Inside the Minds of Mass Killers

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.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
This entry was posted in Culture, Health, Mind, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Inside the Minds of Mass Killers

  1. I was thinking earlier this week how there are three different kinds of premeditated, self-terminal personal acts that happen in our world.

    Self-immolation, where gasoline and a lighter must be obtained, transported to the proper location, gasoline poured over oneself, and lit.

    Suicide-bombing, where explosives must be obtained, assembled into a bomb, packed onto one’s body or into a vehicle, transported to the proper location, and exploded.

    And the mass murderer of random strangers, where weapons and other gear must be obtained, prepared, transported to the proper location, deployed in readiness, and used.

    The perpetrator is dead to the world, it is always the final act of a life. The trauma is born by innocents, whether it’s death, injury, being an immediate witness, or just learning of the act indirectly. The act requires a sustained effort. The act is wrong.

    Choosing to end it all in a blaze of futility?

    • Xenkenito says:

      Hating the world and being a dissident isn’t a sure sign. George Carlin hated the world. He vented. I vent. I don’t kill random people over it. I see the point though, I mean, we could all skip this article and just watch the movie Falling Down. It shows how its a culmination of things that lead to most people “snapping”. A divorce plus demotion or being laid off plus traffic jams plus breathing exhaust fumes plus being disrespected and dehumanized by the people around you….etc..etc…etc…..and then snap. How can we even expect any child to grow up and be humane in a totally dehumanized world? I wonder how often natives had this problem? Or how often the amish have mass shootings by their own? never. I know of the crazy dude that shot up an amish school, but he himself was not amish. the keyword to understand all the violence in the world is dehumanization. if you are having a hard time grasping this truth. Just think about how much pussy you can get without a bank account. Just think. You aren’t measured by your kindness or even your ability anymore. Just a simple number in a simple account. THAT is all you really are to anyone else. THAT is not human. THAT is machine. “Welcome my friends, to machine.” -Pink Floyd

      Remember the guy that flew the plane into the IRS building in Austin Texas? Joseph Stack. He wasn’t in his twenties, he had a family. He got mad for being mistreated. You can only get fucked and robbed so much, and then you just can’t take it anymore. That is actually normal. ya know. to get mad when your are being tricked/mistreated. Its abnormal to accept it and go along with it. To me the majority of people not getting mad when they should, is an illness.

      The last part of Joe’s manifesto/suicide note =

      The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

      The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.

      You see, in history, Usury was punishable by death. Now Users aka Banksters/IRS are richly rewarded for their crimes against humanity and when someone exacts revenge, they are demonized as the bad guy/terrorist. Yet Joe was terrorized by the IRS all his life and only retaliated.

  2. N says:


    I’d be the first to emphasize the importance of understanding the many, many cultural, sociopolitical and discursive factors involved in any act of violence–whether involving psychosis or not. What I’m less sure about is the divide you’re drawing (or seem to be drawing) between the cultural & sociopolitical and “mental illness.” I don’t see an either/or here (and clearly, in the case of Loughner, quite severe psychosis was involved–this, then, is something we incontrovertibly need to factor in), but rather an opportunity to think through the complexities precisely of the psychosociopolitical contingencies of psychosis (particularly “enacted” psychosis).

    Also, I’m not sure exactly how familiar you are with the literature on violence and first episode psychosis (even more specifically “untreated” first episode psychosis), but, as politically incorrect as this is to say, while the links between “mental illness” in general and violence are certainly slight, the story with respect to certain forms of psychosis (and certain “symptoms”) is (empirically) much more complex.

    I’m also not at all sure that I agree that “naming a person as mentally ill then closes off a deeper explanation of what happened and why.” I actually think that a more nuanced consideration of the role of psychosis (among other factors) helps “deepen” the analysis, if undertaken in a theoretically nuanced and critical way. (And really challenges us!) The question of agency–not as a simply either/or– in the context of psychosis and violence, for instance, strikes me as nothing if not “deep” and provocative. (Or the connection between delusional content, and dominant cultural themes–e.g. cf fascinating work on the “Truman show delusion.”)

    So yes, “mental illness” should not replace consideration of all other factors, causal mediators, and so on, but rather be carefully integrated. ( And the development, exacerbation and/or deepening of psychosis, in the first place, of course, itself also understand in relation to an array of converging social, political and cultural factors. )

    I hope I’m not putting any of this too brashly. As you suggested, let me underscore that this issue is extremely affectively charged for me. In addition to my own post on the subject, I’ve now seen at least one other blogger with schizophrenia reflecting precisely on how much more “understandable” these “bizarre acts of violence” seem to those of use who have actually experienced the blurring of reality, total shattering of the self, and so on, implicit in any “first break.”


  3. N says:

    Sorry–feel free to delete the duplicates! Not intentional. :-)

    • daniel.lende says:

      All done! Thanks for the comment – very considered, and pushing me too to think about all of this more. For me, I come from it from having known violent young men, and what that means. Work like Lorna Rhodes on Super Max highlights how different elements – violence, mental illness, suffering, institutional life, cultural forms – come together. But in the media, I do think there is the tendency to try to find the simple storyline, and that unfortunately serves to explain away too much, both with violence and mental health.

      • N says:

        Thanks, Daniel. Let me also just add that nuanced considerations of psychosis become EXTREMELY important not only in considerations of legal (criminal) responsibility, but also ethics and morality more generally. If we fail to consider the profound impact of delusions or altered mental states (and the factors that have contributed to, shaped & constrained them), I’m not sure where this leaves us in terms of our ability or capacity for empathy….

        And this, I think (not as an academic or even as a philosopher) is perhaps the most important thing of all.

        • daniel.lende says:

          Thinking about your comments a lot.

          I like your point about the “question of agency–not as a simply either/or– in the context of psychosis and violence, for instance, strikes me as nothing if not ‘deep’ and provocative.” And I do think a crucial problem of “he did it because he was crazy” is that it takes away agency. I might add, building on what you say, that “agency” is often framed here in the rationalist/legal sense, of whether a person is morally responsible and has a sound mind or will that can exercise control over baser/abnormal/deviant impulses.

          That is one problem I have with the term “agency,” how it too closely mirrors our Western individualist sense, so structure/agency becomes an either/or. Either inequality or biology made you do it, or you have agency, and thus you did it. Agency, in one sense, is entirely too bureaucratic. For that reason, I prefer the language of intention and emotion and experience.

          One caution I might insert, or to be more forceful, a line of analysis, is to not too closely assume that first-episode psychosis and violent thoughts/intentions go hand-in-hand, as in naturally or automatically go together. I would be cautious about seeing psychosis as sui generis of violence, as violence arising solely from within the schizophrenic break. The blurring of reality, the shattering of self, these might contribute. And the violent subjective sense might engender other thoughts. But like you, I definitely worry about the straight identification of one with the other. In my case, I think that identification reduces both empathy and fuller consideration.

          Thanks again!

          • N says:

            Absolutely agree that agency/responsibility/will/intentionality need to be thought through much more carefully than they currently (most often) are, particularly in cross-cultural contexts. And perhaps singular terms aren’t even appropriate–perhaps we need to talk about differential agencies/intentionalities. Would love to see anthropologists working on these issues! :-)

            Re the extreme violence that “erupts” in such a small minority of individuals with psychosis, I guess my take is that absolutely, in each of these instances there is a perhaps singular (or at least extremely rare) confluence of factors, including personality, social isolation & withdrawal, traumatic life events, cultural scripts, sociopolitical influences, instrumental factors (such as gun access), unmet personal expectations, and so on. IMHO, this means that generalities or generalizations about “mass shooters” are always going to be extremely limited… And yes, the very same factors that predict the development of psychosis also independently predict violence… A really, really complicated story.

            I tried, in a non-academic, but perhaps (?) literary way to make some of these convergences more “understandable” through my own experiences ( My ultimate purpose, I suppose, being to militate against the (all too common) dehumanization of “psychotic shooters”……

  4. Cade DeBois (@lifepostepic) says:

    I welcome a discussion of cultural factors and social scripts, but I cannot accept these as means of ignoring issues of mental health and how that factors into antisocial behavior. At best it’s bad science.

    Mullen in the video lists commonalities among these killers that would in a clinical setting raise red flags and prompt a responsible doctor to exam the individual for, you guessed it, mental illness, psychiatric disorder or personality disorder. All of these fall under “mental health issues”. This is important to understand because when we say these killers often have a history of psychiatric problems, dx’d or not–and they do, despite Mullen’s insistence that they don’t (he seems to be going by a more legal criteria)–we do not necessarily mean schizophrenia or the legal definition of insanity, which is so narrow and stupid it is useless in this kind of discussion. It can be anything–depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and not just the severe disorders Mullen refers to (although I have no idea what he considers severe or not–“severe” is not a clinical category, and his usage seem arbitrary and convenient).

    When you add mental illness to the other reasonably included factors, like a harshly patriarchal society that alienates and demeans “failed” young men, social scripts that promote violence and notoriety as an accomplishment, and perhaps more excessive individual personality traits that are not necessarily indicative of poor mental health, you get a pretty toxic mix. And such a variable of factors would help explain why 1) these killing rare even though regular, 2) that there are both commonalities and yet very distinct and individual aspects of such killings and 3) the cause of these killing and detection of potential killers are so difficult for us to pin down. But I just don’t think you can remove mental illness–or in the very least degree of mental health–from the equation. Because we are social beings, our mental health is reflected in our social behavior. And if our social behavior is destructive and harmful, what does that say of our mental health? I mean, seriously, while, yes, the large majority of people with a mental illness (and I speak here of myself too, having been dx’d with PTSD) are not violent, I cannot regard a person who went from being a doctoral student to withdrawn, collecting guns, planning a mass killing and booby-tapping his apartment within a relatively short period of time as the picture of mental health. Can you?

    ( I would like to add that Mullen’s comment about violent offenders in general not having a common pattern of mental illness is suspect at best if we look at our prison culture more honestly. In western society we have an egregious failing in caring for the psychiatric needs of our prison population. Just because we as a society fail routinely to properly dx and care for people who are arrested, tried and convicted of crimes–and this failing is present at every stage of the judicial and incarceration process–does not mean they don’t demonstrate a pattern of mental illness.)

    • daniel.lende says:

      In my experience, bad science often begins with statements like “I cannot accept…” Careful science begins by considering a range of possibilities, even those that might seem foreign or wrong to your current understanding.

      I also find your use of language revealing – “mental illness, psychiatric disorder, or personality disorder.” It seems that you have to frame what happened only in terms of mental health and illness. One reason I liked Mullen’s words, and tried to write similarly myself about Loughner, is that his words describe emotions and intentions – desperate, resentful, disaffected – in ways that don’t automatically assume mental illness.

      You write, “I cannot regard a person who went from being a doctoral student to withdrawn, collecting guns, planning a mass killing and booby-tapping his apartment within a relatively short period of time as the picture of mental health. Can you?”

      A rhetorical question does not make an explanation. As I hope I indicated in the post and previous comments, considerations of mental function are important to include. My argument is more about how we privilege those considerations as a type of be-all end-all explanation, and that violence is not something that simply boils down to mental health. It deserves consideration as its own phenomenon. So I hope you read my earlier post on trying to understand violence as a problem in itself, not always framed as a “picture of mental health.”

      As I wrote there:

      It isn’t “who he is” that is the problem – a mentally unstable person in the midst of schizophrenic delusion or a political radical inspired by far-right ideology to exercise his gun rights against an illegitimate government. Rather than looking for explanations from politics or from mental illness, we should center our explanations on what he actually did and experienced. Too often we take these things as what needs to be explained. In this case, as in so many others, what he did is both the problem to understand and a central part of the explanation.

  5. Trish T. says:

    As a long-student of Buddhism and of the dharma as taught by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, I am grateful to have come across this blog and this article, including the comments. Finally, I am hearing something that is attempting to take us into a deeper discourse than what has previously preoccupied and, to great extent, satisfied the majority of the citizenry. The focus on mental illness without understanding that (according to the teachings of the Buddha, the first neurothropologist :-) EVERY one is mentally ill – the difference being a matter of degree – discourages and distracts us from looking more deeply at current societal and cultural trends and beliefs about who we Humans are and what drives us to think, say and act as we do. Deep insight and understanding reveals that each of us creates our reality. My speech and actions are expressions of my thoughts. This is why I must guard my mind, protecting it from certain toxic images, particularly violent ones. Our young are being inundated with violent films, video games, and language. The acceptance of the use of violence as a means of creating peace is ignorant and simply “wrong thinking” and “wrong view.”
    I believe we can say that violent acts , including mass murders, as well as legalized warfare and lesser, but equally dangerous, forms are expressions of the energy of violence in the collective consciousness (stated above as “amok”), something many are not ready to hear, for this means we each, every one of us, are co-responsible. “I must BE the peace I want to see in the world” ~ M. Gandhi.

  6. Efad Huq says:

    I agree with your quote from an earlier post that “naming a person as mentally ill then closes off a deeper explanation of what happened and why” and I would be very grateful if you could refer me to some reading materials (books or papers) that “shows that the link between mental illness and violence is minimal.” Thanks.

    • daniel.lende says:

      Seena Fazel et al. have an article, Schizophrenia and Violence: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, that looks closely at the evidence for schizophrenia and violence. The study concludes:

      Schizophrenia and other psychoses are associated with violence and violent offending, particularly homicide. However, most of the excess risk appears to be mediated by substance abuse comorbidity. The risk in these patients with comorbidity is similar to that for substance abuse without psychosis. Public health strategies for violence reduction could consider focusing on the primary and secondary prevention of substance abuse.

      As I put in the post, Loughner – Is Mental Illness the Explanation for What He Did?, “The research highlights the link between alcohol and drug abuse and violence, but not schizophrenia per se. In other words, if you’re looking for violence, head to your local bar.” And to be clear here, alcohol and drug abuse are often associated with contexts where violence is part of everyday life, so I wouldn’t argue that substance abuse itself is violence causing. Rather, once again, it is a process mediated by the social context.

      Another good article comes from The Archives of General Psychiatry, The Intricate Link Between Violence and Mental Disorder (2009). Using US data, the study concludes:

      Because severe mental illness did not independently predict future violent behavior, these findings challenge perceptions that mental illness is a leading cause of violence in the general population. Still, people with mental illness did report violence more often, largely because they showed other factors associated with violence. Consequently, understanding the link between violent acts and mental disorder requires consideration of its association with other variables such as substance abuse, environmental stressors, and history of violence.

  7. On the issue of gun control, I really liked the way Jon Stewart addressed the issue – pointing out how the media has been avoiding the topic claiming that now was not the time to have this debate, and instead attending to things like banning costumes in movie theaters. In the end, Jon says that in order to have a national discussion about how to prevent these kinds of violent acts, everything has to be on the table – including gun control.—gun-control?xrs=share_copy

    I think the problem is that the media tends toward simplified cause-effect explanations that offer a quick-fix solution whether it’s mental illness, costumes in theaters, violent movies, or even gun control. The fact is that Holmes’s action was the result of a very complex set of conditions that it’s entirely possible we will never understand completely. What we need is an approach that can encompass all of the different factors – the proliferation of guns in the US, the socio-economic-political conditions, the socio-cultural factors behind mental illness, the security culture and the society of fear in the US, the fetishization of violence in the media, the prominence of war, and so on. I think the public is more than capable of understanding these kinds of discussions, but I think the media is structurally oriented towards the simplified narrative.

  8. Pingback: In a Violent Context | Almost Diamonds

  9. Tim Pendry says:

    I just wanted to compliment you on being one of the first to break through the populist miasma surrounding the Aurora killings and to start thinking about what was going on here. Whether you are right or wrong is not the point, you are opening up a debate that the mass media seems incapable of having (pace the intelligent interview with Mullen on ABC News in Australia) – and that is the point.

    On the issues, I think we have a problem with a purely scientific approach. A scientific approach may describe and prescribe but it cannot assert the value system that surrounds such acts and the response to these acts. Why killing people is wrong cannot be left to simple statements like ‘because God says’ (since perpetrators may not believe God) or ‘because it is self-evidently wrong’ (not to the perpetrators it is not).

    From the point of view of the killer, the act has its reason and its logic and we have to get inside it and understand that it is extremely hard to argue against it without recourse to essentialism – which is totally meaningless where an existentialist perspective (which also creates great saints) is the prior condition. Killing is always grimly contextual – ask the Free Syrian Army. I recommend a week studying Mishima to ‘get’ the integrity of the ‘glory’ described by Mullen which cannot be fought head-on by the social (though it can never win outside a fascist society) because it has a reason all of its own. It sort of works intellectually, distasteful though that may be.

    If there is no argument for essentialism (there may not be), then the argument against these acts comes down to some sense of wrongness that is social, cultural or tribal (basically, contingent) – or demands a re-opening of the idea of evil in a godless universe. Even Mishima was restrained by the idea of the Nation. Either enforced social order (‘Rome Imperator’) or a decision on existential evil (‘Rome Pontifex’) must justify Mullen’s necessary enforcement of silence on a perpetrator and perhaps summary justice to deter others.

    Grim stuff because the vast majority may come to demand that the troubled be regarded as problematic simply because they are troubled – a variant but, with serious community force behind it, on our current condition of regarding mental illness as problematic.

    Wrong behaviour according to norms could becomes ‘mad’ in a more definitive way and we might head remorselessly towards Soviet definitions of (in functional terms) madness and sanity. The instinct to ‘normalise’ might rapidly encompass a great deal more than the limited and humane agenda of the good Professor.

    The debate is really thus about the management of a huge new memetic architecture that has emerged quite quickly. Mullen is persuasive that these ‘events’ grow in number over time and that the freedoms accorded to types like Breivik will result in more deaths. But mass killings are not the only symptom – regime destabilisation may be another. There will be others still. this is big stuff – bigger than one murderous onslaught in a relatively small town in America.

    We do not have a clear philosophy of social value for the internet era that stands independently of now easily undermined essentialisms and which would enable us to act against the act in good time rather than moralise after the fact, having failed to put in sufficient measures to save lives by mass consent.

    The population does not trust Power (using De Jouvenel’s use of the term) not to abuse those measures with some good reason and this distrust leads to the rational ‘internal contradiction’ of moral outrage co-existing with a refusal to control guns and the associated creation of modes of vengeance and a rhetoric of ‘madness’ to avoid dealing with that contradiction.

    In short, these killings and many other internet-driven and globalised innovations are testing the relationship between Power and population at a very deep philosophical level. Few have the courage to start any debate that does not rely on mouthing the platitudes of one of many competing progressive traditionalisms. So here’s to science defining a debate which has to turn towards the question of value, one that may prove to require entirely new thinking, far beyond past gods and monsters, far beyond the mental compass of our elites and in tune with what most people most of the time live as free humans.

  10. Tim Pendry says:

    Oops delete progressive in the second sentence of the last paragraph … :-)

  11. Janis says:

    Not sure I buy the fact that mental illness is a bad thing to bring up because not everyone with mental illness is violent. There are many, many kinds of mental illness after all.

    Yes, most people with “mental illness” aren’t violent. But some of these specific mental illnesses DO surface violently. The fact is that “mental illness” as a category in this context is about as useful as “physical illness” is in any consideration of a specific physical problem.

    Diabetics are “physically ill,” and they have messed-up blood sugar. However, since there are many others with “physical illness” who don’t have blood sugar problems, it’s obviously misleading and dangerous to talk about blood sugar in the context of “physically ill” people … including diabetics. I mean seriously — this makes no sense.

    Not all “mentally ill” people shoot up shopping malls, but that doesn’t mean that some won’t. And if you use that as an excuse not to bring it up where it is appropriate for people with that sort of mental illness, you are doing them and society a serious disservice.

    The problem is that “mental illness” is about as useful a category as “physical illness,” and because it is too coarse. And this is the heart of the comment that you dismissed above:

    “I cannot regard a person who went from being a doctoral student to withdrawn, collecting guns, planning a mass killing and booby-tapping his apartment within a relatively short period of time as the picture of mental health. Can you?”

    A rhetorical question does not make an explanation.

    It’s not a rhetorical question. There are many, many forms of “mental illness.” Many of these illnesses do not including collecting weapons, becoming withdrawn, and planning a mass killing.

    Clearly, one does, because there is no way in hell that you can call that sort of behavior a healthy one.

    • daniel.lende says:

      I would assume, de facto, that killing is never healthy. I just do not lightly equate mental illness and violence. I think violence needs to be considered as it is – violent acts.

      Take your line, “collecting weapons, becoming withdrawn, and planning a mass killing.” If we turn that into a mental illness, then collecting weapons becomes mentally unhealthy? Becoming withdrawn is something wrong? Planning becomes insane?

      No, I prefer to view “collecting weapons, becoming withdrawn, and planning a mass killing” through the lens of violence, and not the lens of mental illness. And that raises questions of how we think about problems like violence. We don’t necessarily have a language and a common set of ideas for that. But I think we do need that.

      Take the English word “mad.” Today it’s come to be equated largely with “insane” or “crazy” in its emphasized form, and “angry” in everyday usage. But before, it meant something much closer to the Malaysian “amok” – that sense of violence and anger and lashing out. The link between “mad/angry” and “mad/amok” is something we need to understand better, and to see as different from “mad/crazy.”

      Does “mad/crazy” get in between “mad/angry” and “mad/amok” at times? Surely yes. But the more vital link to me, the more disturbing and powerful one, is between “mad/angry” and “mad/amok,” that desire to lash out and to hurt others, and often to feel justified in doing it.

  12. Pingback: Unmasking the ‘Town Destroyer’: Holmes, Washington, & the Structural Dimensions of Terror « Xavier's Blog

  13. Gary Kedziora says:

    I am reminded of a story from a first-person narrative of a Native American from a Northern Plains tribe in the 19th Century (I think it was Wooden Leg, a Cheyenne, but I read a couple of different ones when I was young). The young man strongly desired a relationship with a young lady, but it wasn’t happening, so he concluded that he would get attention or death by risking his life engaging men from rival tribes in reckless battle. This type of activity was supported by the culture, and it turned out the that young man survived these battles and went on to gain status in his community.

    Sports provide an outlet similar to battle in our culture. Do the perpetrators of mass killings participate in sports? Probably not, but this could be answered. Video games on some level mimic the behavior of the Native American adolescent, but video games do not have real risk or recognition from society as a worth-while pursuit. The problem in our society is not so much violent video games or movies, but it is a failure to get some young people involved in meaningful and respected social activities such as sports.

  14. Gene_C says:

    As others have pointed out in these comments, the reality of these issues are far more complicated than a simple diagnosis can explain, and I agree that clinical diagnosis in these cases turns a blind eye to the underling social issues at work. This is not only scientifically unsound, but almost ensures further atrocities like these will occure. Unfortunately, privileging the clinical model for this kind of behavior also biases the quest for more robust explanations of its causes. We seem hell bent on finding neurological and psychological explanations for this type of behavior to the exclusion of (or the subordination of) social factors.
    I particularly like Mullen’s use of the term “cultural scripts”. As you say Daniel, it’s not clear how he puts it all together, but the term “script” got me thinking about who or what the writers of this script might be, and the type narrative being created. I think your point about the “mediated lives” we live speaks to that. We do find ourselves within a constant flow of energy and information that shape how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive ourselves in relationship to others, and how we process and interpret the world around us, and I think it’s these mediators that play a part in shaping the narratives of these cultural scripts. However, the form that this flow of information takes has undergone drastic changes in the past 50 years, and its worlds away from the flow in which we evolved.
    Human communication is a multidimensional exchange of energy and information. We evolved in social groups that use the entire body as a medium for social exchange, and electronic communication does little to replace the meanings conveyed through facial expressions, vocal intonation and other physical cues that accompany in-person communication. What we’re left with then is a rather anemic diet of social exchanges far removed from the one in which we evolved, and I think its taking a cumulative toll on our mental wellbeing.
    So getting back my cinematic metaphor, whose writing the plot for the cultural script? Lets say you have a writing staff made up of person-to-person social exchanges, anemic social relationships and violent video games and movies, and lets say that the person-to-person social exchanges are the junior writing partners here and have less input on the narrative. What are you left with? Throw in some alienated consciousness, and some neurological disfunction and you just might get a rather volatile cocktail.
    I think the question “does violence in video games and movies lead to violence in real life” is also a problem. Not in the short term, no. But again, I think it comes down to a question of consciousness. Here are some links to interesting articles related to how video gaming affects empahty ( and ( and ( So clearly there are neurological circuits effected by these media, but I don’t think there is an acute antisocial affect, e.g., if I play Call of Duty, I’m not going to go on a rampage. However, I do believe there is a shift in consciousness that occurs over time as these types of media become systemically infused in our society and take up a greater role in shaping the narrative of the cultural scripts than person-to-person social exchanges.
    So here’s the take away:
    1) What role do cultural scripts play in these types of crimes? I think this is an understudied aspect of criminology that could give us insights into intervention, treatment and prevention, and holds significant insights for anthropology.
    2) What role to social scientists play in writing cultural scripts? As I follow the news on this case, I’m beginning to see a growing need to dispel popular myths and supply facts about the biosocial nature of behavior. As I watch the news, opinions like Mullen’s are nearly non existent and I keep asking myself “what do they never have an anthropologists talking on these shows?” I think the answer is as much a reflection on the medical bias in our society as it is signal that anthropologists need to step up. We need to get our ideas out of the ivory tower back into society, and for whatever successes we’ve had as a discipline in exacting social change, we could do a better job as making anthropology visible to the mainstream. One way to do this is for more anthropologists to start using the internet to enter the public discourse. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blogs, etc, are all great ways to disseminate our findings, present ideas, and offer critique, and I think this can be as much a form of applied anthropology as it can a form of activism.
    So given this discussion, and the heavy bias in the media towards medicalized explanations, I think we as internet-age social scientists need to beef up our efforts to enter the public discourse on the matter. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blogs, what have you, may not replace meaningful social contact, but they are great for getting ideas out there — it gives us a seat at the writer’s table that might otherwise be dominated by the 24 hour news networks.
    Thats my two cents. Thanks to Daniel and Greg for your work in maintaining this cite and elevating the conversation.

  15. Tim Pendry says:

    One cultural script is the relative importance of crimes. Mullen rightly points out that this type of crime appears to be growing considerably over time and yet the numbers of perpetrators and victims remains very small compared to the victims of other ‘crimes’ that we may decline to recognise as crimes because of our cultural scripts and are certainly very small in terms of the scale of the total population in which such crimes take place. These crimes fascinate but are not critical in terms of risk to most people most of the time – the ‘terror’ is constructed from within us.

    This may be compared with the fact that the deaths of Vietnamese and Americans and others at the hands of US foreign policy decisions (allegedly beninh and rational State action undertaken within a legal framework) in the 1960s was 666 times (approx – please correct if I have got that wrong in the detail but the principle will likely stand) the deaths of those murdered by Al-Qaeda, yet there is no cultural script for ensuring that the remembrance of the former is 666 times that of the latter.

    This is not to be construed as an ‘anti-American’ point at all – it may be that it was ‘right’ to kill off so many persons theoretically to save 66,666 times more from ‘Communist gulags’, at least to some analyst somewhere, but the inability to stand back and position a relatively ‘few’ civilian deaths inside our current world as proportionate in deciding policies affecting the freedoms and livelihoods and often lives of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands more is remarkable. The media here is not to blame – it merely reflects our own instincts.

    Take the couple of hundred million human beings in either modern Europe or North America and ask whether the intense post-event hysteria over such events as 9/11 (US) or 7/7 (UK) is helpful when thousands more die in traffic accidents, from poor health care or individual acts of gun terror one-on-one. The fact of an ‘incident’ and its symbolic action (‘cultural scripting’) appears to be infinitely worse than the fact of the matter of individual deaths and suffering and this scripting is something exploited by the extremist.

    We seem to be exercised by theatrical or spectacular or unexpected death and not by preventable death in itself nor by acts of judgment that are murderous according to some ‘due process’ in which we are complicit through silence or ignorance. It is as if deaths are fine (sad but not worth getting excited about) so long as they work within our cultural scripting …

    So why is it that our cultural script is so focused on the terrorist and ‘lone nut’ and so blind to the inherent murderousness or suffering caused by (say) blind or ignorant or blundering state action or to the lack of state intervention or what it is to be human in the normal run of things (driving too fast, priests raping children, and so on)?

    When we say that X the killer is in-human, do we really mean that we simply disapprove of this particular cultural script for killing and that state execution, drone warfare, extrajudicial killing of ‘terrorists’ that strike out families as collateral damage are an approved cultural script and human-all-too-human. This cultural scripting concept is a can of worms and it gets us back to the point I made above about returning to a study of the script at the level of ‘value’ prior to science and method.

    Above all, why is it we cannot place some events into some kind of proportion? Like the ‘politics of disgust’ that acts as dead weight on sexual freedom and choice, the ‘politics of anxiety’ acts as a dead weight on rational public policy. Even in this thread, we fall into the same trap.

  16. Pingback: 3×5: Culture, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry Weekly Roundup (July 30) | blog

  17. Pingback: L&W 000: Ein gewaltiges Problem | Labiner & Wunderlich

  18. Pingback: Mega web roundup | Somatosphere

  19. Hello,

    I’ve been back and forth this article for several days since the Aurora incident. Although I am far from Aurora, violence in society has been a particular interest to me (being that I live in the middle of it — right smack a war-torn area). However, unlike many of the previous commenter, I am not much knowledgeable about the topic. Although, I can’t help but be reminded of Crime and Punishment while hearing the violent outbursts of some individuals in your country.

    I am from Southeast Asia, and in the particular part where amoks are present. But, just as you say, I don’t see any relationship between amok and the violence carried out like that in Aurora. Amok are carried out in somewhat like a liminal space, in which violence is carried out exclusively from the actor’s usual self. But maybe I shouldn’t have used “actor”, because at such instances, they are supposedly beyond the capacity to control themselves.

    As for the Aurora massacre, there is careful planning involved. The person was not out of his mind and his actions were deliberate. He might not have been thinking who he was killing (as is the case of amok), but he was aware of what he was doing, he was there to carry out the killing — which is why I would rather liken it to Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov kills the moneylender as if trying to kill an idea.Dostoyevsky, himself, somewhat disagrees (if I understood it correctly) with insanity as being the sole cause of a crime. In fact, he says that crime is justified because many years later, we venerate those who kill by the dozens. And it is very evident in cultures which venerate mass murderers and serial killers. He continues to say that psychology has a lot to do with it, but I think he meant that psychology as affected by culture — as you say — because some people put it in their minds that it is glorious to do crime.

    I think you’re right that culture, other than biology, has a lot to do with violence. Violence in America is very much different from violence here in my country. We do not hear of PhD students killing people in the cinema for a purpose other than to satisfy himself. Killing here is done because of conflicts, scarce resources and poverty. And it is largely communal — in the cause, and in being carried out.

    Anyway, forgive my ramblings.

  20. daniel.lende says:

    Just want to add an additional thought, based on the discussion today in my neuroanthro grad class. One distinction between a mental illness/he’s insane type of explanation, and one that focuses more on violence itself as an act on its own terms, is the role the visceral and embodied sense of insanity and violence can differ so much. A mental illness explanation fails to capture this oh so relevant side of violence, one I’ve seen too many times.

    But let us turn to the literature. Daniel Linger’s 1990 article Essential Outlines of Crime and Madness: Man Fights in San Luis has long been an article that lingers in the back of my mind, an ethnographic piece that captures something. Though he doesn’t necessaruly analyze it this way (linking the moment to something more like the cultural analysis above), the description does get at that.

    Linger’s informant about a drunk belligerent: “This provocation wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, but at everybody who was there. This gave him a certain aggressive satisfaction.” Yes, aggressive satisfaction… there is something to that.

    Or, as a friend said to me recently, referring to a recent conflict, Oh, the thought just came, to go over there and do something, to break some legs, you know? Violence is a visceral sort of thing, not easily encapsulated within a mental health model. Sharpening a machete, thoughts of vengeance on your mind, that is something that comes from a different place.

  21. N says:

    This is interesting, Daniel, but I’m not sure I fully understand. Can you say more about the embodied/visceral differences you’d identify between aggression/violence and psychosis?

    Many symptoms of psychosis (to give you some idea of where I’m coming from)–including paranoia, critical voices, the feeling that one’s thoughts are being monitored and controlled–can and often do (very quickly) lead to profound states of fear, (visceral) agitation and physical discomfort.

    I think I understand the “aggressive satisfaction” comparison, but this seems to me to describe a particular personality type or maybe form of aggression/violence more than a core distinction between violence or aggression and psychiatric disorder…? For instance there was a case here in Chicago a year or so ago (probably made the national news) of a father/husband who likely killed his wife and two children, seemingly with little (‘understandable’) cause. That sort of scenario (there’s absolutely zero evidence that mental illness was involved or sociopathy in the normal developmental sense) would perhaps make an interesting comparison. How does this killer differ–in embodiment/viscerality–from James Holmes or Loughner or perhaps one of the mothers who (during an episode of postpartum psychosis) kills her own infant?

    • daniel.lende says:

      Way to put the question to me, Nev! I meant it mostly as a marker for myself for future thought… So let me say to start that I am going to set to one side the visceral/embodied side of psychosis – it’s there. But my comment wasn’t meant to explore that, but to state a contrast, that the phenomenology of violence and of mental health (say, psychosis) are distinguishable. Not always of course, and not separate either – that’s not what I mean. But rather, the allure of violence is different than the allure of a break from reality, or voices in your head, or paranoia even.

      Being a cultural person, I will add just up front that I don’t mean anything essentialist here – I’m not setting out separate DSM categories. The distinction can rely as much on interpretation – on meaningful social and cultural process – as anything else. Hence Linger’s Brazil article, which does a good job on that side.

      But I also mean something separate from Linger’s analysis. And that has to do with one essay we read for class today, Natasha Schull’s Digital Gambling: The Coincidence of Desire and Design. The designers looked to create sensory, embodied, rewarding activities for their players, and the players complemented that by arranging their lives around being in the zone, and in really skilled players, to efface ever more the interface so they got closer and closer to the play itself.

      That struck me as a fruitful angle to think about violence. I still remember the story I heard in Colombia, from a school teacher about people in his neighborhood catching a thief in the act, and then the entire neighborhood getting in on kicking the crap out of that guy, and the visceral pleasure of that – and then the fact that this was a story to share later in a different social group, with plenty of approval.

      • N says:

        Ah yes, that helps clarify things. Although I admittedly know next-to-nothing about the interdisciplinary literature on violence/aggression/self-harm (etc.), the focus you suggest (i.e. on comparative embodiment, including exploration of the role of the many sociocultural, physiological and perhaps expiatory forces involved) seems extremely promising.

  22. Pingback: Anthropologists respond to Newtown Violence | Savage Minds

  23. Pingback: Are Shooting Spree Killers Following A Cultural Script? | Disinformation

  24. Joe says:

    “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.”

    It sounds like you’re arguing that Loughner isn’t “crazy.” That can’t be right. Any definition of “crazy” that doesn’t include Loughner isn’t worth the bytes it takes to store it.

  25. old white woman says:

    Look at the profile of these shooters.
    They are all young male middle class disaffected and WHITE.
    They are from the group that has always had power.
    These young men feel they are entitled to what this group has always had and from which they are excluded for various reasons. So they lash out – at the group from which they are excluded. Look at it – white shoots white, college student shoots college students. This is uncomfortable especially for whites Which is why we never have this discussion.
    What do you think?

  26. Artemiss Luminos says:

    We are told people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the population. We are told guns are the real problem. We are told people like Adam Lanza (Newtown) and James Holmes (Aurora) aren’t “really” mentally ill. We are shamed for adding to the “stigma” that mentally ill people face, and chastised for suggesting anything that might curtail their civil rights. Who is speaking for the civil rights of the victims and the grieving families left behind? Who is speaking to the fact that Americans don’t feel safe ANYWHERE anymore? Who is willing to ask and try to answer the real questions, the hard questions?

    We are told that people with mental illness have a biological disease of the brain, in the same sense that someone with liver cancer has a biological disease of the liver, and that of course they can’t help being ill anymore than people with cancer or lupus can. Except – – when was the last time you heard of someone with liver cancer shooting mass amounts of people at a theater, or a school, or a political rally? When will we finally begin to ask ourselves if it really matters what the cause of mental illness is, whether it’s biological or something less quantifiable, or whether we just want to stop these massacres? Who is willing to stand up and say, “Yes but in mental illness it is the organ of judgement that is compromised,” whether you call that organ the brain or the mind, or what-have-you? When will we get the courage to stand up and say,
    “Some mentally ill people must be locked up because they are indeed dangerous”? Most important of all, when will we stand up and say that when there is the chance that innocent lives will be lost WE MUST ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION?

    “Sanity” is, pardon the pun, maddeningly hard to define. We all do strange things sometimes, we all have eccentricities. We are cautioned: Large numbers of Americans are mentally ill, or will be at some time in their lives, and any “stigma” or curtailing of civil rights might well apply to YOU or someone you love someday. No one, even those in the mental health professions, is willing to admit that “stigma” is not the problem. The real issue is FEAR. The rest of us fear people with mental illness, precisely BECAUSE they do deadly things. Precisely BECAUSE they are dangerous. They kill innocent people. This fear is a perfectly normal reaction, even a healthy reaction, and certianly nothing to be ashamed of or guilty about. This is why the recurring campaigns that try to reduce the “stigma” of mental illness don’t work. People aren’t taken in by them. These are not people with little problems. This is not the guy next door who’s a little down because he had a spat with his girlfriend, or the student across the street who’s anxious about the upcoming midterm exams. We don’t need a PhD in psychology to know that someone who murders mass amounts of innocent people is seriously, dangerously mentally ill by ANY standard. We don’t sit in ivory towers and
    cushy offices while mass murders cry on our shoulders. No. We are out here wondering if it’s safe to send our kids to school, if it’s safe to go see a movie, if it’s safe to go to the market for groceries.

    What about guns? Guns in and of themselves aren’t the problem, sadly. In the Mother Jones data on mass shootings the overwhelming majority of guns used in these massacres were LEGAL. Guns are certianly not the only way to commit mass murder, they are just the easiest available method in the United States. So yes, if we want to put a stop to these massacres we will need serious gun control reform.

    Now the semantics, excuses, and political arguements will begin, and will all raise such a cacophony that the real issues will be effectively drowned out. I warn you in advance, I will not participate in such discussions.

  27. Pingback: The Batman Movie Killings, Madness, and Culture | David Dobbs's NEURON CULTURE

  28. Pingback: Batman Returns: How Culture Shapes Muddle Into Madness | David Dobbs's NEURON CULTURE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>