In the near week since Frank James’ alleged Brooklyn subway attack, it’s become accepted wisdom that New York City’s or America’s social-services system failed him — and us. Yet no one has shown any way in which social services could have stopped this attack. What we have is what it looks like: a bad guy who intelligently planned and executed a bad thing.
After the mass shooting, City Councilwoman Alexa Avilés and Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes, who represent Sunset Park, said that it showed how “we need investments in social services — housing, healthcare and education.” Politico wondered “What Brooklyn’s subway shooting reveals about the state of mental health care.”
So far? Nothing.
True, New York City and state leave seriously mentally ill people on the street, despite multiple warning signs. Some of those people, like Martial Simon, who pushed Michelle Go to her death under a subway in January, are violent. Simon had a documented history of delusions and compulsions so severe that he couldn’t function.
James is not that person. James, though born in New York, has no apparent recent ties to the city. Until Wednesday, he hadn’t been arrested here in nearly a quarter-century.
He doesn’t fit the profile of Simon or the people accused of killing Christina Yuna Lee and Krystal Bayron-Nieves this year: people recently arrested and released, despite escalating episodes of uncontrolled violent impulses.
James claimed, in his video rants, that New York’s mental-health system failed him, but he didn’t say when or how. If the education system failed him, it did so five decades ago. (Maybe the lack of charter schools back then failed him.)
Our housing system didn’t fail him, unless it fails everyone who leaves New York for a different city for one reason or another. He found housing in Milwaukee and an Airbnb in Philly.
Should social services run by Milwaukee or some other city have noticed James’ YouTube screeds, in which he said white people “kill and commit genocide against each other” and will do the same to “your black ass,” declared that “white people and black people . . . should not have any contact with each other” and praised 9/11 as “a beautiful day”?
These are disordered thoughts — and, as Mayor Eric Adams said last week, big tech should stop allowing people to amplify disordered thoughts.
But you are allowed to have disordered thoughts. You’re allowed to think 9/11 was an inside job; you’re allowed to have bizarre racial theories.
There’s no getting around the fact that James was functional. As he said himself, he chose not to work consistently for a living: “There’s no way that I’m going to . . . go to work, pay my taxes.”
He was functional enough to plot a complex ideological attack across geographic boundaries and carry it out.
He was functional enough to compile the equipment he needed, to disguise himself as an MTA construction worker, to discard his disguise immediately so that he could escape. He even arranged his own arrest.
There’s a whiff of patronizing racism in assuming that James didn’t do exactly what he set out to do but rather “needed help.”
Anyone who commits a mass attack has mental problems. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, probably did have post-traumatic stress disorder, and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev probably was manipulated by his mastermind brother. The 9/11 hijackers also (apparently!) had disordered thoughts.
Nobody ever says that he needed housing services.
Like these other attackers, James knows right from wrong and action and consequence. In one video, he said that “I wanted to kill people” but “I don’t want to go to f–king prison.”
Should the FBI have zeroed in on the videos James posted just before his attack, when he used more menacing language, saying, for example, that “it’s time”?
Sure, but that’s law enforcement, not social services. Plus, James made no direct threats — more evidence of careful planning.
It may be a good idea for social-services agencies to interact more with people like James. But there are a lot of such people: people on the border of society, with plenty of time to cultivate loony ideas.
Is New York City going to hunt each of these people down and provide him with an apartment and daily intensive counseling so that he doesn’t make a cross-country trip here to attack us?
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.