Another Senseless Killing Spree

July 21, 2012 

It happened again, early yesterday morning in Aurora, Colorado.  Another senseless killing spree.  Another widening circle of family, loved ones, friends caught in its aftermath of grief and pain.  Another speech by the President and, in this election year, the alternate candidate urging us to reach out to those caught in that widening circle of pain with our prayers and support, to each other in this time of national tragedy, to our own children and loved ones as we struggle, again, with why these things happen.

The public positing of why, of course, has already begun and will continue over the weeks to come.  Some of them will border on the nonsensical, such as the Texas politician who sees “…the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs, and then some senseless crazy act of terror like this takes place,” or the former FBI profiler who wondered if the killer might be some “dark Trekkie-like person”.  Hopefully, some will be more nuanced and thoughtful.

Over the last decade or two of such mass killings, we have wondered if the Trekkie culture, the Goth culture, the gaming culture, the comic-con culture were somehow causative in these mass killings.  Yet, in 1966, long before these various cultures took hold on our children’s imaginations, a young man killed his wife and mother, then climbed the clock tower of a Texas university and picked off dozens of innocents before he was taken down, himself.  At the time, much was made of his history in Vietnam.  Then, his autopsy showed a brain tumor and that was speculated about.  But we didn’t know then and we don’t know, now, why millions of young veterans, people with brain tumors, trekkies, Goths, gamers or comic-con aficionados don’t turn into mass killers.  Even when our personal ideology demands some connection between those things and those who do kill, we simply don’t know.

As someone who took a bachelor of science in psychology, who studied both the biology and neurology of the brain, who sliced into a long-dead human brain and examined it microscopically in my physiology and anatomy classes, my own ideology demands a difference between the brains of mass killers and the rest of us.  But, beyond my ideologies, I don’t know that there is.  And I wonder.

Is there a difference in the brains of young men and women who sit at a gaming console and kill people in a virtual reality and those who sit at a drone console or in a helicopter gunship and bomb real people?  I don’t know.

Were the brains of those young Muslims that carried out the 9/11 attacks in the name of their religious ideology fundamentally different from the brains of the Christians who carried out the massive deaths of the Crusades or the burning of heretics in the name of theirs?  And are they fundamentally different than yours or mine, in some way?  I don’t know.  I hope so, but I don’t know.

Is the brain of Andre Brevik, who killed so many last year in Norway out of political ideology different from the brains of Presidents Bush and Obama who ordered the deaths of tens of thousands over the last ten years out of their own political ideologies?  How, I wonder, do their brains differ from mine?  I don’t know that, either, but I’m sure they must.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can see the whole world covered in ever-widening circles of grief and pain, small and large, like clouds of smoke over a battleground and I wonder if the brains of those who have caused those widening circles of pain differ in any significant way from those of us who only watch it on TV.  Ideology demands that they do.  But I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I wish I did, but I don’t.

I wish I could be sure that my brain differs from the brains of those who commit all those senseless killing sprees with their growing, growing, growing circles of grief and pain.

But, I do not know.

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7 Responses to Another Senseless Killing Spree

  1. *C* says:

    Well said (and mirrored my own thoughts).

  2. Neural pathways inside our head
    Come from genes and the way we are bred,
    But we won’t understand
    How our actions are planned
    Before we wind up being dead.

  3. xraymike79 says:

    You raise some good points which I reference to in the comments section (comments #5 and 6) on my post concerning this subject:

    The Joke’s on Us: Guns in a Sociopathic Society

    The fact that there are millions out there with the same psychological profile as that of this current shooter is frightening to me. In a society which is headed for more economic turmoil on the slide down the net energy cliff, there will be the creation of more triggers to set these people off.

    • theozarker says:

      Mike, I want to take some time to read your links before I respond. Nice blog, I’ll put a link to it over in the links section. Later.

    • theozarker says:

      Okay, Mike, sorry it took so long, but serious articles deserve serious responses. Before I respond to the three articles, just let me say, I think we throw around the terms psychopath and sociopath way too much in these cases. I do think there are people who, through some genetic/neurological quirk, do not develop the neurological infrastructure for empathy (which is the basis for conscience). If their frequency in the population is similar to other developmental neurological disorders, they would be expected to constitute anywhere from 2-4% of the population. Most of these people will not become mass murderers – although there are notable exceptions. Depending on their environmental situation they will become con artists (bankers, anyone?) and grifters. And of course, the higher they are in the societal power structure, the more damage they can do. There is also a group, documented in the 1997(?) book, Guilty By Reason of Insanity, (wish I could remember the authors, but someone borrowed my copy several years ago and never returned it) who, through early brain damage – usually as a byproduct of physical and other child abuse – have a damaged capacity for empathy. Many of these do go on to be petty criminals and murderers (sometimes serial).

      So, having said that, let me quickly tackle the last two articles. I think the two authors accurately describe the stressors of our dysfunctional society and I agree that stricter gun control – especially a ban on assault rifles – might at least curtail the amount of damage one person could do. But I would point out that our society has never been absent most of those stressors for the majority of Americans. After all, without the bill of rights, the Constitution would have been just another document written by rich, white, male landowners and businessmen giving the governments, federal and state, power to curtail the riff-raff (women, slaves and peons) and preserve their status. And those in power have often whittled away at or outright ignored those rights when it came to maintaining that power. Also, slow collapse is always hardest on the lower middle and lower classes in any declining empire and especially those who are fragile in some way to begin with. That may be what happened to the guy that killed those people outside the bar in Georgia, but I don’t think he was a psychopath.

      So, let me set those aside for now and get to the first article (Copernicus). I think his analysis is probably pretty accurate. The problem I have with these types of analyses (and they are rampant in the psychiatric/psychological community) is that they are so couched in what is basically psychobabble, they become just another after-the-fact way of sticking these people in a box and putting them on the shelf of history like a cold-case so we can tell ourselves that we are not like them.

      When I look at the picture of this latest young man – and I have no idea how long ago the picture was taken – I see a young man in a great deal of mental pain, who has probably been sending out “stop”, “help” signals that nobody heard for so long, he is (in the picture) in the process of simply shutting down. Which he apparently did, over the last few months. We, the society and especially the therapeutic community, are not very good at hearing and reading those signals before it’s too late. Especially now, when every difference in our conformist society is judged to be “abnormal” and, is usually treated with some kind of “psychological” evaluation, a handful of pills, and a fifteen minute appointment once a month to see if the pills are working or if another bunch of pills need to be added. It’s very profitable, but it’s not therapy. The truly terrifying thing, to me, is that we now address children as young as two or three this way.

      Those that have a normal enough sense of self to kick, scream and bite out their pain, we load up with pills to shut them up, instead of helping the parents, who mostly do love these kids, but are too burdened with those stressors to show it. Those kids need a “kid whisperer” to work with them and their normal, but stressed parents. But I don’t think these kids will become the serial killers (unless that boatload of medications damages their brains at the wrong time in development).

      My guess is that, as I think Copurnicus was saying, absent actual brain damage/biologically based mental illnesses – which do often respond to the right medications and therapy (Loughner, in Tuscon?) – most of the ones who finally become serial killers are the kids whose parents/SOs can’t actually love them because of their own abnormal needs that get projected on the kids to fulfill. These are kids who have sent out various “help me”/“stop hurting me” signals with no response for so long, they eventually do lose their sense of self (no one sees who you are anyway). I suspect these are the ones who create a self that can’t be hurt, but can punish others. A self that everyone will now “see”.

      It costs us something as a society (and as a profession) to really see these kids that are. It’s “easier” to wait until they are the adults those kids become, slap them with a diagnosis, put them in the box and set them on the shelf, telling ourselves they “got what they deserved.” Not really. What they deserved was to be seen and heard at a time in their lives when a sense of self could have been restored/developed, a time when they might actually have been saved.

      I know this is sort of a simplification. I would think that all of these “categories” have shades of gray and probably overlap some, but I think we just dismiss these people as “psychopaths” to be put away or destroyed at our own peril.

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