Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Norway Tragedies: Book Review/Analysis

I had just finished reading Extreme Killing, a book on serial killing and mass murder, when the attacks in Norway happened.  At first, it was reported that Islamist terrorists set off a bomb, and then when the second phase of mass slaughter by firearm happened, the news went out that it was a right-wing Christian fundamentalist behind it, not an Islamic fundamentalist.  As atheists, we can point to more and more religiously-motivated atrocities but that's as fallacious as Christians citing Stalin.

The reasons, I think, are explained fairly well in this book.  It is not as deeply analytical as I was expecting considering the authors' credentials, but it made several good points that helped me place this attack into a rational framework right away.  The first half of the book is about serial killers, most of whom mainly seek power over individuals and many of whom include rape in their attacks.  The second half discusses mass-casualty attacks such as happened in Norway.  They analyze different types of attacks and different types of motivations.  For each point, they give a brief description of a specific case, detailing the perpetrator's background, recent events in his/her life,
motivation(s) and methods.

According to the book, the psychological basis for mass killings is externalization of blame.  The killer has not been successful at school, work, or family life, and rather than accept responsibility, he blames outside influences.  And yes, it's almost always a "he."  The women who have committed mass killings have a similar profile to the men who have done it, e.g., extreme psychological investment in a single aspect of their life, like their career.   A lot of them do attack the people with whom they've been in conflict, for example killing their spouse then going to work and then killing the boss and HR officials "responsible" for his job loss.

When they can't blame a specific person for a catastrophic failure, they may blame a group of people.  This could be an extension of specific people, such as the entire workplace when only a few "stood in the way" of success, or blame for an entire class of people, defined by race, religion, nationality, etc.  One killer attacked Asian children because of xenophobic hatred.  The Luby cafeteria massacre was motivated by hatred of all the residents of the town.  The person may also decide that society at large is to blame, which makes everyone a potential target for a seemingly "random" murder.

While a lot of people refuse to accept responsibility for their failures without turning to murder, a history of belligerance, gun ownership (especially enthusiasm for guns), and domestic violence add to the mix to create the toxic stew of a bitter, ineffectual loser with the ability and motivation to kill in a big way.

The book didn't include terrorist attacks other than McVeigh's bomb.  The next edition will probably pair McVeigh with this guy.  The motives and background are similar: military training, externalization of blame focusing on the government, right-wing leanings, and sympathy for a religious cause.  They both targeted government buildings and made a point of killing children.  The one somewhat unique ingredient in McVeigh's psyche was his belief that he was avenging the deaths of others.

One thing the book doesn't address is why people like this think their murderous rampages will somehow bring about changes they want to see.  Even bin Laden's externalization of blame to Westerners had a modicum of logic in his wish that the U.S. would expend its wealth fighting terrorism ... which he believed would reduce the impact of the U.S. in the Middle East.  He was wrong, but at least he had a "vision," however twisted.

These mass killers don't seem to think past exacting their revenge on whoever they believe has ruined their lives.  They're still irrational, even if they don't qualify for the insanity defense or if they have been able to make and carry out a methodical plan.  When has anyone ever decided on a political party or course of action based on the desires of terrorists?  I think the IRA may be able to take a little credit for a change in British policy, but only a little. 

I can't imagine people in Norway thinking "Wow, I've been so mistaken in voting for the Labour Party.  I'm switching to the right wing party right now!" or "Sheesh I've been worshipping Allah all this time when really I should have been a Christian!"

I think where religion enters into these things is that the stories of the Bible give the believers many role models to follow.   God didn't target individual homosexuals in Sodom & Gomorrah; he wiped out the entirety of the population to punish them for allowing homosexuals in their midst.  He wiped out the whole world with The Flood.  He kills the firstborn sons in Egypt.  He orders the death penalty for disobedience to one of his hundreds of commandments.  This "loving" God seems to really "love" killing.

Religion gives extremists and crazies a framework for their anger and sometimes even helps them define their targets, but the driving force is an inability to accept the difficulties of life.  Getting fired for threatening to kill your boss is not the fault of your boss, it's your fault.  Getting divorced because you beat up your wife isn't your wife's fault, it's your  fault.  Not being able to turn your military successes into a successful civilian career isn't probably anyone's fault, except possibly your bad education or your ADHD.

Sometimes shit just happens, or doesn't happen.  Some people just don't learn how to get along in society, so they blame society rather than their inability to learn how to behave, or lack of desire to.  Or maybe it's because you played video games for hours on end throughout your teen years rather than whip up a little courage to break the ice and meet some kids IRL to hang out with.

Serial killers sometimes have revenge motives too, attacking stand-ins for the girls who rejected them in high school or for their heartless mother.  Mass killers are also attacking stand-ins for the people who "wronged" them.  You can even include bin Laden and Hitler in this group because they didn't kill the actual perpetrators of whatever wrongs they thought they were avenging.

Where Christianity could actually do some good would be to stop celebrating their unearned forgiveness "through Christ's sacrifice" and teach their kids personal responsibility, accountability, and empathy for others.  If more people would be brought up to stop blaming others and look more at their own role in what happens to them in life, there would be fewer murders.  Even when unfortunate circumstances really are due to the actions of others, responsibility for coping with it rests with the individual.  Just saying "God has his reasons" is a poor substitute for a rational approach to dealing with one's problems.

The Norway attacker didn't die during his attack, so he will be one of the rare ones whose thoughts and feelings can be probed.  It will be interesting to see how closely he fits the profile that the peple who have gone before him have established.


Anonymous said...

I am no sympathizer to Theists, but I want to make sure this does not backfire on us.

P Z Myers posts some stuff from a 1500 page screed this guy wrote that contains a lot of stuff about atheism.

He talks about how he is not religious, but might pray when the pressure is on.


He also says it does not matter if someone believes in Jesus, that Jews are OK, and on and on.

His sole twitter quote wss from the atheist J S Mill, and his Face Book page has been earlier shot shows his favorite books to be about Pragmatism and other subjects that definitely are not Fundamentalist Christian.

He makes contradictory remarks about everything.

If we jump all over him being a Fundie and he isn't then it will be used against atheists.

Clarrisa Davore, Columbia

LadyAtheist said...

I didn't know there was a 1500-page screed out there. It's possible this is another schizophrenic along the lines of Loughner.

One point in the book is that the reason so few schizophrenics commit mass murder is that the disorganization of thinking that marks schizophrenia disrupts their ability to plan and carry out an attack. I don't think that's necessarily true. Schizophrenia is a complex disease.

L.Long said...

I agree on one point in that the atheists tend to get fixed in to a short cut thought process where they say religion causes awful stuff. In fact atheist is just a non-belief in gods.
We should be stressing that ANY system them has a head dude that sets the rules and a 'book' that dictates how you live and you must never question and do NOT try and think, is what is really wrong.
Unfortunately most religions fit this perfectly.

Tor Hershman said...

Most thoughtfully expressed,
Lady A.

Tor Hershman said...

L.Long, you'll REALLY find that with ANY large group of people...some will be just awful, others, a tiny few will be, wonderfully fine and most...will be most.

I'm an Athiest and moi KNOWS it ain't the suit the monkey wears
{Ape in Pope coustume, in Billy Graham outfit, in Lama Robes orrrrr a Darwin suit - it is still an APE. Now is it a good ape or a bad ape?}
that is why I flush Atheism with all the religions (all that would fit) at this video's outro.....

LadyAtheist said...

Thanks Tor