Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Causes of Rampage Killing

As the child of a schizophrenic and the sister of another schizophrenic, and the step-daughter of someone with MS-related psychosis, I naturally follow the news whenever someone with a mental illness commits a crazy act of violence.  My own brother scared me when he became ill, because he exhibited some of the features common to mass killers:  an interest in firearms, an interest in mass murderers who used firearms, and loss of a job.  Of course, he lost his job due to his mental illness.  After this, he no longer saw his psychiatrist because he no longer had insurance  (a bogus excuse on both of their parts imho).   And then, being unemployed with time on his hands, his thought process had no brakes on it.  I was afraid he'd shoot up his workplace, but I knew him and knew he just wasn't a vengeful person.  In all the time we were growing up he never used direct or redirected revenge against anybody that I knew of.  I feared suicide more than homicide.  He wound up doing neither, but he never got treatment and is now homeless.  You can't force treatment on someone who poses no threat to himself or others, so his crazy choice to cling to his delusions and be unemployable is his to make.

Still, I want to learn what I can from the few experts that have studied rampage killers just in case.  There is very little written for lay people, and not a lot of peer-reviewed literature either, that I could find.  The popular press tends to focus on just one case, for example Whitman in Texas.

Of course, any time something bad happens in the U.S., some evangelical nutjob will claim it's due to our degraded morality.  We can dismiss this hypothesis out of hand because the Bible doesn't say anything about mass murder happening in Sodom and Gomorrah.  God took them out himself, he didn't rely on mass murderers to punish those sinful sinners!  But I'll add this to the long, long list of hypothesized causes for mass murder:

I may have missed a few, like Big Pharma or Communist conspiracies, but I think those are the ones I've seen the most. Mass murder seems to be a kind of Rorschach test that inspires people to attribute their pet theory to a sensational event as if to say, "See?  See?  I told you the world was going to hell in a handbasket!" Fortunately, there are people who have investigated the cases themselves to find commonalities.  I'm putting some of these on my reading list.  You may find some of them interesting too:

My pet peeve with society, at least in the treatment of the generation that's been responsible for school shootings, is that teachers were taught to give kids empty praise, just for "trying." And everyone is included and nobody gets disappointed. Besides being dishonest with children, it didn't give them enough opportunitities to learn important life lessons. Sometimes things don't go your way. Sometimes you're not as good as you think you are. During my brief college teaching career, I encountered a lot of terrified students who really didn't know whether they were any "good" at something. They knew they could get away with cheating (at that school) but even when they didn't cheat, some of them felt like frauds. I was a demanding teacher and the feedback I got from students was that I was very fair. The students who passed felt a sense of accomplishment and the ones that failed knew it was their own fault. They seemed genuinely grateful for a real challenge in which their self-perception and my feedback were totally in synch.

I was at the University of Iowa when Gang Lu shot up the Astronomy department there. He was disappointed not to have received an award he felt he was entitled to. Well, sometimes you get disappointed in life. Kids should learn about that in kindergarten so they can handle it later.

Well, that's my rant, but it's mere opinion. Next I'll be reading some of the linked material to see what the people who have actually met mass killers have to say about what drove them over the edge.


krissthesexyatheist said...

As far as i know, "we" don't know what triggered this dude...and btw...your opinion does matter (didn't know that about parents and bro). Awesomeness,


LadyAtheist said...

Thanks buddy. We may never know what went on in his head but for sure it's too soon to say now.

Lord Victor 'Bones' Bishington said...

There is quite an interesting excerpt from Steven Pinker's book 'How The Mind Works' about the phenomenon of mass murder, which I will quote as I don’t think I can do it justice by summarising it (page 363 for those of you playing at home):

“On March 13, 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland, carrying two revolvers and two semiautomatic pistols. After wounding staff members who tried to tackle him, he ran to the gymnasium, where a kindergarten class was playing. There he shot twenty-eight children, sixteen fatally, and killed their teacher before turning the gun on himself. "Evil visited us yesterday, and we don't know why," said the school's headmaster the next day. "We don't understand it and I don't think we ever will."

We probably never will understand what made Hamilton commit his vile final acts. But the report of pointless revenge by an embittered loner is disturbingly familiar. Hamilton was a suspected pedophile who had been forced to resign as a Scout leader and then formed his own youth groups so he could continue working with boys. One group held its meetings in the Dunblane school's gymnasium until school officials, responding to parents' complaints about his odd behavior, forced him out. Hamilton was the target of ridicule and gossip, and was known in the area, undoubtedly for good reasons, as "Mr. Creepy." Days before his rampage he had sent letters to the media and to Queen Elizabeth defending his reputation and pleading for reinstatement in the scouting movement.

The Dunblane tragedy was particularly shocking because no one thought it could happen there. Dunblane is an idyllic, close-knit village where serious crime was unknown. It is far from America, land of the wackos, where there are as many guns as people and where murderous rampages by disgruntled postal workers are so common (a dozen incidents in a dozen years) that a slang term for losing one's temper is "going postal." But running amok is not unique to America, to Western nations, or even to modern societies. Amok is a Malay word for the homicidal sprees occasionally undertaken by lonely Indochinese men who have suffered a loss of love, a loss of money, or a loss of face. The syndrome has been described in a culture even more remote from the West: the stone-age foragers of Papua New Guinea.

The amok man is patently out of his mind, an automaton oblivious to his surroundings and unreachable by appeals or threats. But his rampage is preceded by lengthy brooding over failure, and is carefully planned as a means of deliverance from an unbearable situation. The amok state is chillingly cognitive. It is triggered not by a stimulus, not by a tumor, not by a random spurt of brain chemicals, but by an idea. The idea is so standard that the following summary of the amok mind-set, composed in 1968 by a psychiatrist who had interviewed seven hospitalized amoks in Papua New Guinea, is an apt description of the thoughts of mass murderers continents and decades away:

"I am not an important or "big man." I possess only my personal sense of dignity. My life has been reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except my life, which is nothing, so I trade my life for yours, as your life is favoured. The exchange is in my favour, so I shall not only kill you, but I shall kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process."

The amok syndrome is an extreme instance of the puzzle of the human emotions. Exotic at first glance, upon scrutiny they turn out to be universal; quintessentially irrational, they are tightly interwoven with abstract thought and have a cold logic of their own."

Not saying that is necessarily the case with this latest incident, but I think it is quite an interesting view of the issue.

I apologise for the length though.

LadyAtheist said...

Don't apologize for length when you're posting something that interesting!

I did notice in the Wikipedia list of rampage killers that Asia has a long history of the problem. This is a sensible answer. I can see how hurt pride + loss of self-identifying place in society could cause someone to decide that mass murder would restore both. Every one of them is listed on Wikipedia. I'm not listed on Wikipedia, are you? They got their wish.

Thanks for the quotation.

Hausdorff said...

"he no longer saw his psychiatrist because he no longer had insurance"

This makes me sad :(

"...taught to give kids empty praise, just for "trying.""

This struck me as well. I spent a little bit of time teaching college math. It was not uncommon to have students come to me complaining of a bad grade with the argument of "but I tried really hard". When I pointed out that their work demonstrates they don't understand the material again, they would just say "but I tried really hard" again. It was unbelievable.

LadyAtheist said...

I was teaching at the college level in Texas at the time that Bush was trying to push "no child left behind" onto the rest of the country. The products of that system couldn't write a coherent paragraph and could only answer bubble-in questions... but only if two of the answers didn't have the same first letter!

I got a few who wanted pity passes too. Some of them admitted to not even trying and yet they wanted me to change their grades. Really pitiful.

Hausdorff said...

Oh yeah, I had one of those too. The last class I ever taught, I had a guy come up to me after the final telling me he would lose his financial aid if he didn't pass the class. I told him I hoped he did well on the final, he said he didn't but he needed to pass anyway. It took me a minute to realize he was asking me to just pass him, I couldn't believe how unapologetic he was. I think he really thought I would just pass him because he asked.

LadyAtheist said...

I caved on only one, a scholarship student with a high B+ that I changed to an A- Other students who tried to get pity grades were really really poor students. Do they think their future employers will give them raises just for the asking?

Hausdorff said...

I've done that once or twice. Changing a borderline grade like that can be justifiable sometimes. Most of the requests I got were completely unreasonable though. I had someone who failed miserably (like 20% overall grade) ask for a B.

LadyAtheist said...

Me too, and they're not even very imaginative about why they think I should do it. Does that mean it's worked for them in the past?

Hausdorff said...

I think it does. That's actually what bothered me about the whole exchange the most. They were usually shocked when I said no. I think the students had made similar requests to other teachers and they just said ok to make them go away or something. Often times their skill in the prerequisite material was so poor I guessed that doing this was the only way they made it into my class in the first place.

Cardenie said...

This is similar to the point you made, but I'm adding more to it. Maybe it's being taught (consciously or not) to find your self-worth in things outside of yourself so that if you make a mistake, in say school work, your entire world ends because you got a C. If you are not so emotionally invested (or your parent isn't) in getting an A, you'll feel bad, but then move on and try harder next time. And if you never get an A, it doesn't mean you're worthless. The reality is everyone can't be good in everything under the sun.

It's the same thing with relationships. Another person cannot be THE source of your happiness. If you have a fight, or worst case scenario, they leave you, your world cannot be irreparably shattered.

LadyAtheist said...

Yep, if you didn't learn it's because the teacher did something wrong. They're supposed to motivate you. You're not supposed to motivate yourself and your parents aren't supposed to do anything but make sure you enroll in soccer (and Bible camp) and buy electronics for you.

Relationships in my opinion have to be a match of neuroses. Nobody is free from some kind of problem. You just have to decide which kinds of problems you can put up with and be honest about your own. I could never live with a clean freak unless he was the designated cleaner and stayed out of my car!