Why Do Mass Murderers Murder?

On the 8th of August, 2019, The New York Times ran an OpEd piece by psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman as part of their response to the pair of horrific mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton this week.  Dr. Friedman’s premise — contrary to the narrative being pushed by the political Right, that such events are largely the result of mental illness — was that mass shooters are not generally mentally ill; that, in his closing words, the next mass killer we hear about “may be as sane as you or me.”  Alas, the headline the NYT editors chose to place on the article made a subtly different claim — not that mass killers may be as sane as you or me but that they “May Not Be Very Different From You or Me,” as if the only possible difference between the few people who murder others on a grand scale and the vast majority of us, who do not, lies in the question of our “sanity”.  And, to be fair, although he didn’t use the precise words from the headline, Dr. Friedman opined that “ordinary human hatred and aggression are far more dangerous than any psychiatric illness,” implying what the headline writers made explicit: that such acts are simply not that far removed from the “ordinary” emotional landscape we all share.

I agree with Dr. Friedman (and disagree with much of the rhetoric from the political Right) about the role of mental illness, per se, in such events.  But I disagree that there is anything “ordinary” in the degree to which these killers allow their hatred and aggression to override any and all gentler urges.  My position on guns and gun control is fairly complicated and conflicted (I spent 19 pages over two chapters in my book on conservatism talking about guns, specifically, and about violence, generally), but one thing that seems clear to me is that we have, in America, a generalized problem of violent behavior, not merely a specific problem of violence committed with guns — and that the problem of violence is more a matter of spirit than of mind.

Responses to the article were, predictably, mostly in the manner of a debate over whether or not Dr. Friedman was right in his assessment; over whether “hate” is or is not, in and of itself, a form of mental illness; and, of course, over whether any of that mattered given that the proximate and controllable factor in mass shootings was guns.

I felt someone needed to stand up for the notion that what we are seeing is a moral crisis, not a psychological one — and that the moral basis for that crisis is not a partisan affair.  My posted response at the NYT web-site is available here; it is also reproduced below.

8 August 2019

What most mass murderers — and, for that matter, ordinary murderers — share is a form of solipsism, a mental landscape in which other people have no innate value but exist, rather, merely as props to facilitate the action in the murderer’s own self-scripted and self-focused drama.

That would appear to be the result of a moral disease, not a psychological one.

Most assuredly, President Trump is loathsome and exacerbates that disease. His rhetoric about “infestation” and “invasion” serves to dehumanize his targets in the eyes of his supporters. The most recent assaults on immigrants and minorities are certainly, to some large degree, properly laid at his feet.

But that kind of rhetoric has never been unique to the political right. Antifa “protesters” who club people in the streets that they deem to be “enemies” respond to the same ugly impulse. Baader-Meinhof and the Weather Underground were both products of the radical left, not of the radical right, and both blew up innocent bystanders along with their targets without any seeming regret. The vitriol with which Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren revile “the rich” and “the 1%” — and their calls to “take America back” from them — are different only in intensity, not in kind, from the vitriol with which Trump reviles immigrants.

© Copyright 2019, Augustus P. Lowell

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