Shrink Rap: Guilty, by Reason of Insanity

Often, it is wise to wait before responding to big questions–to spend time listening, thinking, meditating, sitting with such questions. And, so, I have.

It has been two weeks, more or less, since the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. (Even more recently, another shooting occurred at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.) We have heard analyses from many people, from many points of view. Yet the big question remains unanswered: What caused James Holmes to booby-trap his apartment and then open fire in a movie theater, killing 12 people and wounding 58?

Even before collecting forensic evidence began, advocates and opponents of gun control popped off, sniping at each other, shooting off at the mouth. Would more stringent laws controlling certain guns and the ammunition that feeds them have prevented this tragedy? Such a question is unanswerable. And it is a diversion from the bigger issue of the paranoia and fear, legitimate or otherwise, that has led so many people to have so many guns and to support blocking reasonable measures for keeping guns out of dangerous hands.

Even before the funerals began, commentators pointed fingers at everybody from teachers and the decline of American education, to video games, to Batman himself (or the bane of his existence–distinct from Bain Capital). What could have caused his mother to reportedly tell television reporters, “You have the right person”–the threadbare fabric of American families? (It turns out she may have been referring to herself, not to her son.) Was this a case of Americans and the American health care system ignoring the seriousness of mental health issues and the need to cover them? What about the role of drug use or addiction in mass shootings? Was this particular tragedy the result of unchecked bullying? Was it caused in part by intractable recession and a lack of job opportunities for young people (Generation Screwed)? And if so, should we blame Bush or Obama, Democrats or Republicans? And, in case anybody is left out of the finger-pointing, let’s take our Tea Party with two lumps, not just one.

And what did the shooting in Aurora say about the state of manhood in this country? Do you recall any mass shooters being women? Don’t think too hard. The answer is: no. As in none. Zero. Does this make mass shootings a problem of how we raise our boys? I find that question as ridiculous in its reductionist simplicity as floating the possibility of Rush Limbaugh being a poster man-child for American masculinity.

More sophisticated analysis allowed experts on mass killers to educate the general population on the three basic profiles that define individuals who commit such horrendous crimes. There are mass shooters who are delusionally insane. Others are psychopaths. Still others are suicidally depressed. There is possibly a fourth profile that would be any number of combinations of the first three. Are mass shooters represented in equal numbers within these categories? No.

The most common seems to be the delusionally insane. These are people who are totally out of touch with reality. They can be schizophrenics. They can be paranoid. They can suffer from hallucinations and/or catatonia or hysteria. Such people can become delusional through use of drugs. Such people can become delusional for no identifiable reason.
Next comes the psychopath. Psychopaths have no empathy for others. Further, they often enjoy witnessing the pain of others. They are often extremely good at manipulation, using social skills (concern, flattery and kindness) as tools to gain trust and inflict pain on their victims.

Finally, but not far behind, comes the suicidally depressed. Such people can see no escape from the pain of their sense of worthlessness, their overwhelming sense of emptiness, other than death–that of themselves and/or others. They not only want to put themselves out of their misery, they want to punish the world and put it out of its misery.
Such profiling is interesting, but does it help us prevent mass shootings from happening? No. What it will do, taken to an extreme, is fuel the kind of paranoia that will lead us to looking at some of the most vulnerable among us–the mentally ill–as dangerous.

What thoughts can I bring to this discussion, humble shrink that I am? Perhaps a little psychological perspective.
What do the delusionally insane, the psychopath and the suicidally depressed have in common? A shared perspective that experiences life as a struggle between emotional, spiritual, and/or physical life and death–often the life and death of themselves as well as of others.
We live in a culture that increasingly views life in terms of win or lose, me or them, life or death. Our politics reflect that. It is not enough to respect differences and work with them. We must be right. They most be wrong. We must win. They must lose. It is not enough to be part of a bigger community. The focus should be on me and my needs, regardless of the needs of “them”–whether they are minorities, majorities, rich, poor, animal, vegetable or Mother Earth herself. It is not enough to disagree with our opponent. We must destroy him or her.

When we are caught in a world with a heightened sense of living or dying (physically, emotionally, spiritually), those parts of our psyches we believe have been tamed will break free and begin to riot. In such a world, to live requires killing. To die requires being killed–by others or by our own hand. All of us carry the potential of the delusionally insane within us, as well as the psychopath and the suicidally depressed. When groups of people perceive the world in terms of living or dying, killing or being killed, atrocities can happen. Think of the Holocaust. Think of Rwanda. Think of the Rape of Nanking. Think of Northern Ireland. Think of Israel and Palestine. Think of Bosnia. Think of the Taliban. Otherwise good people–Germans, Rwandans, Japanese, Irish, Semites, Pashtun tribesmen–can do unbelievably cruel things to other people in the name of religion or ethnic cleansing.

When individuals perceive the world in terms of living or dying, killing or being killed, they become like soldiers in the heat of battle. They will kill in order to survive. Does this sound like George Zimmerman’s defense in the killing of Trayvon Martin?

All of us carry within us the power of a killer. Knowing this about ourselves brings a more thoughtful and grounded perspective to the horrors James Holmes visited on the world. And it brings a more thoughtful and grounded perspective to all the other issues stirred up as we wrestle with the aftermath of this mass shooting.

To think the world we live in is more dangerous than it really is, to perceive danger where it does not exist, is to live with a warped sense of reality. It is to flirt with the fringes of the reality of a James Holmes.

In varying degrees, to live in such a “dangerous” world, even a little, is to plead guilty of potential atrocities, by reason of insanity.

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