Melting Down But Still In Charge

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney speaks to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research January 19, 2006 in New York City.
This column was written by Garance Franke-Ruta.

Dick Cheney may have appeared calm and collected during his interview with Brit Hume on Fox News Wednesday night, but reports from those closest to the vice president paint a picture of a man who has spent the past week in extreme emotional straits. The New York Times quotes Ben Love, a West Texas rancher staying on the Armstrong ranch, saying Cheney was "just crushed" when he saw him at dinner after the shooting. He wasn't much better the next day. "I could tell he was still upset," Kenedy County Chief Deputy Sheriff Gilbert San Miguel told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, describing Cheney's mental state during his 8 a.m. Sunday police interview. "He was very, very upset." Bush called the shooting "a deeply traumatic moment" for Cheney, reports The Washington Post, and described the vice president as "profoundly affected" by it. Meanwhile, a "source close to Cheney" told CBS News yesterday that the vice president is in a "state of meltdown."

Cheney-bashers may be inclined to sneer at these reports as self-serving attempts to cast a careless sportsman as a victim while the real victim of his recklessness remains in intensive care in Christus Spohn Hospital in Texas. They shouldn't. Post-shooting trauma and psychological collapse on the part of shooters are real problems — and why, for the good of the country, Vice President Cheney should consider taking a medical leave of absence from his position.

If Cheney were a police officer, he'd have to. The psychological sequelae of shooting another human-being in a non-combat situation are well-documented enough that if a police officer in cities like Washington, New York, or Los Angeles shoots someone, he is immediately placed on leave and required to enter counseling. "Police-trauma syndrome" and "post-shooting trauma" are well recognized syndromes.

"He needs time to spend with family and to cut out a lot of his big duties so he can regroup," says Allen Kates, the Arizona-based author of "Cop Shock: Surviving Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," and an expert on post-shooting psychological reactions. "When I saw the vice president on TV and I saw his demeanor, I'd never seen him like that. It's more than how sorry he is: I think he's experiencing some of these symptoms."

Symptoms shooters develop after the fact in situations like Cheney's would include tremendous guilt, an increased sense of vulnerability, anxiety (particularly around hunting in the future), intruding thoughts, flashbacks of the event in which he can see every little detail and feels like he's reliving the event in slow motion, an even greater-than-normal desire to be alone, sleep difficulties such as insomnia or waking up in a cold sweat, and emotional numbing. "He may start to experience feeling nothing, not just for Harry, but for himself and for his family. Nothing at all," explains Kates. "That's very common for someone who is in a shooting."

Kates says it's "very rare" for a shooter not to experience symptoms after the fact.