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Esteban Santiago and the unending narrative in the literature of rejection

 François-Léon Benouville’s “The Wrath of Achilles” (1847), oil on canvas, Musée Fabre.

François-Léon Benouville’s “The Wrath of Achilles” (1847), oil on canvas, Musée Fabre.

When news broke of the murder of five people and the wounding of eight more at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, TV anchors were quick to note that we did not know the motivation of the alleged shooter, Esteban Santiago. This was to damp down the rampant speculation that has inflicted the digital age, in which what is said or written is considered true by virtue of the fact that it is said or written.

Admirable as such discretion is, I’m afraid we knew Santiago’s motives even before knowing his story.

Indeed, while we’re just learning his story, his narrative is a plumb line through history and literature. He is Homer’s Achilles, Shakepeare’s Iago, Milton’s Lucifer, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff. He is John Wilkes Booth, Adolf Hitler, Lee Harvey Oswald, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, Dylann Roof and all those school shooters and terrorists. He is a young man – he’s almost always a young man – familiar with weapons, an ex-soldier often; frustrated by life; and with a disproportionate rage at and response to life’s rejections.

Santiago’s story – failed relationships, checkered job history – is complicated by war and mental illness. After the Iraq War, his aunt said, he wasn’t right in the head. He was evaluated by the FBI and his case closed despite his hearing CIA voices that commanded him to watch ISIS videos. He was not placed on a no-fly list. Rather, he was allowed to check a gun and ammunition on his fateful journey to Fort Lauderdale, because that’s what hunters do. But hunters don’t hunt with handguns – unless they’re hunting people.

What we have here is a failure of Alexandrian leadership – leadership from the front – compounding the literature of rejection. Why was Santiago released after four days of paranoid ramblings? Why was he given back his gun? Why didn’t his family do more? Why don’t we as a nation, as a global community do more?

It costs time and money but also tremendous effort – physical, emotional and intellectual. I can tell you from my limited, secondhand experience with schizophrenia (and I’m no expert to say that’s what he’s suffering from) and my profound experience with dementia that when they say it takes a village, they ain’t kidding. And the person suffering from mental illnesses like schizophrenia has to want to get better, too, has to want to stay on powerful medication, perhaps forever, that is its own dance with the devil.

What we need is more people like Dr. Jonathan Shay. A retired psychiatrist with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Shay pioneered the use of the classics in his work with Vietnam War and Persian Gulf War veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he has likened more to a response to an injury than an illness. His groundbreaking work led to two books that I heartily recommend, “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character” (1994) and “Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming” (2002).

Now retired, this MacArthur Genius fellow continues to explore the relationship between the classics, which he personally rediscovered while recovering from a stroke, and psychological healing in a project on the theater and ancient Athens, where every citizen, that is, freeborn male, was theoretically a soldier.

Shay has long been an advocate for reform not only in the treatment of the mentally ill but in the training of soldiers. In a 2006 lecture at the University of New Hamphire, he offered this advice:

"Prevention of psychological and moral injury in military service has three axes – cohesion, leadership and training. First is keep people together. Train them together, send them into danger together, bring them home together and give them time together to digest what they’ve just been through...The second axis is expert, ethical and properly supported leadership...The third axis of prevention is prolonged, progressive, realistic training for what the troops have to do and face.”

We need a different, more responsible approach to the mentally ill, to combat veterans and to guns, which too often are the matches that light the rage that fuels the literature of rejection.