December 15, 2012


Filed under: Psychology and Politics — psychpol @ 5:25 pm

We have witnessed yet another act of horrific violence against the innocent, this time elementary school children in Connecticut and adults who educated them.

A few days ago, it was a shopping mall in Oregon near the area where Santa Claus greeted children. And before that, it was a movie theater in Colorado where people had simply gone to enjoy a new film release. And before that, it was a workplace shooting in California by an employee who had been terminated.

And before that, and before that…

For the latest slaughter of the innocents, the media dutifully reported the tragedies, and even informed us as to where the killing ranked in terms of number of victims.

Like a stat sheet in sports.

The president appeared on TV, reading a statement and showing tears. This was seen by many as a great act of leadership.

The various agencies came on TV and talked about their cooperation and what a good job everyone did.

We heard the “thoughts and prayers” line repeated by many officials. Very somber, very concerned.

We have had much analysis already about what could have caused such madness. The gun control people blame it on guns. Some pundits blame it on the culture of violence. Others blame it on a mental disorder on the part of the killer.

It has become a familiar drill to us, with a kind of numbing effect, unless the horror is even more vicious and incomprehensible than the previous one, as in the latest school massacre. Then it registers somewhere in our soul.

After all, who can’t identify with losing a sweet little child, sitting there terrified as their lives are destroyed by utter madness, if not evil? And in the Christmas season, no less.

More hearts are broken, lives forever lost or ruined and the culture degraded yet another notch downward.

How do we understand this increase in random, vicious violence in our country?

Although the first attack on a school occurred in 1926, and the murder rate in America has declined 50% in the last 30 years, such crimes did not happen with such heartlessness in the past. They are now fairly commonplace.

Here are some factors that the author believes are causes of the violence. As we all try to make sense of this, we must understand the causes in order to remedy them.

First, we address the personal characteristics and mental health status of the killer.

In the current case, we have learned that the murderer had been diagnosed with Autistic Disorder (perhaps Asperger’s Syndrome) and a Personality Disorder. This is a somewhat unusual combination of diagnoses.

It is not clear who made it, or if their qualifications were adequate to do so. In the mental health world, many “diagnose” others without adequate training. The best bet is always a diagnosis offered by a Psychiatrist or Clinical Psychologist, both mental health doctors.

Mental health terms are casually tossed around these days, for example in media forums, by those who have no training in this area. So, we are sure to hear from various “experts” holding forth.

Currently, we don’t know the validity of these diagnoses, what the killer’s treatment history might have been,  if violent tendencies had been identified, and, if so, what precautions may have been taken. We do know that persons with Autistic Disorders are no more violent than the general population.

The same is not true for certain mental disorders such as paranoid schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric illnesses. But most of these mass killers do not qualify as legally insane, although most would use that term to describe their actions.

Those that do qualify for that legal status by virtue of a mental disorder demonstrate inability to understand the difference between right and wrong, as well as inability to form an intent to commit the crime.

There are exceptions involving mass violence killers, with the movie shooter in Colorado apparently entering a preliminary plea of Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity. However, most have carefully planned their assault on the innocent, intending to commit mass murder.

So we look to the murderer and their mental characteristics as one possible cause of their actions.

Second, since these crimes were committed with guns, controlling guns must be both the problem and the answer.

This is a favorite argument for anti-gun advocates. It is the fault of the gun, in this recent case, three weapons owned by the killer’s mother. She was his first victim.

The notion involves the gun doing the killing, and if we could eliminate this, all would be better. It is like saying that a fork causes obesity, because the individual uses that as a vehicle for excessive food consumption.

And, there are several million gun owners and people with access to guns in America. Almost none act out in this way, although guns are available to millions right at this moment.

However, criminals who have guns have a higher probability of using them in a crime. In the city of Chicago, for example, the murder rate is one of the highest in the world, especially among young African-Americans and Hispanics. And Illinois, until recently, had outlawed concealed weapons on a statewide basis.

Washington DC, also known for high crime rates, has experienced a decline in violent crime since the ban on handgun ownership was overturned by the courts, In fact, many of the slaughters we are witnessing have occurred in states with the most stringent gun control laws, like Colorado and Connecticut.

In a very literal sense, however, a gun is one of the causes of this type of mass violence.

Third, we are living in an increasingly violent culture.

Media such as film, video, Internet downloads, music and other imagery does provide a consistent context of violence in America. Our children are often saturated with this kind of input from a very early age, depending on how conscientious a parent might be in terms of restricting access.

Studies have clearly shown modeling effects for viewers of violence, particularly children. This simply means that the likelihood of imitative acting out is increased in kids who view such material on a repeated basis.

Other studies have shown higher rates of physiological arousal in children who witness violent imagery, particularly when it is used to “solve” a life problem. The child may learn this strategy and implement it in their own lives. The real, human consequences of such behavior on others are typically not portrayed in media. You know, time for a commercial break. Got to move on.

The media industry will trot out their paid liars, either lawyers of public relations types, to “question” such findings. They have even developed a rating system which is supposed to guide viewer access by age.  So, such violent imagery is OK for adults, or kids over 14, or whomever?

But reputable scientists understand the negative effects of violent imagery on development and behavior, both in kids and adults.

There is no question about it. No issue as to such media causing more violent behavior.

Fourth, there is a powerful new media revolution underway in America.

This involves electronic devices such as computers,  smart phones, video games, tablets etc. It is said that these things help us stay “connected.” This is hailed as a great social breakthrough, and there are valuable applications using such technology. Hardly anyone would question that.

But it is useful to consider what the unintended social impacts might be.

For example, emerging research using functional neuroimaging techniques, shows that such devices, like any activity,  produce activation in specific brain centers. In fact, those centers, if repeatedly exercised, may display increased volume. More brain cells may accumulate through a little understood process called neurogenesis.

They become preferred and well-developed brain centers for the person.  They will tend to dominate the person’s activities because they are the most efficient brain areas for that individual. We do what works best for our brains.

It also means that other areas of the brain are underused during such activities because electronic media do not require their use. 

For example, centers in the brain that generate social empathy, the ability to feel for others, may become diminished in media users, particularly those who spend much time doing these activities.

The Connecticut shooter, a 20-year-old, is described as a “computer genius.”

And many of these crimes involve publishing one’s “writings” regarding violent plans and intentions on the Internet, today’s preferred forum for such announcements.

Such killers are usually very involved in electronic media, socially isolated, withdrawn, etc.  Lots of computer time. Not much people time.

So, we wonder about the effects of significant use on brain development, as well as squashing social functions such as empathy for others.

After all, these victims, even sweet children, seem to be nothing but two-dimensional objects to be “eliminated.” The killer is usually silent and does not display rage. The Portland shooter was described as “having death in his eyes.”

Furthermore, violent electronic media can objectify and trivialize such actions, portraying the demise of game victims as a brief electronic event, often accompanied by some kind of sound effect, and even a point score.

Though the author is not a video gamer, why is one game called ” Angry Birds,” not “Loving Birds” or “Sweet Creatures Who Fly?” Are birds really that angry?

We all intuitively know about violent media. For chronic, habitual users, the world and one’s internal emotional life may become deadened. And other human beings may cease to have real feelings, dreams, loved ones and depth of humanity. To eliminate them is like pushing a button, or simply pulling the trigger.

Maybe their screams don’t even seem real to the murderer. Just another sound effect. Their sobs, their agony, their terror. Does the killer count the victims?

We are in fact creating more Digital Creatures in our society, emotionally deadened people who may act out violently to gain some kind of internal sensation in an attempt to feel something.

Or perhaps to psychologically incorporate the victims into the killer’s deadened, internal life. Like the depressed parent, who in order to “save” their children “from this world” murders them.

The fifth factor pertains to a cultural shift promoting the self-centered acting out of base impulses.

Shame, morality and social restraint, potent social glues that once bound us together as people, are out of fashion’.  “If it feels good  just do it!”

This trend began in the 1960’s and has now become deeply ingrained in our culture. It is profitable. It makes the purveyors rich and famous.

Ask the ACLU lawyers who defend this “right” to free expression in improbable social circumstances. Such paid advocates are apologists for those who promote a lack of social responsibility. It’s the bottom line, baby!

In fact, politicos who bemoan such tragedies as the massacre of children gladly take millions of dollars from the cultural degraders in order to maintain power.

Look at our current president and other ” leaders. ” They may show tears and apparent concern after a tragedy, but they are part of the problem, failing to provide the moral leadership that we need to fortify social restraint. Why don’t they say no to blood money from Hollywood and other violence pimps?

Where are their speeches on parenting, fathers abandoning their offspring, illegitimacy, crime, violence and concern for others? This could help some of us question our lives and the choices we are making, perhaps strengthening the country’s moral climate.

Such “leaders” are hypocrites of the highest order, and part of the problem.

As another cultural issue, some mass killers speak of or have left notes regarding their wish to be “famous” murderers. Just plain famous. Morality was not a concern for them.

Regarding this issue in the general adolescent population, the single highest rated goal for high school kids in several surveys was to be “famous.” But just not for doing anything in particular like curing cancer, helping humanity, etc.

Furthermore, all manner of human behavior is available on the Internet, some of it positive and some of it degraded. Does anyone think kids can not easily access amoral imagery? Does anyone think it doesn’t degrade morality?

Or one can watch “reality” TV programming involving base behaviors and lack of restraint by ignorant, psychologically unbalanced people. Or some professional celebrity’s sex tape or arrest events. Or a personal confession of intimate life details on a talk show or in print media.

We can even watch people fall and hit their heads, and hear the audience laugh. No one ever asks the person shown in the video image if it hurt, did they require medical attention, or are there aftereffects from the injury.

What’s left to do so you can feel something?  What’s next to catch a glimpse of being alive in the world?

The book, “Fifty Shades of Gray” reportedly extols the virtues of sadomasochistic sexual acts as a desirable goal. Given the emotional and spiritual deadening in our culture, its popularity is not surprising.

Objectification of the pain and suffering of others, and its association with personal gratification, represents a powerful shift away from the social bonds that should unite us as empathic human beings caring for one another.

More and more people are angry. More and more will act out that anger. Someone has to be blamed. If I lose my job, I will “take you with me.” I will get a lawyer and sue you. You have offended and wronged me. You must pay. It is not I who is personally responsible for what happens in my life. It is you!

I am entitled to _______(fill in the blank). I am special because I am me!

It is the Republicans, the Democrats, the Rich, those who are different from me. They must be punished…The innocent babies.

And so, the ocean in which we all swim has become quite polluted. It may serve to activate the most disturbed among us to perpetrate violence against the purest and truly innocent.

Combine the amoral cultural context, mental disorder, electronic deadening of human feeling, availability of guns and other factors discussed here , and we create violent monsters that reflect what we have become as a society.

We are all attempting to understand the complexity of factors that may be involved in these mass murders. While mass murder is not new, the author believes the recent spate of such crimes brings to light a unique social context that is activating such behavior within a very disturbed group of our people.

We must understand the problem, as well as potential solutions, and have the will to recognize and confront both. We must prevent such terrible, heart breaking events, and the loss of those who will forever be gone from our midst.

For this moment, our outrage is an important reminder, as is extending our hearts to those who are suffering so terribly, and will be for the forseeable future. The parents, the siblings, the spouses, the families, the community.

There will never be closure and complete healing for them. Never.


1 Comment »

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