Random Acts of Violence: A Common Psychological Profile?

Bryan Bender, “US officials seek lessons in bombing catastrophe,” The Boston Globe

Government studies of previous large-scale attacks perpetrated by religious extremists, antigovernment groups, and the mentally disturbed have highlighted certain shared patterns, officials say. “When you take motivation out of it,” said one US official involved in reviewing the homeland security implications of the Boston attack, “the indicators that are apparent to people are in many cases common across the board. “In all of these cases there are opportunities for intervention. It may not be law enforcement at all times that is best suited to do it. It may be a teacher. It may be a faith leader,” the official said.

Liah Greenfeld:

Random criminality, especially in the last few weeks, has been on the mind of many Americans. What drives an individual to commit a violent crime against unsuspecting strangers? Why did James Holmes shoot up the Aurora theater? Was Adam Lanza acting out of childhood resentment? Were the Tsarnaev brothers religiously motivated?  Is mental instability behind all violent acts?

Whether the explicit motive is political, religious, or personal, today’s random violent crimes have an overarching societal connection. Uncomfortable in their own skin and maladjusted, the individuals committing them are naturally discontented with their society and blame their deep personal unhappiness on it. Blaming one’s existential discomfort on factors unrelated to it is a kind of self-therapy. A story is constructed (usually borrowed from ongoing public discussions), which rationalizes one’s discomfort as reflecting an awareness of some general evil: corruption, injustice, imperialism, uncaring environment, what not. In cases of more severe distress, such rationalization alone does not sufficiently assuage it and must be acted upon.  The individual may join an organization or movement dedicated to fighting a particular evil or be impelled, called, to act on one’s own – and led to murder. The thinking behind such acts bears the most distinctive mark of (schizophrenic) delusion: the loss of the understanding of the symbolic nature of human social reality and the confusion between symbols and their referents. People are killed because of what they represent, rather than because of what they do.

It is the randomness of such crimes that shocks us, making us eager to find a rational motive behind them.  The only way to prevent them, however, is to understand how very widespread in our society the mental condition behind them is, and to be ready to intervene whenever the common psychological discomfort threatens to turn into a real disease. Such vigilance might save many more lives than have ever been taken by sick criminals, because it is essential to remember that this kind of violence is extremely rare and that the characteristic violence of the mentally ill is suicide.

Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience


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