Psychopaths And Mass Violence: The Ideological Component

There's going to be a lot of finger-pointing and hand-wringing in the coming days as we begin to process the awful tragedy that unfolded early this morning in Aurora, Colorado. In particular, it seems that right-wingers are eager to point fingers and are being hypersensitive about any suggestion of right-wing politics being even remotely involved in this case.

Of course, one of the foremost facets of events like these is that premature speculation is almost always wrong. It's wisest to let the facts emerge first, at which time we can begin making a rational appraisal of the event and its underlying causes. (We will, of course, be keeping a close eye on just what is in those "items of interest" found in the home of the suspect, James Eagan Holmes, since that will tell us a great deal.)

Unlike a lot of the talking heads out there, though, it seems silly to run and hide from the political dimensions of these kinds of tragedies, especially when it comes some of the broader social ramifications, most notably the role of the mass proliferation of handguns in American society that's occurred in recent years. Just ask folks in Seattle if that conversation isn't already under way here.

As Michael Grunwald says, there are always political dimensions to cases like this, and it's absurd not to deal with them forthrightly -- once, at least, the dust begins to settle and the facts begin to emerge.

Still, there are things that are clear even at the outset. Regardless of any ideological affiliation the Aurora gunman may have had (and I will at least observe that stockpiling armaments and bomb-making materiel is not usually the provenance of liberals, but is very common indeed among NRA-ginned-up gun nuts), one thing we can almost say definitively, given the cold brutality of the rampage, is that it seems highly likely that Holmes is either mentally ill or a psychopath.

Of course, mental illness has been cropping up as a factor in these tragic rampages, most notably in the Tucson rampage of Jared Loughner. Unfortunately, this seems to stop any and all further conversation of the subject, as though insanity is some kind of random X-factor that renders the acts of the insane utterly meaningless. This is, of course, an obscene cop-out.

However, given the skill and care with which Holmes clearly planned out this rampage and its aftermath (particularly in booby-trapping his own apartment), it seems far more likely that what we're dealing with here is a psychopath.

It's important to keep in mind that psychopaths are not mentally ill in any clinical sense. They are distinctly twisted individuals, but their warped personalities do not incapacitate them or render them incapable of comprehending reality.

What we're talking about here is known clinically is an "antisocial personality disorder," which, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is the category that earns one the label of "psychopath" or "sociopath" (the distinction between these two lying in whether the symptoms originate from the subject's innate nature or with his environment, or some combination of both). Its symptoms include "a longstanding pattern … of disregard for the rights of others. There is a failure to conform to society's norms and expectations that often results in numerous arrests or legal involvement as well as a history of deceitfulness where the individual attempts to con people or use trickery for personal profit. Impulsiveness is often present, including angry outbursts, failure to consider consequences of behaviors, irritability, and/or physical assaults."

Dr. Robert Hare, a University of British Columbia psychologist, compiled a checklist of the major traits of psychopathy in the 1990s (since revised modestly) that has become a major tool for clinicians and law-enforcement officers in dealing with the depredations of psychopaths in the past decade and longer. Hare's checklist has played a major role in investigations into such noteworthy crimes as the Columbine High School massacre and the Green River Killer case.

He cites two key factors: a personality built on "aggressive narcissism," and a "socially deviant lifestyle". The traits of the first factor include a glibness and superficial charm; a grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; cunning and manipulative behavior; a lack of remorse or guilt; shallow affect in their interpersonal relations, in which genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric; a callousness and lack of empathy; and a failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions.

A psychopath's case history manifests a "socially deviant lifestyle" if it demonstrates a need for stimulation and a proneness to boredom; a parasitic lifestyle, sponging off the work of others; poor behavioral control; a lack of realistic long-term goals; impulsivity; irresponsibility; juvenile delinquency; and early behavior problems. Other traits, uncorrelated to either of the two chief factors, include promiscuous sexuality; many short-term marital relationships; and criminal versatility.

The likely presence of a central psychopathic player in this case brings to mind another great national tragedy that occurred in Colorado: the 1999 killing rampage of two teenage boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, at Columbine High School, in which 13 people died and another 21 were injured. As Dave Cullen explored at length in his remarkable study of the incident, Columbine, the conclusion of investigators was that Eric Harris was a cold-blooded psychopath, while Dylan Klebold likely suffered from a personality disorder, but he played a key role in enabling Harris's massacre plans.

There was no obvious ideological component in that rampage, either -- Harris was a psychopath who just hated the world and wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, and Klebold was his willing enabler. And that may well turn out to be the case here.

But that does not mean that there is never an ideological component when a psychopath perpetrates some horrendous tragedy, either. Indeed, certain right-wing movements are highly prone to attracting psychopaths and mentally ill, unstable personalities, because their rhetoric and appeals so closely replicate the discontents of these people's interior lives.

The classic case of this is nativist border-watch movement, which crumbled under its own weight with the unholy host of angry, dysfunctional personalities that were naturally attracted to its ranks -- embodied, ultimately, by the convicted child killer Shawna Forde.

The rhetoric of the Minutemen and their related nativist organizations – including, nowadays, the Tea Party – appealed to psychopaths like Shawna Forde and Jason Bush because it reflected so much of their interior psyches, and moreover provided an irresistible opportunity for grandiose self-inflation and validation. Minuteman rhetoric often reflected the very traits of personality disorders, particularly in its political mindset, which sought to blame weak and helpless (contemptibly so, from the nativist view) Others for their own, often self-inflicted, national problems. It was frequently grandiose, particularly in its claims to be preventing terrorist attacks and its larger claims to be in the act of "saving America"; it indulged a marked propensity to lie and dispense false information, ranging from Glenn Spencer's "Ebola" rumor and "Reconquista" claims to Chris Simcox's bogus "border fence" scam to Jim Gilchrist's bathetic, and ultimately futile, attempts to distance himself from Shawna Forde. The Minutemen also frequently distorted facts, if it did not falsify them, in order to manipulate public sentiment, and they did so remorselessly. Most of all, despite occasional lip service to the plight of immigrants, the Minutemen's rhetoric was profoundly lacking in empathy for the targets of their ire; indeed, the more callous and cold-hearted the remark, the more widely it was circulated. If ever there was a movement tailored to recruit and promote psychopaths, it was the Minutemen.

We'll have to wait and see what motivated James Holmes to open fire on a theater full of innocent moviegoers. But if he turns out to be a psychopath with an unholy attachment to some right-wing ideology, it will not really be surprising. Indeed, it will be all too familiar, all too predictable.

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