attention to his plight is by a public display of suicide or, worse, harming others in the process.”

We can’t interview Shoop at this point; we don’t know why he did what he did or if he was mentally ill. But there’s enough we do know about his life to teach us to be more alert to signs. “If you have a young man in your family who you think is depressed, offer your ear. Stop what you are doing and try to listen,” Smith urges.

From the testimony of friends and family — and the way his life ended — it seems clear that Shoop “was deeply unhappy,” comments Dr. Sally Satel, a staff psychiatrist at the Oasis Clinic in Washington, D.C., and author of many books on psychiatry, policy, and treatment. He’s gone and we can’t talk to him about the whys; based on accounts of his last days, there were possible warning signs. “When people start talking about giving away their possessions, and they already seem withdrawn and hint at killing themselves, you have to take that combination very seriously,” she cautions.

“My general advice to friends, family, and co-workers is to take an interest, pay attention, and inquire when they see another person appearing to ‘drift’ in strange directions,” says Aaron Kheriaty, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine and lead author of The Catholic Guide to Depression. “Get to know the person, ask about their inner world. One does not need to be a psychiatrist to do this, to go beyond superficial social niceties.”

“Make the effort to get to know the person a little bit, and then get below the surface chitchat,” Dr. Kheriaty says. “If you simply take the trouble to ask with an attitude of wanting to assist, most people will open up. If they open up, then you can begin to build some trust. This does not need to take a long time. From there, a suggestion to seek help from a mental-health professional is more likely to be well received than if it came at the person out of the blue.”

Shortly after Shoop was found dead, a picture of Pope Francis embracing the head of a severely disfigured man — as far as popular perceptions are concerned, what amounts to the modern-day version of a leper — went viral, as we say, capturing imaginations about the possibilities of love, of real encounters with one another, beyond, as the doctor said, the superficial. And beyond the virtual.

The pope has been talking about a throwaway culture where we treat people as if they were disposable. Something in Richard Shoop’s life — perhaps a tempting darkness in his head, an ache in his heart — seems to have led him to believe he was disposable. No one is. If only he could have been reached by the outpouring of love from family and friends after his death, as they faced the watching world.

We can’t now embrace Richard Shoop and give him the love and help he needed. But we can help keep others from something similar. Instead of screaming about gun laws, let’s grapple with better ways to reach the tormented, to keep them from abandonment, to help families help the mentally ill, and to let all our fellow human beings know that they are not disposable, that we have not thrown them away, that we will not leave them alone with the scars on their hearts and the darkness in their heads. There is no magic wand to keep what happened at the Paramus mall from happening again, but building and nurturing a culture where we have actual, fulfilling personal interactions that seek human flourishing can’t hurt.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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