With the fruition of the latest multiple victim homicidal rampage, the media are abuzz with social discourse analyzing the Isla Vista killer’s problems and pontificating about solutions for eradicating such violent tragedies as the one his unfortunate life culminated in.
Among the usual suspects for scapegoating is “mental illness,” with the phrase nearly serving as a stand-in for any twisted bundle of personal problems or motivations which are not readily understood by us mentally healthy people. What follows here is not to discount that some forms of mental illness may play a role in fomenting instances of multiple victim homicides. Sure, it is easy to recognize in his autobiographical “manifesto” that he had developed a number of psychological issues, and these problems may or may not qualify as “mental illness.” Rather, my concern is that too many people are faulting “mental illness” in a manner that serves to obscure, rather than elucidate, the real factors which underscore the violent outbursts of famed perpetrators of mass murder.
Identifying the problem of mass killings merely as one of “mental illness” is problematic because it can reinforce faulty characterizations of mass murderers and their motivating personal predicaments. An example of one such faulty characterization comes from internet writer and satirist Maddox:
100% of gun massacres occur by people with mental illness. If you disagree with that statement, be prepared to make the case that there are some rational, cool-headed people who, after thinking clearly and weighing the pros and cons, decide to commit mass killings. There aren’t…Trying to rationalize an irrational act is futile. Rational people don’t go on shooting rampages.
This is wrong. Rational murder is not an oxymoron. And no, I am not making an argument about homicides justified in self-defense. Morally just is not synonymous with rational, nor is rational synonymous with empathetically sensible. Murder implies immoral killing, but it does not entail irrational killing. Murder is not inherently irrational.
Rational behavior refers to action which is consistent with reasonable expectations of desired outcomes. For example, if an actor has goal A, and sound reasoning suggests that action X is the best means of pursuing goal A, then taking action X implies that the actor is behaving rationally. If, however, the actor takes action Y (for which there is not good reason to believe that it will result in goal A, at least not nearly as well as action X), then the actor can be said to behave irrationally.
Whether an action can be constituted as rational or irrational depends on how well it accords with desired goals, given reasonable expectations about what results the action and its alternatives will produce. Therefore, it cannot be argued that murder is by definition irrational, for it may very well be the case that the outcome of the murder(s) can be reasonably expected to satisfy the desired ends of the murderer. The rationality of the act is irrespective of our judgment of its moral sensibility.
The hasty mischaracterization of all multiple victim public homicides as having been perpetrated irrationally is related to the common perception that the perpetrators suffer from mental illness which clouds their better judgment. We, the mentally healthy ones, would like to believe so. We find comfort in the notion that “rational, cool-headed people” cannot possibly rationalize the slaughter of other innocent human beings.
But we would be wrong. For one, various governments throughout recent history have murdered many millions of human beings. Can they be said to have behaved irrationally? Quite the contrary—it was all too often the result of rationally devised actions taken to promote such (immoral) objectives as ethnic cleansing and exterminating political dissidents. And despite our popular caricature of them as wailing fanatics who have lost their sense of reason, terrorists are known to rationally target civilians with particular sociopolitical objectives in mind, which they reason their acts of terror to be the optimal means for achieving.
Those who commit multiple victim public homicides are not so different. It is not that they have lost their sense of rationality, so much as it is that they have lost their sense of empathy. Innate respect for human life does not originate from rationality itself, but rather from empathetic concern for the feelings and status of other human beings (from which moral rights and responsibilities may be rationally deduced). One can find rational reason to commit violence against others if he lacks this empathy, and perhaps harbors a disregard or disdain for human life. In this recent case, it was his personal offense at being shunned by attractive women which his killing spree was intended to avenge.
Some murders may be irrationally committed. Occasionally, it may be that a person loses his temper and whimsically kills another, in spite of the fact that more deliberate contemplation would have instructed him not to do so. But it is difficult to postulate such irrationality for many of these high-profile spree killers, including this recent one, who reasoned and deliberated their murders thoroughly and well in advance, ostensibly in accordance with their own desired ends.
This is not to say that the killers were always rational. For example, this recent one sought after the high financial rewards of the lottery as a plausible salvation from his womanless existence. Unless he were to find gambling inherently valuable, or he had a fetish for minutely probable but high-reward risk taking, his lottery purchases were, in all reasonability, irrational efforts toward his broader pursuit of females (he unsoundly believed that he had a good chance of winning). However, this does little to absolve the apparent rationality of his “retribution,” which seemed very much in keeping with his own professed goal of revenge.
Mental illness is troublesome, but not in the way that most discussions surrounding mass shootings would portend. Research shows that not only are most of the mentally ill nonviolent, but the vast majority of those who commit violence do not suffer from mental illness. And for what it’s worth, those who are mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. The inaccurate portrayal of the mentally ill in our media as predominantly violent has fueled great misconceptions about the nature of mental illness and violence.
The problem is quite different from mental illness itself being violent, for it largely is not. Indeed, it is telling that both the Sandy Hook and Isla Vista killers were (purportedly) afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Insofar as this is not merely a coincidence, the problem is not that those with Asperger’s are prone to violence, but rather that they suffer disproportionately more social disabilities, which in rare cases can lead to extreme instances of violence.
In other words, the problem with the killer in Isla Vista is not that his mental condition prompted his loss of rationality, but that his narcissistic pursuits were impeded by his social disabilities, which in turn prompted his anger and resentment of others. And as we should know, anger is essentially the primary instigator of interpersonal violence, mental illness or not.
Conventional presumption of mental illness problems in the wake of multiple victim public homicides does more to obfuscate than to enlighten us about the nature of the perpetrators and their motivations. There is a distinction to be drawn between rationality and empathy, and assumptions of mental illness have too often served the impression that the former is what gets corrupted, or that the two are inseparable when they are not. In reality, the problem of most mass murderers is not one of irrationality, but rather the corruption of empathy and the consequent moral rights and responsibilities. However much we, as empathetic beings, rightfully regard murder as vile, detestable, and utterly immoral, we should make no mistake that it can very well be a rational act.