Publisher's Notebook: Rewinding senseless events can help us learn

Jeff Ackerman

I know we aren’t supposed to mention his name, but something about the young man who took nine lives (and his own) and forever changed the lives of many others earlier this month caught my attention.

According to digital posts traced to his mother, the 26-year-old Chris Harper-Mercer may have suffered from Aspergers syndrome – a form of autism.

And before I get too far into what I know about autism and how someone with Asperger’s might do what Mercer did, let me be clear: I’m not making excuses for him. There is no reason why any reasonable person would turn a classroom into a shooting gallery.

So let’s agree that Chris Harper-Mercer was far from reasonable, which is why it’s important to understand a bit more about him and what led him to commit his horrific acts.

We can talk about guns all day, but we ought to spend just as much time wondering what we — as a society — could have done to keep Chris Harper-Mercer away from that college classroom on Oct. 1.

My son Luke also suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. He’ll be 23 next month and the challenges ahead of him are enormous because there aren’t a lot of programs available for autistic adults whose numbers are exploding.

By 2023, the number of autistic adults who will require services is estimated at 380,000, or roughly equal to the population of Minneapolis.

“The bill for the tide of autistic children entering adulthood over the next 15 years is an estimated $27 billion annually in current non-inflation-adjusted dollars by the end of that period,” reported the Washington Post in a story just a few years ago.

If you haven’t heard, autism has basically reached epidemic proportions and nobody really knows why or what to do about it.

What’s all of that got to do with Chris Harper-Mercer? If it’s true he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome and lived in a fairly dysfunctional environment, plenty.

The syndrome is named after Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who, in 1944, studied and described children in his practice who “lacked nonverbal communication skills, demonstrated limited empathy with their peers, and were physically clumsy,” according to one definition.

You could make a good argument that Chris Harper-Mercer demonstrated little or no empathy for his victims. His actions inside that classroom — from witness accounts — sounded almost robotic.

Couple that lack of empathy with what Asperger experts describe as an “intense preoccupation with a narrow subject, one-sided verbosity, restricted prosody,” and you start to maybe get a picture of someone who requires a lot of work.

My son could draw the flag of every country in the world when he was 5 or 6, but really wasn’t interested in anything outside his current area of focus. His various obsessions — which have ranged from the Titanic to animation — have been so intense they occupied every waking minute. He still forgets to eat, when he is in the middle of an obsession and needs to be reminded to shower.

His obsessions also occupied much our time and effort. Parenting skills are put to the test every single day when you have a child with autism.

Luke was fortunate to have a mother who had more patience than anyone I’ve ever known. She refused to allow Luke to slip into his own digital world — which has become a black hole to many young lives. Imagine what someone with obsessive behaviors might find inside that black hole we call the Internet?
Chris Harper-Mercer has been described in media accounts as “socially awkward.” Neighbors said the only thing he wanted to talk about were guns. That’s another common trait of Asperger’s. My son has forced himself to learn at least some social skills, but he really doesn’t care what anyone has to say, unless it has to do with his latest obsession.

As a result, he really doesn’t have many friends.

According to the few people who knew him, Chris Harper-Mercer was obsessed with guns and…for some reason…his mother seemed to encourage that obsession.

That could be because his mother may also suffer from Asperger’s — as has been hinted at in media reports — and actually shared his obsession.

“Christopher Harper-Mercer was withdrawn and quiet as he grew up in southern California,” read a piece in The New York Times, “spending most of his time indoors at his mother’s apartment and deflecting neighbors when they asked him how he was doing, or why he always wore the same outfit of combat boots and green Army pants.”

Most people with Asperger’s are creatures of habit. I have to force my son to buy clothes, or try new foods. Cheese pizza and hamburgers with just catsup and mustard.

“When he (Chris Harper-Mercer) talked about guns and hunting, he was real open about it,” a neighbor told the Times. “But anything about what was going on in his life, he really didn’t say too much at all.”

Couple his gun obsession —apparently encouraged by his only real mentor — with unlimited access to the often-scary World Wide Web and you begin to see the makings of a time bomb.

The other day at a public meeting, Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman wondered what society’s role in that shooting might have been.

He wondered whether someone could have intervened in Chris Harper-Mercer’s life to perhaps alter the path he was on. As the father of a special son, I can tell you there were probably warning signs all over that path that someone should have, or could have read.

At the end of the day, we cannot learn from these senseless events unless we at least try to rewind them. And we can’t do that unless we put a name to a face.