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Unnatural Born Killer | The Nation

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Unnatural Born Killer

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On May 6 Johanna Justin-Jinich, a Wesleyan University student, was gunned down in the school's bookstore, almost certainly by 29-year-old Stephen Morgan. My daughter is a senior at Wesleyan, and so I got to see part of the aftermath close up: young people stunned, scared, in tears, confined to their rooms because Morgan was still loose. News accounts make Justin-Jinich seem outstanding in many ways: altruistic, brilliant, full of life, much loved. But in one way, she was far from unusual. She was a woman killed by a man because she was a woman.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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Before Morgan allegedly murdered Justin-Jinich, he stalked her. After the two took the same summer course at NYU in 2007, he made repeated "unwanted" "insulting" phone calls and sent her thirty-eight hostile e-mails ("You're going to have a lot more problems down the road if you can't take any [expletive] criticism, Johanna"--a threat that has "I deserve to control and punish you, bitch" written all over it). The story gets a little unclear here: Justin-Jinich went to campus authorities, who referred her to the police, but like most victims, she declined to prosecute, and Morgan left town before he could be served with an order of protection. So, a situation important enough to warrant at least some legal intervention just vanished when the stalker moved away. "There was no way to foresee the sudden, nightmarish sequel," writes Robert McFadden in the New York Times. Really?

Stalking is a serious crime and a common one. According to a 2009 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, about 3.4 million people, 74 percent of them female, said they had been stalked in a single year. Being stalked can derail a life: victims not only live in fear, they can lose their job, be forced to drop out or change schools, move. Not all stalkers become killers, of course, but some do. Seung Hui-Cho stalked two women before he went on to massacre thirty-two people at Virginia Tech. Moreover, killing a woman can be just the first step in larger plans of mayhem. It's quite striking, actually, how many mass murderers--almost always men--begin their sprees by killing their wife, ex-wife (as in Corvino, California), girlfriend or even their mother, as one man did in Samson, Alabama; rage at an impending divorce is a popular motive in courtroom attacks, as in a 2005 case in Atlanta. Morgan's diary detailed his plans to follow up by murdering Jews and shooting up the Wesleyan campus.

Violence against women isn't the only blind spot in this case. For many reasons--from family denial to fears of Big Brother--America doesn't deal well with people who have mental or emotional problems. Stephen Morgan, who came from a well-off family in Marblehead, Massachusetts, was weird for a long time. He had no friends at St. John's Preparatory School, where a classmate described him as a "creepy loner," or in the Navy, where he spent four years. After his honorable discharge in 2003, he barraged one fellow seaman with crazy, angry phone calls. The police advised this victim to change his phone number; the calls stopped; that was that. Morgan was an anti-Semite; he refused to sell his house to a Vietnamese couple; he doesn't seem to have had a steady job, a social circle, roots, plans or interests. His family must have been worried about him, but so far as we know, nobody got him psychiatric care.

Of course mental health treatment is not a panacea, but don't you wonder what would have happened if somewhere along the way Morgan had gotten some help? He wasn't living on a desert island; many, many people experienced his strange vibes and their effects, including some who could have pushed him toward treatment but didn't. For eight years of his life he was either in high school or the Navy--did either institution say to him, "You need therapy"? Our frayed and underfunded mental health system shows how little we expect from care: the National Alliance on Mental Illness calls our system "disastrous" and gives it a D. State after state has cut its mental-healthcare budget in recent years, including Massachusetts, where Morgan was living at home before taking his Czech-made 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol from the box under his bed and setting out to kill Justin-Jinich.

Oh right, guns. The other boring, predictable part of the story. We've rather given up on gun control, haven't we? You know the line: the passion's on the other side, NRA, big political boner-killer for the Democrats, won't make much difference anyway. The Million Mom March is so 2000. Results: in 2006, the most recent year for which there are statistics, 30,896 people died from gun violence--including 12,791 murders--and 14,678 were injured.

A woman-obsessed stalker with a mind full of hate who gets his hands on a gun. No, there's no way anyone could have foreseen that he would kill, is there?

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