Last week in a quiet suburban community, it happened again: another murder-suicide. This time the murder was not only on a mass scale scale but also most of the victims were very young children. And once again, good people everywhere were outraged and asked themselves how such things can happen and why they appear to be happening with alarming regularity.
Long before the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, I had been getting emails and other requests for me to comment on these kinds of incidents and how they might relate to the character crisis I so often write about. Such requests increased right after the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide just a few weeks ago, which prompted me to write an article that was featured on a highly popular international blog (see: A Different Perspective on Murder-Suicide). That article addressed the all too common murders (occasionally accompanied by suicide) that arise out of domestic conflicts. And I was preparing a similar article for this blog on the same topic when the incident at Sandy Hill Elementary School took place. So, after some research and careful contemplation, I’ve decided to use this forum to address the deluge of mail I’ve gotten from folks seeking some understanding and curious about my point of view.
Criminal justice “profilers” cite three main types of perpetrators of events such as the one that occurred last week. The first type of individual who commits such crimes is likely to have a serious mental illness that impairs their capacity to judge right from wrong and predisposes them to irrational and, occasionally, violent acts. For example, a person suffering from a paranoid delusion might think that demons have taken over a loved one’s body and the only way to “free” them from this possession is to take their life. Irrational and tragic, such a scenario is not the act of a wanton, heartless killer, but rather the result of a diseased and deranged mind. Fortunately, such scenarios are extremely rare. But they are both hard to predict and difficult to prevent for a variety of reasons (not the least of which are the well-intended but nonetheless problematic restrictions we’ve imposed on both our legal and mental health care systems) too numerous to discuss in this essay. The second type of perpetrator is the sadistic psychopath (alt: sociopath) who has no conscience and who not only possesses an appetite to prey on others but also enjoys and relishes in the injuries and suffering inflicted on victims. Such folks are far more dangerous than the first group because they not only know what they’re doing but also are often intelligent and cunning enough to carefully plan their sordid acts in a way to get away with them for quite some time before being caught. Again, fortunately this is a relatively small group but still a significant and particularly dangerous one. Lastly, there are those folks some mental health professionals call “angry depressives” who are in stressful circumstances and are as mad at the world as they are at themselves for the predicament and seek to ease their pain by lashing out. While many think they end up killing themselves because they not only have some kind of death wish but also can’t live with themselves after they’ve actually victimized others, I find it most interesting that these folks most often seem to stop their killing and take their own lives just when authorities are closing in or it otherwise appears that the jig is up.
None of the profilers talk about those particularly possessive aggressive personalities who have to win at all costs, regard their partners and children as their personal property, and when they sense they are losing the battle for control decide that if they’re going down they’ll take the ones they perceive as responsible for their loss with them. As I mention in both Character Disturbance, and In Sheep’s Clothing, I’ve seen this kind of scenario play out all too often.
It’s in the very nature of the conscientious among us to not only be horrified by the events such as those that occurred in Newtown, Columbine, Tucson, Portland, etc. but also to want to do whatever we can to prevent similar future acts of violence. And it’s perfectly understandable that we ask questions about our gun laws, the effects of violent video games, the glorification of violence, sex, and drugs in the entertainment industry, and the various aspects of our culture that might contribute to the problem we obviously have. But while I have no problem with looking at all these factors, I’m dismayed by the lack of attention being given the most critical common factor: far too many individuals among us enter adolescence and adulthood without having developed the internal controls necessary to adequately regulate their behavior, and especially, to modulate their violent impulses under duress. Other countries have the video games. Many even have more raucous TV and movie content. And even some places that have liberal gun ownership laws don’t see the kind of violence that occurs every second of every minute of every day here in America. Clearly, there’s something else going on. For one reason or another, something about the way we’re doing things here does not allow folks to develop sufficient character to responsibly self-regulate and cope. And it’s not just reflected in the cases of extreme violence. It’s reflected in all the ways we deal with one another.
I don’t profess to have all the answers. In fact, I don’t think I have many of them at all. But I think I have something to say about the truly important questions we should be asking. For me, the really big question is why so many of us lack the scruples and internal controls to create a culture that is more united, cooperative, and above all, civil and safer. One place we might look is in the way we shape character in the formative years, especially with our discipline methods. This is particularly important because some young persons (such as the Newtown shooter) come to the “socialization process” with some unique and daunting challenges. And I’m not convinced that some of our modern methods are all they’re cracked up to be. While I’m certainly not nostalgic about the days when most discipline came with the swat of a hickory switch, I find one thing very curious about some of our present, more benign methods. I can illustrate this best with an example: My young grandson is so well-versed in the discipline methods to which he’s been exposed at home and at preschool that he will now promptly put himself in time out right after he pushes his sister down to wrestle a toy out of her hand. But the fact that he anticipates the consequence and is willing to accept it but still does not STOP himself from engaging in the behavior in the first place is troubling. It reflects the lack of internalization of control. And I have seen this inhibition weakness or failure play out countless times in the lives of many young persons and adults, many of whom feel horrible after the fact when they let themselves do what they know they shouldn’t but still don’t have the internal controls to stop themselves before they act up (please notice: I did not say “act-out”). For discipline to really be a success in building character, it has to actually equip someone with the internal controls they need to avoid destructive behavior. This is especially true when stress mounts to the point where even a reasonable person feels tempted to kill someone. So, where I think we need to be really looking for answers is in this character-shaping process. We need to carefully examine how effective our rearing practices really are, how well we’re really doing at instilling character and controls, and do a much better job of identifying early on those individuals who, as a result of developmental arrests, traumatic experience, gross neglect, or various other reasons, don’t appear to be responding well enough to our socialization efforts to lead a responsible, self-disciplined life. And we need to take an even more serious look at the institutional structures we’ve put in place to deal with individuals whose level of socialization is dangerously lacking.
Perhaps I haven’t done the most eloquent job making the points I wanted to make here, but perhaps it can spur some good discussion. Like most everyone, I’m still reeling from the events of last week. But the crises we’re experiencing these days on an all-too-regular basis were a long time in the making. And there’s enough blame to go around. Hopefully, a fair, open, and honest discussion will ensue about the issues. But if I were a betting man, I’d bet that a lot more attention will go where I believe it shouldn’t. We will delude ourselves into thinking that restrictive laws, more institutional safety precautions, etc. will keep our children and each other safe. We will forget that we live in an age where it won’t be long before a twisted mind gleans information off the internet on how to make a small nuclear device or unleash a deadly agent made from household chemicals. And we won’t focus enough attention on what we really need to do to be sure the members of our society develop the character and controls to cope with stress effectively and interact with the rest of us without posing a threat. And because that fact scares me more than anything else, I’ll keep writing about the phenomenon of our age.