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.
Because acts of violence spring from the mind, and because acts of mass violence are generally seen as crazy by most people, it’s easy to conclude that any such act is a sign of mental illness — even as those who commit such acts may feel they have acted rationally. This is in fact the problem with our generic scenario, where the killer passed all mental health tests with flying colors, yet still perpetrated an act so heinous it would be characterized as insane by most. In order to resolve this ambiguity we could have long debates about what constitutes mental illness, but since the very people who are charged with making such distinctions routinely engage in rancorous, turf-protecting bureaucratic spats that seems unlikely to lead to anything more than the empaneling of yet another committee.
More expedient would be to simply agree with the proposition that committing murder is crazy, particularly given the conventional wisdom that a wide range of violent and criminal acts happen as a result of what is often termed temporary insanity. Meaning an otherwise normal, sane, law-abiding citizen — for reasons that are heavily influenced by circumstance and emotion — suddenly acts in a violent way against all apparent reason, and perhaps even against their own core beliefs. That such behavior makes no rational sense, yet seems to routinely transpire, is yet another indicator that when it comes to divining motive with precision, there will always be some uncertainty about why an act of violence occurred.
Given the established precedent, it does seem fair to conclude that committing a mass killing (including serial killings) is de facto proof of mental illness. Unfortunately, in terms of preventing such acts in the future this administrative act gets us nowhere because it only addresses the issue after the fact. Just as we cannot predict with certainty which sane individuals will go berserk, no matter how we define mental illness prior to the commission of an act of violence, at no point will we be able to show that people who meet that criteria will inevitably become murderers. We may have strong suspicions in some instances, we may see an eerie resemblance with other killers, some individuals may idolize mass murderers or openly profess a desire to kill a lot of people, but for every person who meets the criteria and goes on to commit murder we will always be able to find others who meet the criteria and do not. Worse, none of this focus on mental illness as a predictor of violence will help us prevent killings by people who show no signs of mental illness.
Once again we seem to be marvelously adept at pinpointing problems after the results are in, but woefully incapable of demonstrating any predictive ability. Intuitively it does seem we should be able to prevent tragedies by identifying individuals who are about to cross the line and go berserk, yet that isn’t the case. Declaring that an act of mass murder equals mental illness — which seems a rather obvious conclusion — implies that the act reveals some sort of preexisting mental illness that would have been wildly apparent if only mental health professionals were on the ball, yet we can’t objectively prove that assertion to be true. It sounds plausible, and if we were to allow for a certain percentage of false positives against individuals who are not a danger to anyone we might conceivably prevent a few mass killings, but in terms of being able to predict with certainty who will and will not cross the line we come up short. Even when looking closely at individuals afflicted by severe mental illness our laudable objective remains unattainable for the same reason that all attempts to predict what anyone may or may not actually do fail. No matter how we approach the question of prediction we can never, ever account for all the variables.
For example, suppose we identify a person who not only routinely fantasizes about killing dozens or even hundreds or human beings, but does so openly and communally, including indoctrinating children into those beliefs. Suppose this person has also stockpiled weapons capable of carrying out such plans, and those weapons are almost exclusively weapons of war versus weapons used for sport or hunting. Suppose we also learn that this individual has dedicated considerable time to study and training so as to be able to kill the greatest number of human beings with the greatest amount of efficiency. While it might seem that such a person is clearly insane, and would be diagnosed as such by any mental health professional, as it turns out all of this planning and practice and fantasizing has no predictive value. It may seem as if such a person would be among those most likely to go berserk and act on their recurrent if not obsessive violent fantasies, which may indeed be driven by clinical neuroses, psychoses or other recognized mental instabilities, but not all people who meet such criteria would go on to commit murder let alone mass murder. Even using criteria already established for the diagnosis of mental illnesses, it is impossible to differentiate between those who will become murderously berserk and those who are simply mentally ill — and that’s true no matter how deranged an individual may be.
Criminalizing the Mind
Because it’s frustrating not being able to protect the lives of innocents, and because there’s always the bureaucratic option of acting in the interest of public safety whether we know what we’re talking about or not, let’s imagine that we push ahead and establish mental health criteria for preventing acts of mass murder. What the specific criteria would be isn’t important, but might reasonably include indicators like preparing for, arming for and advocating for acts of violence.
Unfortunately, even if we take pains to establish the best mental health criteria possible as justification for incarcerating or committing individuals, we’d then be faced with a new problem. Having removed all of the people we deemed a threat, mass murders — to say nothing of regular temporary-insanity murders — would still occur, forcing us to refine our predictive methodology by adding new criteria. Over time, as mass murders kept occurring no matter how many criteria we included and how many people we put away, we would eventually end up incarcerating the vast majority of the population in a futile attempt to prevent people from going berserk.
As before, the crushing reality of this inevitability leaves us with three options. If we’re honest we can admit that using mental health criteria to identify people who are going to go berserk does not increase our ability to identify all or even any mass murderers before they act. On the other hand, if that requires too much integrity we can revert to historical precedent and pick on the mentally ill even though we know they’re no more likely to go berserk than people who are deemed sane. Finally, if we’re money-grubbing pigs we can turn uncertainty about where acts of violence come from into a financial windfall by asserting that the only way anyone can protect themselves from bloodthirsty crazy people is to purchase all sorts of devices for that express purpose.
Making it even easier to scapegoat the mentally ill is the fact that people who are mentally ill are assumed to be unreliable reporters, meaning we can not only accuse them of any motives we want, we can ignore anything they have to say in their own defense. Having established that even a completely honest mass murderer can tell us nothing of predictive utility, it stands to reason that questioning murderers who are mentally ill or who have a predilection for lying will also be of no value, if not lead us astray. In fact, if we do decide to turn our backs on trying to save innocent lives and either cover our own asses or make out like bandits, then the less information we have to deal with after any mass killing the better. The simpler the narrative we propose in explaining cause and effect, the more easily and eagerly it will be digested by the public, who just want to be able to sleep at night.
As a practical matter the utility of using mental health criteria to actually fight (rather than explain) acts of mass violence is complicated by the fact that every American has the constitutionally protected right to say whatever they want to say without regard to veracity or sanity. If you want to rail against the government itself and advocate for its overthrow you can do so with impunity provided you don’t break any laws. It doesn’t matter whether you’re sane or insane, serious about committing treason or simply running your mouth: until you pull the metaphorical if not literal trigger on your grand designs you cannot be silenced. Unless, that is, you belong to a special group of citizens who are not classified as mentally ill, but who are universally recognized as having a hard time thinking rationally. So much so, in fact, that many basic rights that are afforded to most citizens are denied to members of that group as a matter of law.
We are of course talking about children, who, by dint of their still-developing brains and minds cannot reasonably be expected to — or allowed to — make decisions that adults can and must make. For example, if you’re under the age of eighteen and want to stockpile weapons and advocate for the overthrow of your government that will probably get you in serious trouble at school if not also with the local authorities, whereas doing so when you’re an adult is constitutionally protected speech. Because of this inequity children come with many of the same built-in presumptions we have ascribed to the mentally ill, meaning we don’t have to actually account for their actions when they go berserk either. Instead, we can simply assign motives as we see fit, including exploiting the common belief that children are cuddly and adorable unless negatively influenced.
While picking on kids may seem as pathetic as picking on the mentally ill, both groups allow adults to avoid confronting their individual and cultural culpability in acts of senseless violence, which is infinitely preferable to either owning up to shared responsibility or admitting impotence in the matter. Still, it is true that children often have trouble making good decisions because their brains are not yet fully formed, to say nothing of the relative dearth of real-world experience they have to draw from. Like the mentally ill, it may be that children are at risk of being influenced by factors that sane adults would be able to ignore or resist, and if that’s the case we should certainly see if there are any such factors that correlate with murderous rage in kids. Whether such factors have any predictive utility is another question, but because we’re all responsible for raising kids right — or at least always on the lookout for a good excuse so we don’t have to make any changes ourselves — it seems prudent to err on the side of caution.
— Mark Barrett