The Psychology behind Mass Murder: The evil among us

Rampage killings dig at the very morality of society. In the aftermath of such tragedies we struggle with trying to come to grips with the…

Rampage killings dig at the very morality of society. In the aftermath of such tragedies we struggle with trying to come to grips with the carnage, destruction, and evil. We try to come up with explanations of such behavior and how anyone could turn so vial and so evil. In grappling with the why, the old question of nature vs. nurture arises. What causes mass murder? Where should we lay the blame? He must be a psychopath, why wasn’t he in therapy? How could his family not pick up on the signs?” “Someone had to know something. He had an arsenal of guns”. “Why don’t we have stronger gun control laws?”

These questions or similar ones are expected to follow a tragedy and are part of the grieving process. Feelings of sadness and anger are likely to be experienced. But who is to blame? Lets start with the question of nature. The “Vegas tragedy” left me with some of the same questions even as a psychologist.  I began to search for some answers so I read, “ A Mother’s Reckoning Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold , Columbine by Dave Cullen and Without Conscience by Robert Hare, Ph.D.,a leading psychologist on psychopathy. I wanted to know where does the urge to commit mass murder come from. Sure, I knew that the brain scans of individuals who are considered psychopaths are vastly different from the “neurotypical” population. Sure, I worked in prisons where some of the inmates I worked with had no regard for social norms or human rights. Some of them would often lament that their crimes were not their fault but the fault of the victims. Most of them would see the average person as a means to an end, a tool to be used and manipulated. Though cold and calculating, a rare percentage of individuals truly meet the definition of a psychopath.  A psychopath according to Hare are people who prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get with they want.  Approximately 4% of the American population are said to be psychopaths.

On the other hand Antisocial Personality Disorder or APD is much more common. “Anti” is often used as a colloquialism to describe someone who is less than social. However, antisocial in the psychological sense has a deeper meaning. Individuals with antisocial personality disorder consistently break rules, lack a sense of morality, and often look for loopholes to their advantage. Some of these traits can start as early as adolescence, however as true diagnosis of APD is not given until adult hood. This brings me to Columbine and the theory of nature vs. nurture.

To avoid sensationalizing, this horrific tragedy, I will be brief here. Eric Harris one of the Columbine mass shooters, showed overwhelming signs of psychopathy prior to the age of 18. According to Dave Cullen, author of Columbine Eric Harris meets majority of symptoms on the Hare Psychopathology Checklist. What traits Eric exhibited as a young child can only be imagined or concluded from articles. His parents remain silent to date.

In recent years we have witnessed mass murders and rampage killings like no other generation in history through constant media coverage and across multiple platforms. According to some sources constant media coverage which sensationalizes rampage killers spawns copycat attacks.( I must also say here that constant coverage is not the sole factor in copycat attacks.) Manifestos, recordings, and violent images of rampage shooters can all be found on the Internet and at times during live coverage of these events. There are media guidelines for reporting on mass shootings. It is my humble perception that although most journalist go through great pains to avoid sensationalizing these tragedies somehow it falls shorts.

I want to be clear that I am not blaming the media nor am I insinuating that constant coverage causes rampage killings. What I am saying is that “glory stories” are but an ingredient in a recipe for chaos and destruction. The extra kindle for an already smoldering fire. In looking at the background of a few rampage killers one theme that emerge was alienation. While it is prudent to inform the public, information should be disseminated in such a way that it does not turn a killer into a dark vigilante superhero, an avenger of the disenchanted. The focus when reporting in any form (blogging, vlogs, etc.) should be on humanizing the victims rather than glamorizing the atrocities.

By: Priscilla Wright, Ph.D, LPC,NCC

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