The detective said, "It's not really a threat."
"No," I conceded, "it's not a straight out threat."
"Right," he said, "It's not, 'I am going to kill you.' It is just like, 'I hope you die.'"
"I understand," I said and shrugged, knowing now that the police would likely do nothing.
"Still," the detective added, "let's go ahead and do some paperwork and start a file."
"OK," I said, feeling better. "Just in case it gets worse." And it would.
By the time the meeting was over, we had selected a spot to hide a surveillance camera and discussed what I needed to do should I suddenly feel the need for protection.
I start with this story for the simple reason that when I learned about the Arizona shooting rampage and who was accused of being behind it, I felt certain we would soon be hearing from a teacher who had a story to tell about how this suspected killer had scared him in a classroom. I didn't have to wait long.
Soon I saw Ben McGahee on TV explaining that he had Jared Loughner physically removed from his classroom at Pima Community College. McGahee told CNN, "I wasn't scared of him physically, but I was scared of him bringing a weapon to class."
Welcome to the world of higher education in America today.
Like it or not, we educators are on the front lines when it comes to putting a halt to this violence. McGahee is to be commended for taking steps, but clearly we as a society need to think much more about how to empower educators to intervene proactively in order to prevent another killing spree carried out by someone who is clearly mentally ill.
From my experience, one thing we can do now is simply to encourage teachers to become better at spotting the signs of severe illness. More importantly, we need to improve the process that can allow a teacher to intervene and get the help that is needed.
Pundits such E.J. Dionne are still writing that the suspected shooter was "possibly deranged" and that views seem "thoroughly confused." No. He is clearly psychotic, and his YouTube videos display the classic markers of psychosis and of psychotic thought.
In 1911, Freud observed that psychosis can indeed be studied second hand because the psychotic is unable -- or unwilling -- to hide his illness. Garden-variety neurotics know they are sick, so they seek at times to hide their ailments. But to a psychotic, it is the world that is sick, not him. With that in mind, compare Loughner's videos to this one made by John Patrick Bedell.
Bedell died in a shoot-out last March after he fired on two security guards at a subway stop near the Pentagon. A comparison of the videos illustrates clearly that both individuals have thought patterns that are textbook illustrations of severe psychosis, compete with the repetitive, circular (but broken) thought loops and the long strings of numbers that are held up as logical but that are in fact nonsensical.
More importantly are the commonalities in themes. Much has been made about Loughner's list of books and the Palin gun sight map. But a study of Loughner and Bedell's videos suggest that what is precipitating this wave of violence is -- at least in part -- the advent of the Internet and the collapse of the American economy.
Bedell wished to introduce some sort of PayPal-like software that would generate "information currency units." Loughner declares that every human who is mentally capable can be "treasurer of their new currency."
Also like Bedell, Loughner focuses on creating something new -- in his case, a "third language" to replace past languages. These grandiose designs are again typical of psychosis. So is Loughner's flat declaration that he will not pay debt in "a currency that is not backed by gold and silver."
Teachers need to school themselves and resist the impulse to look away when they encounter young people ranting. Like it or not, we are this country's first line of defense, and we can not afford to look away.
When you see signs, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, a teacher needs to act.
Matthew Biberman is a professor of English at the University of Louisville, where he teaches British literature from Shakespeare to the Romantics. He is the author of "Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature" and "Big Sid's Vincati." Read his blog on Red Room.