Saturday, July 25, 2015

An Autopsy of A Mass Murderer

The coverage of mass murderers, after the massacres they inflict on us, reminds me of a very flawed and partial autopsy*, carried out by the media and also by various experts.

It's as if we open the stomach, check out the liver, the heart and lungs, remove the pancreas and the spleen, all the time looking, looking for why this particular person (well, this particular man) hated humankind or some of its subgroups (people of other races, of other religions, people who are female), why this particular person needed to imitate a deranged and vengeful god, why, why and why.

Is that a spot of racism on the lungs I see? Or a heart full of misogyny (see how dark the clotted blood is)?  And that spleen, see  how mottled it is with extremist thoughts, the objectification and nullification of the humanity of others?  We open the skull and eagerly peer in.  How did this particular murderer  become what he was?  Did he have a violent history?  Did he abuse his wife?  Did he write diatribes on extremist web sites against blacks or against Jews or Muslims against women or the government (as an embodiment of everybody?)?  Did his writings adulate ISIS?  And can you, too, smell the mental illness all over the corpse, notice the metastasized cancer of end-time thoughts, the joy of destruction, the way violence as a way of life is tattooed on that dead skin?

We do all this by interviewing the family and neighbors of the killer, by finding out how he spent his time on the Internet, by combing through his criminal records, his past work history, and then we try to nail our diagnosis to his own words.

In doing that we try to differentiate between mental illness, between extremist political and religious ideas, between those who look to us like terrorists and those who look to us as something else.  Was the murderer's intention to frighten others, were his real victims not those he killed (because they were only tools) but those who watched these autopsies afterwards?  Or did he ultimately not care about his victims, not seeing them as anything but the best place to light up his fireworks or as the proper sacrifices for the vengeful war god to perform?

Our flawed and partial diagnoses often oversimplify by assigning different mass murderers different simple labels:  This one was an Islamist so his heinous deeds were motivated only by terrorism, not by mental illness, this one was someone who massacred his wife and many of her coworkers so he was motivated only by "marital or divorce disputes,"  and for this one we couldn't find any possible motive so we declare him mentally ill.

Can you see the hidden biases underlying such classifications?  The truth in most cases is likely to be more complicated:  the murderer's personal hatreds and failures, his mental fragility and despair,  feed onto the search for some wider canvas on which to paint this hatred, for the search of justifications for that hatred, however distorted they might be, and that search can lead him straight to those extremists who coddle his wrath and legitimize it in his mind.  This may well make his mental health even frailer, because the paranoid belief in some large conspiracy against him is strengthened and channeled into a particular groove of violent responses.

Not all mass murderers are the same**, of course, and no autopsy can decisively tell us what went through the killer's mind or what could have stopped him.

But note that the killer's guns tend to be left outside the autopsy room when we bend over his corpse.  A few articles ask how he managed to acquire his artillery, just as a few articles worry about the inadequacy of the mental health services, but often we are told that it is either too early or too political to talk about gun control.  Instead, we are told to pray.  Is it for better gun control that we should pray, I wonder.  Not even the slaughter of twenty little children in Newtown made much difference to the particularly American resistance to gun control.

* The three most recent examples which gave birth to this post are the Lafayette movie theater killings by John Russell Houston, the Charleston church killings by Dylann Roof (though here the killer survived) and the Chattanooga killings by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez. Note that all three of the murderers used firearms for their killings.

This site lists mass shootings in the US for 2015, so far, with more detailed links at the bottom of the page.  Many of them are what is euphemistically called domestic crimes, some are drive-by shootings, and the perpetrator is often unknown.  

**Though they are almost all men.  That is perhaps so obvious on some hind-brain level (or invisible to us in general)  that it's not even included in this article on facts about mass shootings.  Still, if women committed almost all mass murders we'd probably try to understand why such a gender difference exists.