“UCLA ON LOCKDOWN. TWO REPORTED SHOT.” Once again, mayhem on an American campus. What the hell is this helter skelter with our students? As an Adjunct Professor for more than a decade at some of the best universities in New York, I have a few thoughts, if not definitive answers or solutions.
When I began seeing various alerts from my different news feeds that there had been a shooting at UCLA, it held a particular interest to me. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, UCLA loomed large in my world. My sister and brother-in-law graduated from there; we rooted for UCLA against their archrivals USC. Westwood, the area in west Los Angeles where UCLA is located, symbolized an upscale, fairly affluent community that wasn’t nearly as ostentatious as Beverly Hills, directly to its east, or Brentwood, to its north west. It was a solid, stable, charmed place. Shootings?
This morning, leaving a meeting, I called my closest pal, also from LA, to ask if he had heard any more news. Sitting at his computer he Googled it and read me some of the ongoing breaks in the story: Mainak Sarkar, apparently a disgruntled doctoral engineering student, shot and killed his former professor and then shot and killed himself.
How could any murder, cold-blooded in this case, let alone suicide, be anything other than… crazy?
I asked my friend: “Is there anything online that indicated that Mainak Sarkar was always a nutter? I mean, was he always crazy?” My pal answered, “What do you mean by crazy?” And I knew that we were off to the races. We so easily throw around the term “crazy” without really stopping to consider what it is we’re talking about.
This is what comes up off a Google search for “clinically insane”:
“Here’s the first sentence of law.com’s lengthy definition: Insanity. n. mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.”
Without going near what would be a tome-length discussion parsing the infinite potential social and other contextual lenses for determining what “crazy” or “insane” could mean, I just wanted to know if the shooter had a history of behavior that might offer insight to his actions. Or… was what he did the consequence of a somewhat logical, if obviously extreme, methodology? How could any murder, cold-blooded in this case, let alone suicide, be anything other than… crazy?
Mainak Sarkar certainly might have been insane, but he was not a dummy. He received his Masters Degree in Engineering from Stanford and had been doing his doctoral work at UCLA where he was an assistant to the professor that he killed, Professor William Klug. Sarkar allegedly believed that his former professor had stolen a valuable computer code from him. Subsequent reports suggested that Sarkar had been despondent about grades that Klug had given him. But this strains plausibility since grades, per se, are not given out in doctoral studies. There is a rant on Sarkar’s WordPress blog (since removed) against Klug that ends:
Your enemy is your enemy. But your friend can do a lot more harm. Be careful about whom you trust. Stay away from this sick guy.
Sounds fairly crazy to me.
On the Internet there are a number of people who are convinced that the side effects from various psychotropic drugs are connected to, if not directly responsible for, nearly every mass shooting that’s recently occurred. As much as I tried, I could not verify the veracity of this line of thinking.
A less-than-random place to start thinking about this is my first-hand experience: Over the past ten years I have received a growing number of “notes” from either students, or various student services, officially introducing me to a student’s particular “learning disability,” “emotional handicap,” and/or “personal information.” The purpose of these notes (all of them official—written by doctors, school and/or health administrators) is for me, as their professor, to be aware of their special needs or predispositions, but more importantly, to allow them specific dispensations. This might include giving the student more time on certain kinds of exams or allowing her/him a bit more leeway in turning in assignments.
CAUTION. Before I continue: I am not, in any way imaginable, even remotely suggesting that any of these students or any student that might even loosely fit this description is and/or will ever be connected to any kind of violence, especially the kind that has inspired this article.
These students, in my experience, have been for the most part eager, sensitive and often superlative students—sometimes even the stars of the class. They are among the first wave of the coming-of-age young folks who have grown up in an extremely medicated environment. The National Center for Health Statistics says that 5 percent of American 12- to 19-year-olds use antidepressants, and another 6 percent of the same age group use medication for ADHD—in total, about four million teenagers.
This is far more than anywhere else in the world. Why?
Are our American students more troubled than others students outside the United States? And by troubled, which is another extremely loaded word, I’m referring not simply to the more popular buzz terms that seem to plague our young people like ADD, bi-polar, degrees of autism, and excessive anxiety, but also the less easily diagnosed, or termed, emotional/social problems that might include bullying or being bullied.
At first glance it seems that there are either more “troubled” young people than ever before, or better detection and diagnosis of conditions that always existed but were previously not well understood. Or a combination of the two. Or… some combination compounded by the reach and influence of big pharmaceutical companies that have undoubtedly been the greatest financial beneficiary of this surge of medication usage in teens and everyone.
But I’m trying not to directly conflate the rise in young people’s diagnosed mental issues and the rise of campus shooting and violence. What I can suggest is that as science rapidly learns more and more about the mind, there have been and will be numerous medications—with all sorts of insidious side effects as well as various degrees of effectiveness—along the path of eventually having a better handle on addressing these conditions.
On the Internet there are a number of people who are convinced that the side effects from various psychotropic drugs are connected to, if not directly responsible for, nearly every mass shooting that’s recently occurred. They point out how the various shooters from those teens at Columbine to the Newtown massacre were on or had recently been on various psychotropic medications. As much as I tried, I could not verify the veracity of this line of thinking. The conspiracy theorist in me says that’s because “Big Pharma” has suppressed this information. But the fact is there has been no legitimate study that conclusively links shooters and meds.
For many people this is a particularly challenging time to be alive. Income disparity is very real. Economic instability has long, deep tentacles. Transitioning into a digital age leaves many people feeling left behind and frustrated. Add terrorism, bio-fears and eco-fears and you wonder why there aren’t even more acts of insanity.
What we can all agree upon is that the shooters, like the gunman at UCLA, were severely fucked-up. No sense mincing words. We can also probably agree that for many people this is a particularly challenging time to be alive. Income disparity is very real. Economic instability has long, deep tentacles. Transitioning into a digital age leaves many people feeling left behind and frustrated. Add terrorism, bio-fears and eco-fears and you wonder why there aren’t even more acts of insanity.
Students feel this stuff. They see their parents struggle. They see their mounting cost of education and can’t quite fathom what it means. What will $50,000 of debt mean to an 18-year-old? And if their beleaguered parents are paying for it, there can be unspoken guilt. Youth, as we all know, is wasted on the young. Very few college students are even in college for the right reasons… not yet. Add that to their mounting angst and we can sense a gathering storm.
When I heard from my pal—still reading breaking news to me over the phone about the UCLA shooting, that the shooter was upset that his professor had stolen his code—I immediately thought how that would made a reasonable plot for a screenplay. How, in our desperate present-day reality, a code or algorithm could be the key to owning the next Google or Facebook, and how that might fairly easily inspire murderous rage.
But then my friend read to me another breaking story how Sarkar, the gunman, had a “kill list” and that he had apparently previously killed a woman on that list. (Editor’s note: Since this writing, it has been reported that woman was Sarkar’s ex-wife, who has been found dead in Minnesota.)
OK, not that we ever doubted it, but there is absolutely no question this guy is a nutcase. And even though we will continue to learn more about him and what “motivated” him, and feel the sadness related to the death of a beloved professor, the takeaway for me is this: There will always be some really crazy people out there. And no drug or social system will ever be able to eradicate that.
Learn more about author Loren-Paul Caplin here.