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No Rush to Judgment on Mental Health of Afghan Massacre Suspect

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Some years ago, I covered a Boston murder trial that involved a defendant who had once been my friend. Dan Mason had been in the Israeli Special Forces, the Israeli equivalent of the Navy SEALs, and had been trained as a sniper. Years after his service in the IDF, he had gotten into a road-rage altercation with Eugene Yazgur, a computer consultant.

Hours after the court ordered him to pay more than $100,000 for having savagely beaten Yazgur in a fight, Mason broke into Yazgur's home in the dead of night. The onetime commando killed Yazgur's roommate and dog, while Yazgur, his intended target, survived multiple bullet wounds and a coma and testified against him at the trial. Mason was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

This was not simply a case of a former sniper gone awry. Mason did not suffer from mental illness, but he had endured much trauma in his life. He had allegedly been beaten as a child, his parents had divorced when he was young, he had moved from the U.S. to Israel as a boy, he had a learning disability, and his step-father whom he adored had reportedly committed suicide.

I mention all of this because until we learn more about Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the suspected gunman who allegedly massacred 16 civilians in Afghanistan, we should not jump to the conclusion that he is mentally ill. And yet that is essentially what Mitt Romney, the Republican front runner, did the other day on CNN's The Situation Room. Romney told Wolf Blitzer that the gunman was "crazed" and "deranged" and that the actions of one soldier should not affect our policy in Afghanistan.

While I recognize that it is in the vernacular to refer to someone who goes on a rampage as "crazed," "deranged" or mentally ill, in all likelihood there were other factors involved that played more of a role than any possible mental illness.

First of all, like Mason, the suspect, Bales, was a trained sniper. He was programmed to kill.

Secondly, like Mason, he may have had a rage problem. In Mason's case, before he went on his rampage, he had felt vengeful toward Yazgur because Yazgur had started the fight with him during the road-rage incident. In spite of that fact, Mason owed him six-figures in damages because he sliced Yazgur's ear and pummeled him mercilessly.

In the case of the American soldier, he may have sought vengeance against Afghanis and Iraqis, even civilians, rationalizing that they had caused damage to his brain (Bales reportedly had suffered a traumatic brain injury in one of his three tours in Iraq).

Finally, there was no doubt an accumulation of events in this staff sergeant's life that led him to commit his alleged atrocities. It has been reported that alcohol was on the premises of the outpost where he was based, and according to the New York Times, the staff sergeant allegedly was drinking, in violation of military rules in a theater of war.

But even beyond the possibility that the staff sergeant was inebriated, he may have had other issues. Perhaps, he had seen buddies die in combat. He had almost assuredly heard about the six Americans who had been killed by supposed Afghan allies following the burning of Korans by American soldiers. And he must have known that two of those Americans were shot in the back in the Afghan Interior Ministry building.

He may have wondered whom he could trust, and he may have had other concerns as well, such as being separated from his wife and children for long stretches of time.

None of which points to mental illness.

Following the recent shooting in an Ohio high school, in which three students were killed and two wounded, one of the first questions CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Martin Savidge was whether or not the alleged shooter, T.J. Lane, had a mental health record. That was fair enough. But as it turns out, Lane comes from a broken home, both of his parents have had domestic violence charges filed against them, his father has spent time in prison, and T.J. Lane himself had "two scrapes with the law, both in December 2009 and both involving physical violence," according to the News-Herald, a newspaper serving northern Ohio.

There is no evidence at this point that Lane is mentally ill, just as there is no evidence right now that Staff Sergeant Bales, who was airlifted out of Afghanistan to Kuwait and according to the New York Times is now at Fort Leavenworth, is mentally ill. He had been declared fit for his Afghanistan tour despite his traumatic brain injury.

I can't deny that some of these murderers do turn out to suffer from mental disorders, but when you are around too much violence, you can become inured to it. That doesn't make you depressed or psychotic. That makes you a casualty of war and of the dark side of the human condition.

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