Friday, August 10, 2012

Spree Killings: Sociological, Not Psychological

Of course the day after I leave on vacation we are hit with a spectacular spree killing (Aurora, CO), followed last week by another spree killing at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. I usually don't make it a habit of commenting on crime stories on this blog, only because there are so many of them, and only because most of the coverage of these stories begins and ends with childish analysis. But these killings have been particularly dumbfounding in the commentary they have generated.

David Brooks, who usually knows better, takes a somewhat interesting route in this column from last week, though ultimately gets his thesis backward.

[After 1913] over the next 60 years, there was about one or two of these spree killings per decade. Then the frequency of such killings began to shoot upward. There were at least nine of these rampages during the 1980s, according to history websites that track such things, including the 1982 case of a police officer in South Korea who massacred 57 people.

In the 1990s, there were at least 11 spectacular spree killings. Over the past decade, by my count, there have been at least 26 rampages. These include Robert Steinhauser's murder of 16 people in Germany, Seung-Hui Cho's murder of 32 at Virginia Tech, Anders Breivik's shooting spree at a summer camp in Norway in which 69 died, and the killing of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., last week.

And one needs to add the Sikh temple massacre here as well.
It's probably a mistake to think that we can ever know what "caused" these rampages. But when you read through the assessments that have been done by the FBI, the Secret Service and various psychologists, you see certain common motifs.

Many of the killers had an exaggerated sense of their own significance, which, they felt, was not properly recognized by the rest of the world. Many suffered a grievous blow to their self-esteem — a lost job, a divorce or a school failure — and decided to strike back in some showy way.

Many had suffered from severe depression or had attempted suicide. Many lived solitary lives, but most shared their violent fantasies with at least one person before they committed their crimes.

The killers generally felt tense before they acted but at peace and in control during the rampage. Some committed suicide when they were done. But a surprising number just gave up. They'd made the statement they wanted to make and hadn't thought about what came after.

The crucial point is that the dynamics are internal, not external. These killers are primarily the product of psychological derangements, not sociological ones.
Great post, up until that last line. It's completely sociological because internal dynamics are, after all, the result of external dynamics. Our psyches are the product of our socialization experience.

By choosing to ignore social or environmental factors, Brooks perpetuates the myth that these kinds of killings are too exceptional, too individualistic to warrant a greater societal analysis. That somehow, it's "the crazies" and what can you really do about it anyway?

And that's precisely why these kinds of killings continue unabated. By ignoring the social milieu which creates these spree killers, they continue to multiply, and the carnage continues to increase.

I will agree with Brooks on some points: mainly that the external factors which do get brought up as being factors in these killings often have little, if anything, to do with it.

Sure enough, no sooner than we found out James Holmes had dyed his hair red, we were hearing from the MSM that he thought he was the Joker, that he had spent days and days watching Batman movies, comic books caused this problem (side note: Wertham from the 1940's would have been proud of that last one), he was a video gamer, ad nauseum.

Then last week, the white supremacist who goes into the Sikh temple and kills six is branded a "product of Hatecore," and "fueled by hate driven music."

Nice and simple, isn't it? "Well, if he hadn't listened to that music, or watched the Dark Knight, or played Grand Theft Auto, none of this would have happened. It's the damn _____" fill in the blank: video game industry, Hollywood, NRA, liberal, gun nuts, music industry, etc. which cause this.

Absurd. Millions of people have watched, played or listened to these kinds of things and never go out and commit spree killings. Likewise, most gun owners and those who grow up around guns will never use them for such purposes. While the correlations are anecdotal (and simple to draw), they are certainly not causal.

By focusing on the wrong external factors, what are left with? Simplistic psychological explanations ("crazy", "he snapped", "berserk", etc.) that don't square with the facts: virtually every one of these massacres is extremely well-planned, thought out and detailed...things that are impossible for truly insane people to engage in.

Then it gets political. The worst part of the Colorado shooting was how, within hours, political hacks were on television decrying the "politicization" of the event by "the other side." Which actually politicized the issue. Then it becomes a gun v. gun control, conservatives v. liberal, Republicans v. Democrats circus, and once an issue becomes political, that's the end of any real hope that something can be done about it.

In fact, if you want to draw a sociological portrait of these killers, here it is: (from Fox & Levin's "Extreme Killings: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder"): young, white, middle class, aggrieved males. There are exceptions, of course, but the average spree killer is 27 years old, lives a complacent, non-existent middle class existence, is aggrieved for a variety of factors (jobs, status, love, power), and whose family life, when examined, is a virtual train wreck. They do not have lengthy criminal backgrounds, though they have been branded antisocial in demeanor over the years leading up to the killings.

Durkheim's Anomie summarizes spree killings, so does Merton and Agnew's General Strain Theory, Hirschi's Bond Theory, Labeling theory, and so forth. Come take a criminology course for more.

And while the random spree killings get more publicity in the media (better for the fear factor: "it could happen to anyone!") in fact over 40% of most spree killings involve family members or acquaintances. But again, this doesn't sell soap. My favorite headline from Aurora was "Are Our Movie Theaters Safe?" which misses the boat entirely.

But going into this kind of detail requires too much thought on the public's part, and too much intelligence on the media's part. It's a lot simpler to say The Joker struck, or violent music caused mass deaths. It's simple, neat, and takes only a few seconds to explain (just in time to go to commercial).

And when it happens again, we'll devolve into the same stupid explanations, and the MSM will scare us into thinking we'll be next, and we'll allow the political hacks to hijack the issue, rendering any understanding moot.

Brooks is right about one thing: "The truly disturbed have always been with us, but their outbursts are now taking more malevolent forms."

And it will happen again.

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