Who Is Responsible for Mass Killings and Mass Killers?
by NORMAN SIMMS
August 8, 2012
A recent Newsweek magazine analysis of mass murders such as the Aurora, Colorado Joker by Dave Cullen makes a lot of sense, at least up to a point. It not only shows that there are at least three main types of such perpetrators-the psychopaths, the delusional and the clinically-depressed. Cullen also claims that in all cases the spectacular crimes they commit have been long-prepared-for prior to the killing event, slowly-developed in their troubled souls, not sudden outbursts of rage, and ambiguously aimed at themselves and at others. The problem with this lengthy and yet still journalistic (that is, not scholarly or scientific) study based on hundreds of newspaper reports, many hours of transcripts and police interviews is that it sees each shooter as suffering from a mental disease that seems to arise completely from within his (rarely her) own mind and personal experience.
However, while this fits point of view very well with the nineteenth-century criminologist Cesare Lombroso's so-called "modern" approach through physical and psychological degeneration, atavism, decadence and hereditary susceptibility to diseased or accidental malfunction of the brain, it does not allow for other factors, such as those which we have attempted to explain in terms of festivals of blood and justice. To speak of a festival is not necessarily to imagine a joyous, celebratory occasion, but a large gathering of people who come together for the purpose of enhancing their own individual feelings: it also implies a special time, place, focus and goal.
Two key examples. The classical version is The Festival of Laughter in Apuleius's Golden Ass where a whole town plays a trick on the hero-narrator by making him believe he has committed a crime and is to be executed, but then reveals the game and everyone laughs at his surprise and embarrassment. The biblical version shows Samson being taken to the Temple of Dagon in Gaza to be held up to ridicule as the defeated and blinded enemy of the Philistines. There he turns the tables on his captors, not revealing his returned strength with the regrowth of hair, until he pulls down the Temple on them and himself, thus having the final laugh as agent of divine vengeance. The action does not arise from depression, rage or psychopathic regression to pure cruelty or evil. Though there is a mock murder trial of Lucius in The Golden Ass and Samson only becomes a Judge in Israel through suicidal violence against those who have mocked him, these festivals are ritual occasions for blood, laughter, and justice.
In our contemporary versions, the individuality of experience and the irony of youthful victims (as on Utoya Island in Norway or small towns in Finland) or youthful perpetrators (as in so many high school or university campus massacres in America and Germany) or both, suggests that the festivals are almost inadvertent takings of advantage of celebratory or social-binding occasions (the youth camp on the island, the special midnight opening of a film or the beginning of a class day or term) and the victims virtually random or chosen only as representative types. Assassins and terrorists have specific targets and usually play out different rituals (as in Toulouse, France recently).
But are the perpetrators of mass killing crazy in the sense of projecting their own demons onto their unknown victims and laughing at them as justice is brought about and thereby a momentary release from unbearable mental pains? There would then be no crime committed-rape, murder, vandalism, robbery-but rather an accidental outburst of unpredictable or uncontrollable rage. The shooters and bomb throwers are themselves victims of their own mental illness, and society can learn nothing from their actions, except perhaps better means of protection against random events. In the old school of justice, however, all these actions are criminal acts, breaking of the law and disruption of public order and safety, so that no matter why they occurred the perpetrators have to be punished-executed, locked away, and maybe allowed to repent of their actions. The new schools have to make more complex decisions and engage in more expensive means of dealing with the perpetrators, not just deciding whether they are mentally sound enough to stand trial or not.
While Lombroso's theories of congenital criminal types influenced writers such as Max Nordau and Emile Zola, their most important impact was on the American judicial practice and prison systems. Instead of applying the law based on the nature of the crime itself, the character and condition of the criminal would be taken into account when deciding on appropriate punishments and reformative treatments. At best, in its contemporary format, there are two sides to the social response to violent acts of this extreme form: on one side, the criminal act and the individual accused of it; on the other, the traumatic result of the crime on one or more victims and their families and its long-term impact on society.
In modern judicial theory and practice, the vengeance, punishment and treatment are virtually separated from the victims to an abstract principle, the "people" or the "state" embodied in the judge and jury and the prison authorities' they seek to provide institutional care for the guilty person, make him feel penitent and eventually emerge reformed. Meanwhile, the victims, the families, the media and political activist seek to shift the focus on to the need for vengeance and punishment. That shift works for what may be called "normal" criminals, who are mostly seen as products of their environment, and who can be reformed now that they are brought into the justice system: their justice will be to become useful, moral citizens eventually. The shift in focus also is painful for the victims and their families because all the resources of the government are given to the care and treatment of the guilty parties, while those they have raped, robbed, wounded or otherwise hurt are left to fend for themselves. Some systems of restorative justice do attempt to make the criminal apologize to and then repay some compensation to the victims, although many victims do not wish to confront the perpetrators or have to help them in their rehabilitation, especially in cases of rape. What is seen as justice for the guilty party is seen as a reliving of the original trauma by the victims.
The mass killer, as distinct from the serial murderer who may be a professional criminal who engages in a series of armed actions or hires himself out as an executioner, poses a different kind of a problem. Like a suicide terrorist, the deranged killer does not repeat his performance or is he expected to; in fact, it is very rare for him to be caught, and the fact that one in Norway and now two in America, have to face trial is most unusual. The survival and capture of a mass slayer also poses special difficult questions about to treat him in relation to the survivers.
Frim the post-modernist perspective, it is politically correct to view the criminal as a joint victim of his act. In terms of the mass killer, though, the perpetrator does not have a rational motivation from which he can be argued into a moral and useful state of mind. The enormity of his crime also takes it out of the realm of forgiveness or justification through repentance. For this reason, Newsweek analyst Dave Cullen does not take into account the very qualities expressed in all the documentation, namely, the perpetrator's sense of isolation, alienation and resentment from his own environment-home, extended family, school, community, and eventually "the whole world", by which is meant those aspects of the world beamed at him night and day through various electronic media. All of this demonstrates vividly that his craziness is not experienced as an individual phenomenon. He is entangled with everything around him, and everyone he comes in contact with.
The factors that need to be factored back into account along with private, eccentric and individual experiences are the social milieu of domestic environment, friendship circles, community groups, authority figures and institutions, and various media matrices, entertainment outlets, educational facilities, political ideologies and activities. In other words, the mass killer does not arise out of a psychological vacuum or an organically enclosed envelope of his own feelings and ideas. He lives in many overlapping social groups and is involved in a variety of informally and formally organized activities. His difference from other people lies in many different kinds of responses to those surrounding persons, ideas and institutions. At many stages in the development of the most extreme forms of resentment and rage at the world thus constituted, interventions could, if not ameliorate his sense of injustice and discomfort, at least prevent him from carrying out his violent acts. Purchasing many assault rifles, ordering hundreds of rounds of ammunition, booby-trapping an apartment with explosives, and even submitting stories to one's teacher or outlining plans for mass murder to one's psychologist should set off alarm bells somewhere. Is this a question of gun control? One or a dozen patrons in a fast food outlet taking out their own weapons to shoot it out with a youthful intruder intent on robbery might offer some people an illusion of protection, but it probably would not work in a darkened theatre with a deranged gunman. It would more likely add to the sense of festival blood-letting.
It is not that the multiple victims of such a killer are responsible for their own deaths or life-long trauma or that society as a whole negligent for not having prevented the mass slaying of its loved ones and neighbours. But both the occasion for the criminal outrage and the articulation of its rationalization in the statements and other written or enacted clues signaled by the perpetrator prior to the event itself are part of an apparatus of communications provided to the criminal since his birth. We are not dealing with ideologues or dupes of terrorist organizations, but with a small number of people who are driven crazy by the very things that entertain many, give comfort to most and make society work. In other words, we are faced with a new and almost untenable problem. And it needs to be addressed without recourse to simplistic answers. The madness must end.
The version of the Newsweek article I discuss here appeared in The New Zealand Herald on 3 August 2002.
Norman Simms is the author of Alfred Dreyfus: Man, Milieu, Mentality and Midrash (Academic Studies Press, 2011). The second volume in the series, Alfred Dreyfus: In the Context of His Times: Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet and Jew should be out towards the end of this year; and a third volume tentatively entitled Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus: Illusions, Delusions and Allusions is being prepared for 2013.