A good, online reporter engaged in the business of journalism would have spent the weekend reporting on and writing about Fort Lauderdale shooter Esteban Santiago and his Alaska connections.
Why? Because breaking news sells. Breaking news drives “traffic” as they say in the online news business.
When the Anchorage newspaper reported its most-viewed stories for the 12 months of 2016, 11 of the 12 were breaking news stories including a fake breaking news story in July. The only non-breaking story was a video of a “spirited Alaskan busting a move to Alicia Keys’ ‘No One’ on a slushy Hoonah dock,” as the newspaper described it. “Justin Hoyt, of Ketchikan, posted the video to YouTube in February, and it’s since garnered more than a million views.”
ADN.com suggested that “if you need something to brighten your cold, dark winter, consider revisiting this gem.”
This is the state of the news business today.
CNN on Sunday put up airport video of the start of Santiago’s shooting spree that killed five and injured eight.
As yet, there appears to be no video of the mosque near where Santiago lived in Anchorage, though one has to think that is sure to come. Despite the indications Santiago was mentally ill – he walked into the local FBI office at the start of winter and told agents “his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency”that forced him to watch ISIS propaganda movies – there is clearly a desire among some for a terrorism connection.
It would make everything so much easier to explain. And we live in time when people want simple and instantaneous answers. Terrorism is perfect.
Terrorists hate America. So if Santiago knew terrorists or associated with terrorists or worshipped terrorists or was a terrorist, viola: The shooting is explainable. It was terrorism, not some random act of violence.
So who do we attack first to get even?
Only the Santiago story doesn’t seem that simple. Born in New Jersey, he moved to Puerto Rico as a child, and grew up to join the Puerto Rica National Guard in 2010 at the age of 20. Three years later, he was in Iraq.
The Fort Lauderdale “Sun Sentinel” newspaper, which sent two reporters north into the Alaska cold to chase the story, reported that “while in Iraq, two soldiers in Santiago’s unit were killed by a roadside bomb….Santiago received commendations for his service, including six medals.”
The story mentions that “Santiago’s relatives have said he returned from there a changed man, beginning a long spiral into mental illness,” but the letters PTSD do not appear in the story.
A reporter could have dug down into that territory. One could have explored some new research linking Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to schizophrenic like symptoms. Hearing voices in your head telling you what to do is a classic symptom of schizophrenia, a disease that tends to strike most often between the ages of 16 and 30.
Santiago was 26.
But as Harvard psychiatrists Aengus O Conghaile and Lynn E. DeLisi reported in 2015, “co-occurrence of psychotic symptoms with symptoms typically thought of as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is well known, and there has been considerable debate whether this represents a psychotic subtype or a comorbid psychotic disorder.”
“Up to 70% of returning veterans experience symptoms of PTSD,” they added. There is an increased incidence of violence among these veterans, but the numbers show only a tiny minority of returning vets become violent.
End of the road
Alaska does have a reputation for attracting more than its share of these people.
“We have a lot of what we call end-of-the-roaders. Often, they’re trying to escape something. Sometimes it’s a record of crime outside, sometimes it’s a bad marriage, sometimes they just don’t fit in,” Judith Kleinfeld, then the director of the northern studies program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks told Murphy in 1995.
“This odd paradox in the north of, on the one hand, it being a very safe place and a lot of people don’t lock their doors at night. And on the other hand, the number of . . . killers who go and shoot up a place [here] is very, very high.”
Little has changed.
When a soldier named Paul Vermillion came back from Iraq damaged, his parents warehoused him in a comfortable home on the Kenai Peninsula near the small community of Cooper Landing.
In 2013, Vermillion got drunk, got crazy and killed sometimes friend Genghis Muskox, a young man originally from Minnesota living the Alaska dream. Vermillion blamed PTSD for the execution-style killing.
He was last year sentenced to serve 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter charges.
“During his expert testimony, Dr. John Mundt, who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago, said Vermillion has been under-treated since returning from war and that the effects of his post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury would greatly improve through consistent treatment,” Megan Pacer of the Kenai “Peninsula Clarion” newspaper reported after the sentencing in August of last year.
There are indications Santiago might have been among the under treated. But there are so many in that situation. Sixty percent of mental health illnesses go untreated, US Today reported as part of a 2014 series on what it termed a “man-made disaster.”
Statistically, someone reading this story – actually more than just one someone – is sure to be suffering from a mental-health issue.
A twisted world view
There are, no doubt, interesting issues to discuss after a serious dig down into the Fort Lauderdale shooting, but here’s the problem:
It didn’t happen here. It happened 4,000 miles away.
Yes, it could have happened here or anywhere, but it didn’t. And in treating it like it happened next door, in treating it like everyone is somehow connected, the media (and I plead guilty to being a part of that) feeds a national hysteria.
No doubt most people reading this think gun-crimes are up in America, because that is a reasonable thing to think given the way the news gets reported. But the fact is that gun crimes aren’t up, they’re down.
“Gun Homicide Rate Down 49% Since 1993 Peak; Public Unaware,” the Pew Research Center reported in 2013.
“Despite national attention to the issue of firearm violence,”the organization noted, “most Americans are unaware that gun crime is lower today than it was two decades ago. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, today 56 percent of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago and only 12 percent think it is lower.”
This is the left-leaning Pew Center talking, not the National Rifle Association (NRA).
So why do a majority of people believe what is factually wrong?
The answer to that question should be obvious. The perception we live in a world more dangerous than ever comes from a media that pursues every breaking story as if the tragedy happened in our neighborhood because much of the media now survives on clicks on a computer screen, and it needs millions of them to make money.
The media has figured out that a lot of people want to know why these things happen, even though there is usually no real explanation. It doesn’t matter. A click is a click. Every time someone hits one its a fraction of a penny for a website somewhere.
Drum up millions of clicks and those pennies add up. The effect on the national psyche?
Who knows, but it’s not unreasonable to conclude that when you have all the bad things in the world shipped into your neighborhood, it starts to look like a truly bad place to live.
This is not to diminish or excuse the horror of what happened in Fort Lauderdale. It was tragic and frightening and despicable. But it was 4,000 miles from Anchorage.
Santiago had dangerous problems, but for once someone chose to take them south.
It’s why I didn’t want to write about Santiago, and yet I now see that I have.