Inside the Minds of Mass Killers

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Paul Mullen, the esteemed Australian forensic psychologist, gives a balanced and insightful interview on how we can comprehend young men like James Holmes, Anders Breivik, and Jared Loughner who commit public massacres.

The interview appeared on ABC News. In eight minutes, Dr. Mullen goes over cultural scripts, individual variation, cross-cultural comparisons, the role of media and gun control, and the links between mental health and violence.

I was particularly impressed that Mullen invokes cultural scripts as central to understanding why these men do what they do. It is not because they are insane, some idea that seized them from the inside. Rather, they act out something – and the young men who do so are not random members of society, but have definable characteristics.

Mullen compares these mass killings to the Malaysian amok, a recognized “culture-bound syndrome” often defined as a “spree of killing and destruction (as in the expression “run amok”) followed by amnesia or fatigue.” (For more references, check out this Google Scholar search on “amok Malaysia”; and here’s a recent news article (with video) from Malaysia attributing amok to a policeman who goes on a rampage.)

Mullen also counters the common explanation in the United States and elsewhere that these killers must somehow be insane or mad. He distinguishes between a common sense view of mental health – “of course he was mad” – and a technical sense of mental health (“clinically insane”). Most of these men are not clinically insane in the way typically recognized.

I covered a similar discussion last year around Jared Loughner in the post Loughner – Is Mental Illnes the Explanation for What He Did?

As Dr. Vaughan Bell points out, many media sources and comments online are already focusing on the idea that Loughner is schizophrenic, and that explains what he did, end of story.

This is wrong. It is wrong scientifically, where excellent research shows that the link between mental illness and violence is minimal, and it is wrong socially, where naming a person as mentally ill then closes off a deeper explanation of what happened and why.

Mullen paints a more common picture of these killers in the video – “Angry, disaffected, desperate young men… kill themselves in what they saw as a blaze of glory”

He expanded on this view in an earlier interview with ABC News:

They’re almost all male, there is one exception. They’re young. They tend to be in their 20s. They are typically social isolates. They very rarely have close friends or confidants. They almost never have an intimate relationship, although they sometimes have had brief relationships, which have usually failed.

Interestingly, they’re not like many offenders, they don’t tend to have problems with alcohol and drugs. They’re certainly not impulsive, quite the reverse. These are rather rigid, obsessional individuals who plan everything extremely carefully. And most of these massacres have been planned for days, weeks, sometimes months ahead.

The other thing about them is that they are angry and resentful at the world, they blame the world for not having recognised their qualities, for having mistreated them and misused them. Resentment is central to their personalities.

They spend their time ruminating on all those past slights and offences. And they begin to develop a hatred for the whole world.

Perhaps most important of all, these people are on a project to suicide. They go out there to die, and they go out to die literally in what they see as a blaze of glory. They are seeking a sort of personal vindication through fame or, more precisely, infamy.

I’m not entirely sure about how Mullen links everything together, from amok to disaffected young men wishing to kill themselves, but what I am sure is this type of analysis is sorely needed – to recognize the complex set of factors that leads to these types of events.

Last year I advocated that we focus more on the problem of violence itself, separate from mental health and illness, in the post Jared Loughner Has a Violence Problem, Not a Mental Health Problem.

Like most of us, Obama dances around the core problem – violence. The regulation of guns matters, both as a Constitutional issue and a public safety issue. But the old slogan is largely right – guns don’t kill people, people kill people. A debate over guns, as if access to guns is somehow the cause of Loughner’s actions, is only a bad proxy for what Loughner did: kill.

Similarly, in our push to be seen to be doing something about this tragedy, considerable attention is being placed on our mental health infrastructure (or lack thereof) and on how universities and colleges can better handle the mental and behavioral health problems among their students. I would be among the first to support better mental health coverage in this country. But what Loughner did is not simply a mental health issue. It is a violence issue. And that requires us to focus on him as a person, and to think about how to understand that, and what we can then do.

The post was not as successful as I hoped, though I am glad I wrote it, as much for the mistakes made and feedback received as the main thrust of the argument. As I recently wrote on the Neuroanthropology Facebook site, “I got lost in the woods of debating Loughner’s actual mental health, rather than focusing on how our need to explain extraordinary or abnormal acts using a mental model, and how that hides a lot of what we need to consider around violence.”

David Dobbs similarly calls for a more nuanced and culturally informed understanding of killers like Paul Mullen, writing in his recent piece Batman Movies Don’t Kill. But They’re Friendly to the Concept.

I’m not saying the movies made Holmes crazy or psychopathic or some such. But the movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution. And culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction — just as it does other traits. This is why, say, relatively ‘simple’ schizophrenia — not the paranoid sort — takes very different forms in Western and some Eastern cultures. On an even simpler level, this is why competitive athleticism is more likely to express itself as football (the real kind) in Britain but as basketball in the U.S. Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits.

Over at The Atlantic, Evan Selinger followed up on Dobbs’ analysis with The Philosophy of the Technology of the Gun. Using Don Ihde and Bruno Latour, Selinger gets at how culture can mediate between having a gun and committing violence.

What the NRA position fails to convey, therefore, are the perceptual affordances offered by gun possession and the transformative consequences of yielding to these affordances. To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape…

French philosopher Bruno Latour goes far as to depict the experience of possessing a gun as one that produces a different subject: “You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it.”

Let me finish with some ending section to my piece on trying to comprehend the violence these men commit.

We live mediated lives, lives lived through media and institutions and bodies of established and contested knowledge. Casting stones is a very human act – he was mentally ill, extreme rhetoric is to blame, the school should have done more. But I have written this post to help rise to that calling – to expand our moral imaginations.

Three things have deeply challenged me this week. I’ve realized that after one hundred years of great success, the mental health model has triumphed publicly and failed scientifically. Violence is not a mental health problem. The causes of human behavior cannot be reduced to only mental states. Yet within minutes of the shootings, Loughner was declared crazy. Many people, scientists, professionals, and politicians alike, have lined up behind this discourse. It has extraordinary institutional and cultural weight. And it mis-diagnoses the man and the problem. But I am hopeful that we are at the start of building a better approach to understanding why people do what they do.

I believe the Secret Service is right. Actions matter. But most law enforcement is about punishing acts after the fact, after someone has broken the law. Most social regulation focuses on acts, on behaviors and words, in an informal manner, such as the commentators on Loughner’s internet postings or the students in his classes. How we build an infrastructure, an institutional mediation, of acts like violence, substance abuse, and other behaviors that do not fall well into the mental health model is a challenge facing us right now.

Update: I have written a post, Newtown and Violence – No Easy Answers, that builds on this one and connects to the terrible tragedy in Sandy Hook. It addresses more directly the question of Why? and then speaks to what might be done.

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