Slate has an interview with E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist whom I don't much admire, who wants to make it easier to commit people. Let me first say that Rodger's rants and explicit threats provided grounds, in my view, to lock him up, whether he was ill or just plain bad, but Torrey does not want to limit involuntary commitment to situations like that. Torrey wants to have a psychiatric nurse accompany the police when they question someone like Rodger, who was reported to be quiet and polite; he says that a mentally ill person can often hold himself together for a few minutes, and be polite to a cop or a judge. The nurse, he says, should ask questions like "If you were to kill yourself, what method would you use?"
Good grief! Can a shrink determine that someone who answers that if he did, he'd use a gun, is really suicidal, while someone who answers that he'd take sleeping pills, is not? And what about someone who says, "I'm not suicidal, and I haven't given much thought to the matter." Is he a paragon of mental health, or does his refusal to cooperate indicate severe paranoia?
It seems to me that when someone planning mayhem can be polite and normal-seeming to a nice policeman, he is bad, not sick. Someone who is truly crazy is likely to make his madness noticeable to someone of ordinary intelligence and experience. (Not always, I admit, but often.) If his illness is so subtle that only a specially trained witch doctor can detect it, how can we be sure that the witch doctor -- I mean mental health professional -- is not detecting something that is not there?
And this is part of why I am opposed to making involuntary commitment easy. We could miss the next Elliot Rodger, while we lock up a hundred harmless eccentrics or victims of false accusations by abusive relatives or batty neighbors.