This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.
The Killer’s Motive
Fortuitously, not only do we happen to know that the mass murderer we have in custody is guilty beyond any possible doubt, but because the killer is still alive, has waived counsel, has been deemed lucid by a battery of experts representing every conceivable psychological and psychiatric discipline, and is articulate and willing to answer any of our questions — which they will always respond to honestly due to an incurable compulsion for telling the truth — we will not, as we must when a murderer is dead, insane, or less than truthful, have to guess as to motive. Indeed, after a protracted interrogation we have extracted all the information we possibly can from the murderer, and at first blush it does seem as if we understand what the killer was thinking. As heartless and unconscionable as their behavior was, we can see a certain internal logic to their decision making. Even better, not only do we find no loose ends or inconsistencies in their statements, but when we look at similar crimes perpetrated by other murderers we see some factors that seem to correlate with such violent acts. Included are various forms of entertainment which demonstrate or dramatize violence eerily similar to the violence our killer unleashed, further tightening the apparent correlation between motive and murder.
In the end we are convinced that we understand why a dozen people were killed, and we are hopeful that this information might aid us in preventing such tragedies in the future. Unfortunately, the night before we are to turn in our findings we find ourselves in a dingy bar having drinks with a couple of strangers, and as the conversation wends its way toward dawn we discover to our horror that one of the people we are talking with shares not only the same perceptions of the world as our incarcerated killer, but they play the same violent computer games and watch the same violent movies and listen to the same enraged music. The overlap is so complete — so eerily exact — that in a moment of foggy panic we have the bar patron arrested on a trumped-up charge because we are convinced they must also have killed a dozen people.
As it turns out, however, the patron not only has no criminal history, they have an airtight alibi across the entirety of their life, leaving no possibility that they committed any crimes, let alone homicides. By every available metric they are indistinguishable from our killer, yet they have not killed anyone. While we can’t shake the feeling that the bar patron may at any minute go berserk, that unease pales in comparison to the devastating realization that some critical information is obviously missing from the motive both we and the killer ascribed to the killer’s actions. Where we thought we knew why a dozen people were dead, it turns out there is at least one other person in the world for whom all the relevant factors hold true who has not committed a crime, meaning we do not actually know what caused the killer to kill.
As an anecdotal test we run our analysis of the killer’s motive by a hundred people, explaining it step by step, and to a person they all agree we must be right. Yet we know we are not right because that same combination of environmental and personal factors applies to the bar patron as well. The motives we’re attributing to the killer sound plausible and reasonable and compelling to everyone, yet we know there is another person in the world — who has not killed anyone — for whom all of our purported causal attributions apply. Which leaves us with a choice to make, and because we have a conscience it’s a choice that makes us extremely uncomfortable.
Reconciling Uncertainty and Motive
What we have learned is not simply disturbing, it is destabilizing. No matter how much we know about someone who commits a horrible act of violence, we can never reduce the motive for their behavior to a determinative set of factors. No matter how forthcoming a perpetrator is, no matter how much data we gather, no matter how plausible our conclusion seems, there will always be someone in the world who meets the same criteria and thinks the same way but has not acted violently.
In coming to terms with this fact — and it is, literally a fact — we realize we must choose one of three courses of action. If we are scrupulously honest and sincerely interested in understanding how the issue of motive can and cannot be used to prevent violence in the future, then we have no choice but to acknowledge that some measure of uncertainty will always be present. With study we may discover that some factors correlate with an increased likelihood of violence when viewed across large populations — a history of having been abused as a child, say, or, being young, male and drunk — but in no case will we ever be able to conclude with certainty that one factor or constellation of factors necessarily caused or will cause a particular person to become violent.
If we are unnerved by this reality, and particularly if it conflicts with the view of reality we prefer to hold, we may choose to ignore the fact that we can never know with certainty why anyone did or will do anything. In fact, because accepting chaos as a companion in life has often proven untenable to the human mind, it shouldn’t surprise us that a percentage of the population will always insist that motives can be clearly understood — or that some people, despite having no factual evidence to support their assertions, will steadfastly affirm that they themselves do know why someone became violent in a particular instance. To the extent that inventing or attributing motive may allow people to distance themselves from cultural culpability or the fear that they too might be the victim of a random act of violence it’s hard not to have some sympathy for the decision to deny reality, but in the end it’s still a denial of reality.
The third option, if we are morally bankrupt, is to profit from the unnerving uncertainty inherent in questions of motive. Depressingly, here we find not a small flock of diseased vultures picking away at the corpses of murder victims, but entire industries devoted to doing so. Unfortunately, opportunities for such exploitation are as endless as the desire to understand the motives that spur acts of violence. Worse, while we’re stuck with one ugly truth — that we can never know, irreducibly, what caused someone to kill or commit any crime or perform any act or elect not to perform any act — there are two ways our uncertainty can be exploited for profit.
If your believe — or want others to believe — that an act of violence was motivated by some particular factor, you will always be able to assert a causal connection without ever running the risk of being proven false. The most anyone can say in reply is that you cannot prove the truth of your statements, but because that ushers in the concept of chaos, and most people abhor the very idea of chaos, there will always be more people willing to believe your unprovable explanation than will ever understand the nature of your deception. Whether you are a politician, propagandist, industrialist or other interested stakeholder, you will be able to convince some people, if not the majority, that a given factor might be at fault simply by raising the possibility. If you arm yourself with quasi-scientific statistics that merely show, at best, a correlation between the motive you cite and the act committed, your case will seem even stronger, lending further credence among people who are easily deceived or, because of their fear of uncertainty, looking for any plausible explanation to cling to.
Conversely, if a charge of culpability is leveled at you or some stakeholder you represent — meaning you are accused of motivating an act of violence — you will always be able to deny such charges without ever running the risk that such assertions can be proven true. (By true I mean both true as a factual matter and true as a legal standard beyond reasonable doubt.) No matter how heavily you may have factored into a murderer’s decision to kill, there will always be other factors that contributed to the killer’s actions, some of which will never be known. That means not only can you not be held responsible — because of course you didn’t kill anyone — but it can’t even be shown that you contributed to anyone’s death because you will always be able to point to individuals who did not go berserk after being subjected to your purportedly decisive influence. As a result you will be able to continue doing whatever you’re doing with impunity, even if it can be shown that what you’re doing correlates with an increased likelihood that people will commit murder or other heinous crimes.
Despite what appear to be valid appeals to science from both sides, there will never be a time when any motive can be scientifically shown to be responsible for or predictive of who will and will not go berserk. As you might expect, most of the parties to such mercenary debates about the root cause of an act of violence opt to profit by one means or the other — either by making accusations that can never be proved or denying accusations that can never be proved — but not both. There is one sanctimonious industry however, which routinely and deftly plays both sides against the middle, and makes a great deal of money doing so.
— Mark Barrett