The mind of the mass murderer

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James Holmes
James Holmes, the Batman killer of the Colorado theater.

We’ve all been attuned to mass killings in the US lately. The names James Eagan Holmes, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, Dylann Storm Roof,  Aaron Alexis, John Zawahri, and Adam Lanza may not exactly roll off the tongue. In fact, we may prefer to entomb them in oblivion and not resurrect them at all. But whether we remember them or not, they are there, in oblivion and latency also.

The mass killings in Paris this weekend only serve to remind us that terror exists on many fronts, geographical, psychological, and ideological.

Terror begins at home, in the minds of each of us individually, and the more we tolerate violence and promote it in our own lives the more we promote it everywhere, consciously or not.

I’ve been researching the mind of the mass murderer and finding all sorts of fascinating things. From Psychology Today to Freudian treatises, students of this problem have tried to descry what makes a mass murderer a mass murderer.

One illuminating article, by James L Knoll IV, MD, suggests that the mass murderer, or “pseudocommando[,] is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated. He views himself as carrying out a highly personal agenda of payback. Some mass murderers take special steps to send a final communication to the public or news media….”

These communications may be among the most interesting phenomena in connection with the commandos, for they reveal their unreal sense of grievance and despair. The world has wronged them — them and their narcissistic egos. And now comes payback time, when they will be revealed in their full glory and true potency.

Isn’t this same thing happening, on a larger, ideological scale in the Middle East? Islamists, who have been told from birth that Islam is the one true religion, the only way of making sense of the world, are assaulted on all sides by signs of the progress of the West. The vaunted West with our material superiority, our secular values, our libidinal and other pleasures on full display in the media. (Our women, our whiskey, our song.)

Adam Gopnik, in a piece in The New Yorker, attributes the attack on Paris especially to radical Islamists’ desire to attack our capital of pleasure. An ISIS communique boasts, “Targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity . . . Paris shook under [the attackers’] feet, and its streets were tight upon them.”

How dare they enjoy themselves, these white young men and women while we sit back in the shadows of our ideology and stew? We don’t exist, in comparison. We are nothing. Nothing if not nihilists. We kill, and only then and therefore, in the potency of destruction, we are.

To return to Dr. Knoll, the mass murderer experiences “revenge fantasies … inflexible and persistent because they provide desperately needed sustenance to his self-esteem. He is able to feel better by gaining a sense of (pseudo) power and control by ruminating on, and finally planning out his vengeance….. fantasies may lead the avenger to ‘experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the side of some spiritual primal justice.’”

Yes, he who in the face of Western pleasure willy-nilly suffers anhedonia is able to achieve pleasure — indeed, a kind of orgasm of meaning and potency — only in the death of those he kills and, since he too is likely to perish, in his own death.

Individual and ideological mass murderers merge in this portrait. Whether a failure by personal fault or ideology, or both, the murderer is impotent … until, he thinks, he kills.


2 thoughts on “The mind of the mass murderer

    1. Thanks, Jane. I think that the personalities of the individual and ideological murderer reflect and complement each other. That is, the radical islamist feels personal as well as cultural failure, while the lone wolf murderer in the US feels that society is against him. Both killers, individual and ideological, are motivated by a kind of paranoia: someone or some things, understood only dimly and distortedly, are out to get them.

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