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We are at a loss for words about the cruelty of the stabbing spree that left 19 dead and 26 injured at a care facility for people with disabilities in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, early Tuesday. The motives of the 26-year-old suspect will need to be examined in subsequent investigations. But no rationale can possibly justify this despicable act against utterly defenseless people.

The mass killing — one of the worst in Japan’s modern history in terms of the number of victims — will raise questions over security at the Sagamihara center and similar facilities. But there will be limitations to beefing up security systems at such places, many of which suffer from chronic manpower shortages. The suspect, Satoshi Uematsu, worked for more than three years until February at Tsukui Yamayuri En, the site of the carnage, and may have been familiar with the security system there and knew how to get around it.

What must be closely examined is whether the authorities had taken proper actions that could have prevented the carnage — given that the suspect had been making remarks months earlier to colleagues, local officials and police hinting that he planned to kill people with disabilities, and even singled out the Sagamihara home as his “target” in a letter he tried to deliver to the speaker of the Lower House in February.

Uematsu, who was quoted as telling the police “it’s better that the disabled disappear,” started working at Tsukui Yamayuri En in December 2012, first as a part-timer and then full time beginning the following April. It is a residential care home primarily for people with severe intellectual disabilities who require constant care. It’s likely that Uematsu was in direct contact with some of the victims while he worked there.

According to media reports, he visited the official residence of Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima in Tokyo twice in mid-February and managed to deliver a handwritten letter. In the incoherent missive, Uematsu reportedly wrote he was “ready to kill a total of 470 disabled people” and singled out two residential homes for people with disabilities — one of them Tsukui Yamayuri En — as the targets of his attack. He even stated that he would carry out the attack at night when there were fewer staff — just as he allegedly did on Tuesday.

A few days after he delivered the letter, he reportedly told a colleague at the care home that “severely disabled people should be put to mercy killing.” When the local police subsequently interviewed him, Uematsu said he was “ready to carry out the mass killing of people with severe disabilities anytime upon the order of the state of Japan” — a remark that prompted the Sagamihara Municipal Government to commit him to a mental hospital on the grounds that he posed a danger to others. He quit his job at that point.

While traces of marijuana were found in his urine when he was tested at the hospital, he was discharged in early March after his condition — diagnosed as hallucinations induced by the marijuana — eased and he said “there was something wrong” with him when he made the earlier remarks.

The Tokyo police, informed of the letter to the Lower House speaker, reportedly faxed a copy of it to the police in Sagamihara, where Uematsu resided alone, and also alerted the suspect’s father, who lived in Tokyo. The Sagamihara police, informed of his discharge from the mental hospital in March, called on him at his house, but he wasn’t in. They then contacted his parents and requested that they contact the police if they had any information. The Sagamihara Municipal Government didn’t follow up on Uematsu’s condition after his release from the hospital.

Officials say that they did what they were supposed to do and they likely followed proper procedures. It’s not clear whether Uematsu’s remarks should or could have been taken more seriously at the time he made them. The benefit of hindsight may make it easier to say he provided enough warning of what he would do, but the relevant parties should nonetheless examine whether, given all the warning signs combined, anything more could have been done to prevent the killings.

Since his arrest, Uematsu has been quoted as telling investigators that he “wanted to save the people with multiple disabilities.” And in his letter to the Lower House speaker, he reportedly wrote he felt “sorry” for people with disabilities because many of them are wheelchair bound for life and suggested mercy killings for them. Investigators should try to ascertain why he came to think in such a twisted manner.

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