In the wake of the school shooting in in Florida, a lot has been written and found about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz. Like all school shooters, he was a troubled young man with many problems, and he left in his wake some hints of what was coming. So much so that the FBI is being dragged over the coals for not “doing something” to stop him.
But what does that mean? What could they have done?
On Friday, two days after the shooting, the Miami Herald accused the FBI of “Bungling” the case:
The FBI received two alarming tips about Nikolas Cruz in the past six months: Someone who knew him well believed he was capable of murdering teachers and students. And an online commenter using the handle “nikolas cruz” professed his desire to become a “professional school shooter.”
But somehow no one at the FBI connected the dots or shared information about Cruz with the agents who might have stopped him before Wednesday, when he killed 17 people at a high school in Broward County.
Honestly, I’m not sure which I find more disturbing: the fact that a disturbed 19 year-old man went postal and killed 14 high schoolers or the implications of what the authors at the Miami Herald, Jay Weaver, Sarah Blaskey, David Ovalle, and Nicholas Nehamas (Weaver, et al), are advocating with this statement, which is truly anti-democratic and even anti-modernist.
I’ve just levied a pretty heavy charge, so let’s unpack this. What did the FBI know? What could they have done? What should they have done? What do we, as a society really want them to do in future, similar situations? What are the wider implications?
What the FBI Knew
Starting with what the FBI knew, Weaver, et al identify two key pieces of information that the FBI had or should have had: a person close to Cruz identifying him as a potential threat and a comment made on YouTube that a user named ‘nikolas cruz’ wanted ‘to become a professional school shooter.’ First, let’s look at this tip.
The January tipster to the FBI hotline said Cruz owned guns. The person told the FBI’s Public Access Line, located in Clarksburg, West Virginia, that Cruz “had a desire to kill people” and could potentially conduct a school shooting, according to the bureau. The tip line received 766,888 calls in 2017. This one was not deemed a credible threat, as it should have been, and sent to Miami for follow up, the FBI said.
The authors assert that this should have been deemed as a credible threat, but why? Ex Post it is obvious that this threat was credible, but what makes it different from the other 766,888 tips? Particularly in light of the fact that Cruz was interviewed by Florida’s Department of Children and Families and deemed not a threat, it’s not unreasonable that the FBI came to same conclusion. Sure, they might not have followed protocol and still forwarded the tip on to the local unit, but it strikes me as highly improbable that the tip being forwarded would have changed anything.
Second, Mr. Cruz posted his sick wishes about staging a school shooting to YouTube. They say that everything you put online is permanent, which is true, but with 400 hours of YouTube content uploaded every minute, not everything you put online is quickly or easily accessible, even if it is permanent. I looked for some APIs to pull YouTube data, but not surprisingly, it’s not that easy to pull all comments across all of YouTube, even for a given period of time. Pulling comments on a previously identified/flagged channel? Sure, but not everything. In other words, I don’t have specific counts, but I can’t believe that Cruz (and let’s just assume it was actually the same person) was the only person to post a comment praising school shootings—sarcastically or not, computers have trouble telling the difference—much less the only comment with the words “school shooting.” The internet is a dark place at times, as Microsoft’s ChatBot, Tay, will attest. Point being: this is the kind of detail that is only obvious in hindsight. Ex ante, it’s just another asshole on the internet, and it’s impossible to identify, track, and/or follow up on all the assholes on the internet.
What the FBI Could or Should have Done
Protocol for the FBI says that they should forward all tips to the national hotline to the local districts for further review. That didn’t happen, and Christopher Wray, the FBI Director has publicly apologized for that. Beyond that, the Herald makes it sound like the simple act of forwarding this tip on would made any difference at all. Specifically, Weaver, et al say that, local agents were “agents who might have stopped him before Wednesday” (emphasis mine). That might is important, and strikes me as complete fantasy and wishful thinking. Really, what could the FBI have done?
Mental disturbance isn’t a crime, and Cruz acquired his weapons legally. Whether or not he should have been able to get those weapons is a topic for a future blogpost, but up until the time he started gunning down his former classmates, he had showed violent tendencies at home, but his adoptive family never pressed charges and he hadn’t committed any crimes outside the home. He was under monitoring by the mental health provider community, and was being treated for his readily apparent mental health issues without being denied habeus corpus. What about Cruz’s case would or could have justified imprisoning him for being a deeply disturbed dude, given that he was over 18 and hadn’t explicitly made threats against himself or others to a mandatory reporter?
That was a rhetorical question. In a Republic, jailing him for being creepy and disturbed would be wrong. Sometimes these pesky ethics of rule of law and presumption of innocence mean that the guilty walk free, even to kill again. That said, I believe this is still preferable over Bills of Retainer where public opinion, not evidence “beyond reasonable doubt,” determines one’s guilt.
As stated above, by Weaver, et al’s own words (specifically, “might”), it’s not obvious that the FBI could have done anything. By my reading of other sources, the FBI and local agencies had done almost everything right—Marjory school had expelled Cruz for his behavior, and the Department for Children and Families had investigated him. The FBI should have passed the tip on to local agencies, but that’s really the only oversight in this whole case, which is a pretty minor thing. FBI Director Wray can’t say that though; due to political pressure, he has to admit that they somehow mismanaged this, and that scares me.
Weaver, et al, and apparently much of public opinion writ large thinks that the FBI “bungled” this. What they really mean is that they identified a tip as a negative when it turned out (ex post) to be a positive. They made a Type II error, to use statistics jargon. To reduce the risk of a Type II error, we have two options: increase the statistical power or lower the threshold of statistical significance required. Both of these options are antithetical to democracy.
By bringing up the YouTube comment, Weaver, et al are essential advocating complete NSA monitoring of the whole internet. Natural Language Processing algorithms to analyze every YouTube comment, every Blogpost, every Blog Comment, and every Tweet to identify comments indicative of future violent behavior. Is that really what we want? Because that’s what it would take to reduce the likelihood of a Type II error by increasing statistical power.
In their opening paragraphs Weaver, et al say that local agents “might have been able to do something.” They are conspicuously silent about what that something could possibly be. As I’ve said before, up to that point Cru hadn’t done anything to warrant his arrest or detainment against his will. To violate his civil liberties and confiscate his property (guns) or detain his person based on a hunch or the fact that he’s a messed up guy would have been unconstitutional. And how many messed up guys are out there who fantasize about violence and could even be capable of carrying out a mass shooting? How many of those will actually go through with that fantasy? Data are sparse here, but this is probably a small-but-not-trivial number.
More importantly, what would that mean if we did decide that a “credible threat” was enough to detain someone? Who would decide what constitutes credibility? How long could someone have their civil liberties legally curtailed? The implication from this article seems to be that “Well, Cruz turned out to be guilty, so it should have been obvious before. Thus he should have been detained and prevented from carrying out this heinous act.” The corollary of that is that anyone can call the FBI tip line and submit a “tip” about someone—honestly or not. Deciding which are credible and which are not will never be perfect. Claiming that any false negative is a “bungling” implies that we should lower the bar for credible evidence–thereby reducing the risk of a Type II error. Anyone can make an accusation against another individual and that accused individual should be immediately suspect? That’s how things worked during the Reign of Terror under Robespierre in the French Revolution; not under a functioning Republic. I’m not against getting better ways of minimizing both false negative or false positive errors, but we need to accept that both will always be present. And I would argue that prioritizing false negatives as more dangerous than false positives—i.e. it’s worse to miss a potential killer than to imprison an innocent person—is anti-democratic and anti-modern. And that’s a severe charge.
What Nikolas Cruz did was horrific. But what price are we, as a society, willing to pay to prevent it in the future?
Are we willing to cede our rights to habeas corpus and privacy to federal authorities? If so, we’ve already lost the Republic to the enemies of Modernity.
Are we willing to accept school shootings as regular occurrences? Well, then may God have mercy on our souls for the sin of ignoring justice. (The Bible spends far more ink exhorting bringing about justice than it does advocating saying “Merry Christmas,” condemning homosexuals, or other such evangelical first world problems.)
Are we willing to accept some restrictions and monitoring of gun ownership? I really hope so, but exploring that topic is my next two posts.
In other words, instead of blaming the FBI for not detaining someone who was clearly mentally disturbed, let’s blame the true culprits. The current state of gun laws that allowed a clearly mentally disturbed person to get weapons in the first place. An underfunded, overly bureaucratic mental health infrastructure that was unable to get Cruz the help he needed. And, most importantly, the banality of evil and the total depravity of human nature. Those are the real culprits, not the fact that the FBI didn’t pass on information to the Miami office that didn’t have much constitutional recourse to do much anyways.