Mass Murder: The Psychiatry of Everyday Life

01What happens when an entire generation grows up believing that they’re so special they deserve nothing but the best in life? Well, disappointment, and worse, according to an article in Aeon by Joseph Pierre, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, who surveys the clinical literature on the perpetrators of mass shootings.

In the aftermath of this type of violence, the ultra-far-left crowd crawls out from beneath their rock to blame guns and tarnish law abiding gun owners with guilt by association. The rest of us respond to such violence by hoping to pinpoint a cause because once we have identified the reason we can fix it. That’s where the talking heads jump in with legislative proposals that eventually lead to nothing except making us feel that we are doing everything we can, until the next mass shooting, and then we repeat the cycle. The problem is there is not just one cause alone that adequately explains this senseless murder.

Yes, guns can be instruments for killing, but so can rocks, crowbars, hammers, arrows, and knives.  Our founding fathers recognized that in placing gun rights directly into the Constitution, they can also be effective tools for equalizing power and overcoming oppression. Over the centuries generations of kids, including myself, grew up playing cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, armed with plastic revolvers. More recently, first person shooter simulations featuring both military and criminal role plays have become some of the most successful video games of all times. And yet the vast majority of gun owners have never discharged their firearm in self-defense, much less commit murder. So if it isn’t gun ownership, how do we explain why mass murder, although infrequent, occurs?

A typical response would have us believe the answer lies in mental illness, or in individuals who are somehow flawed and differ from the rest of society. Proposed solutions, usually couched in terms of enhancing mental health services, often involve plans to further marginalize those struggling with emotional issues, screening individuals based on risk factors and warming signs so that they can be locked away in a psychiatric hospital or prison. Such proposals reflect the instinct to cull such individuals out of the pack so they can be banished from society.

But, what if the reality is that the underlying cause of mass murder isn’t something external but rather something at the root of human instinct and behavior that is interwoven into popular culture? This possibility suggests that, rather than trying to get rid of some offending external agent, a more meaningful approach might require looking within ourselves and our own communities for a solution. In support of this idea James Fox and Monica DeLateur, criminologists at Northeastern University, published Mass Shootings In America, in Homicide Studies that dispels some myths about mass shootings and calls into question our tendency to blame things outside of ourselves.

To begin with the authors note that mass shootings have not increased in number or death toll, at least not over the past several decades. They also debunk a number of common assumptions about mass shooting, such as violent entertainment as a major cause, or that tighter gun control, or arming our schools will reduce human violence, or expanded efforts at profiling or enhanced mental health services will actually help.

Narcissism is a word that pops up often in risk factors for mass shooters. A narcissist has a distorted self-image, an inflated ego, the need for admiration, a lack of empathy and intense emotions. Our modern society with its emphasis on individualism and the pursuit of material happiness fosters narcissism, according to Augusto De Venanzi, a professor of sociology at Perdue. James Knoll IV, a forensic psychiatrist at Upstate Medical University in New York says that any affront to a narcissist’s self-esteem can be equated with threats to his or her very survival and that the typical response to such perceived injury is a desire for revenge. Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State and author of The Cultural Animal, concluded the present day culture of unconditional self-esteem instills a kind of entitlement in our children and when that is not forthcoming, feelings of peer rejection, resentment and blame can become all consuming. When one creates enemies in the mind, perception becomes reality and moral justifications are subjective.

In addition to narcissism, other risk factors, according to the FBI include low self-esteem, depression, alienation, poor coping skills, low frustration tolerance, lack of trust, fascination with violence filled entertainment, negative role models, and access to weapons. Yet, the overwhelming majority of people with these risk factors never become mass murderers.

It appears that the most important risk factors aren’t those that set mass murderers apart from the rest of us; instead, they are simply appropriated from culturally sanctioned patterns of aggression. The difference between one who fantasies about revenge and one who carries it out could be a matter of degree, rather than some bright divide separating a murderer from the rest of society.

Mass shootings are terrifying and deserve our best efforts at prevention, but it’s high time we resisted the usual knee-jerk defense of trying to find an easy target to blame and eliminate. Mass shootings are difficult to predict, potentially self-perpetuating and result not from easily eliminated sources but rather from untimely interactions between normal instincts, culturally sanctioned patterns of behavior and entrenched features of modern society.

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