There’s a lot we still don’t know about Friday’s tragedy at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. We know that this latest mass shooting is not about terrorism except in the way that the paranoid tenor of the time shapes the delusions of acutely vulnerable minds. We know this sad case is a tangle: The Iraq War, our shameful abandonment of the mentally ill, and political deadlock on gun laws are all somehow implicated—and at the same time all beside the point.
Because accused shooter Esteban Santiago served in Iraq, and his family reported he had changed on return, TV commentators rushed to conclude that he suffers from PTSD. PTSD doesn’t cause sufferers to hear voices commanding them to watch ISIS videos and enact murderous rampages. Santiago might have had prior psychotic episodes during (or even before) his service that went unrecognized. He might be in the midst of his first acute crisis. He also might have suffered from PTSD intertwined with other issues. But armchair diagnoses of traumatic stress serves only to stigmatize the legions of veterans who already face discrimination and too-often-inadequate care.
It is clear that Santiago received an unsatisfactory-performance discharge from the Alaska National Guard, and sought help in the Anchorage FBI field office for his deteriorating psychiatric condition. It is equally clear that the military has a scandalous track record of dumping mentally ill soldiers—whether suffering combat PTSD or some organic affliction—with less than honorable discharges. And a dishonorable discharge means that a troubled vet like Santiago would not easily have access to VA mental-health care—a crucial dimension missing in ill-informed instant commentary, even though some of the country’s finest investigative reporters (Dave Philipps of The New York Times, Daniel Zwerdling and Quil Lawrence of NPR, and Michael de Yoanna of Colorado Public Radio) have all reported in detail on the alarming cycle of military mental illness, bad-conduct discharges and post-discharge violence, drug abuse and homelessness.
From what we know thus far, the most consequential question raised by this shooting is simple: Could anything have kept a mentally ill man, who’d walked himself into the FBI seeking help against psychotic commands involving ISIS, from the fully legal possession and air transport of a weapon, checked into his luggage when he presented his one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale?
The answer is yes—intertwined not with the rare risk of terrorism but the with the everyday threat of intimate-partner violence. Twelve months ago, according to Anchorage records, Santiago was arrested after he smashed his way through the door of his then-girlfriend’s apartment to choke and beat her. Prosecutors ultimately deferred the charges, today still pending in Anchorage court. That—even before his visit to the FBI months later—was a crucial missed opportunity.