All murders, of course, are brutal, tragic acts, but the planned cold-blooded slaughter of 20 little children and six teachers is particularly heinous. The Newtown murders, coming as they do in the wake of a long string of similar incidents, raise serious questions about American society.
Besides the outpouring of grief and sympathy, the two most common themes in the media are gun control and the strengthening of the so-called mental health services. Of course the mental health industry is raising no objection to the latter.
The call for improved mental health services is based on the assumption that the mass murderers are “mentally ill,” and that their “mental illnesses” are the proximate cause of their murderous behavior. So let’s examine this assumption.
The only widely accepted definition of mental illness is that provided by the APA.
… a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress…or disability…or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability or an important loss of freedom. (DSM-IV-TR, p xxxi)
As I’ve pointed out many times on this website, this so-called definition could be accurately paraphrased as: any significant problem that a person is experiencing or manifesting.
Now in my view – and I think most people would agree – a person who kills large numbers of people has a significant problem. So, based on the APA’s definition, these individuals do indeed have a mental illness. But – and this is the critical point – so does virtually everybody in the world.
By extending the definition of mental illness so liberally, the psychiatrists have rendered it devoid of meaning. What the psychiatrists have done is take a meaningless concept and rendered it even sillier by extending its connotation to include virtually everybody.
So when people say, or imply, that mass murderers are “mentally ill,” all they are saying is that these individuals have problems, whilst at the same time conveying the impression that the matter has been explained. The only evidence for these so-called mental illnesses is the very behavior they purport to explain. There is no other evidence. Indeed, there is no other meaning to the term. The “diagnosis” is simply a restatement of the problem – mass murderers are mass murderers!
As I’ve stated so often, genuine understanding of human behavior involves so much more than assigning labels. And that’s all the “mental illness diagnoses” are – labels.
So what is the correct explanation? How do these individuals get to be this way?
Let’s start by clarifying the issues. People who systematically arm themselves, enter public buildings, and proceed to kill large numbers of people have one thing in common – they have little or no respect for other people. Now this is not an explanation of their behavior – it is purely descriptive. This is what they are doing. They are disrespecting, in the most extreme way, the rights and aspirations of the people they kill or maim.
By the time most of us reach adulthood, we have internalized a good measure of respect for other people. We don’t insult people; we don’t damage their property; we don’t assault them; we certainly don’t kill them. We recognize that they are people like ourselves; that they have dreams, hopes, plans, etc., and we accept – without reservation – that they cannot simply be dispensed with to satisfy some inner whim that we might be experiencing at the time.
In fact, most people in civilized societies have internalized this kind of respect to such a degree that they would be incapable of perpetrating this kind of cold-blooded slaughter. So the question we are asking is: Why is it that these individuals demonstrate such little respect for the lives and rights of other people? Why are they so callous that they can shoot young children to death without compunction?
And the answer is: because that’s the way they were born! Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing for some kind of genetic defect theory. My point is that all children are born this way. The newborn baby represents the veritable paradigm of psychopathy. He has no respect for other people’s feelings; no regard for their safety, welfare, or comfort. In fact, he’s barely aware of their existence. To him, his mother is simply a milk truck. A warm, soft milk truck – but a milk truck nonetheless. He is conscious of little but his own needs. If he could speak, his first word would be “gimme” and his second word would be “now.” If he experiences a need, he cries. If the need is not met immediately, the cry escalates to a howl. If the delay continues, he screams even louder and begins to thrash his arms and legs in rage. Expecting a newborn to be patient because his mother is tired and needs a little rest is like expecting water to flow uphill.
The newborn is a tyrant. Other people – to the extent that he is aware of them at all – exist only to do his will. He is the center of the universe, and they are his servants with no purpose in life other than ministering to his needs and whims.
Now some people object to this characterization of babies, because they think babies are cute and sweet. And of course babies are cute and sweet – but they are also self-centered, little tyrants. The point is that I’m not criticizing babies – I’m just describing them. That’s how they are, and they are incapable of being otherwise. They don’t yet have the physical equipment and they haven’t had the learning opportunities.
The process by which children progress from this primitive early state to one in which they respect other people and treat them with an appropriate degree of consideration and politeness is called socialization.
Young children acquire the habits of respect and consideration for others through active training. The primary tactic in this process is the systematic application of rewards and punishments in an atmosphere of love and acceptance. If this training is neglected, for whatever reason, then the child remains what he was at birth – a self-centered tyrant, sensitive to no one’s needs but his own. With the passage of each year, he simply gets bigger – and consequently more dangerous.
Our prisons are full of individuals of this kind. Two days ago, a few miles from our home, a young man shot and killed his ex-girlfriend, her sister, and her sister’s husband because the girlfriend had broken up with him. The incident got a few column inches in the local paper – and barely a mention on the state news. It’s become commonplace. The vicious acts of these individuals only make headlines when they kill large numbers of people, but the problem is the same – a persistent disregard for the lives and sensitivities of other people – and it stems from the same cause: a failure to instill an appreciation and respect for other people at an early age.
Now I’ll be accused of trying to excuse these individuals. Not so. I have no interest in excusing them. They need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. What I am trying to do is explain their behavior in a way that provides clear pointers for remediation.
I will also be accused of bashing the parents. And here, perhaps, there is a measure of truth. The parents’ primary job is to instill these kinds of habits in their children. When the habits are clearly lacking, it seems plain to me that we should at least examine the role that the parent played or didn’t play in the training of the child. But at the same time, I have a lot of sympathy for parents. Often we think we’re doing the right thing – but realize later that we weren’t; and so on. Also, there are a good many misguided notions “out there” that can lead parents astray. Chief of these is the idea that children simply need to be indulged so that their “true” personalities can unfold without the repressive inhibitions of parental discipline – rather like butterflies metamorphosing out of caterpillars. Tragically, a great many parents actually believe this nonsense.
And, of course, parents get distracted. Sometimes the distractions are legitimate – work, finances, etc.. Other times they are less so – drugs, alcohol, entertainment, etc..
Families are fragmented. In the old days grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., helped with childrearing. Today people are more mobile, and often this kind of help is not available.
And it has to be acknowledged that although parents are the primary change agents in the lives of young children, they are not the only ones. There are other influencing factors that begin to impact the developing child from an early age: baby-sitters, peers, extended family members, teachers, movies, video games, etc..
But my central point is this: – as a society we seem to be seeing an increasing number of people (usually males) who grow up with a more or less total disregard for other people – to the point that they can – and do – kill people, apparently without compunction.
The questions we need to be asking are: what are we doing or not doing that is promoting this trend? We need to move beyond slogans and rhetoric, and be willing to examine even cherished positions. Something has gone terribly wrong with the way many children are being raised, and the mental health industry, with its endless range of spurious, responsibility-absolving “diagnoses” – far from being a part of the solution – has become a part of the problem.
In recent years, a good deal has been said and written on the possibility that psychotropic pharmaceutical products may have been implicated in some of these egregious acts of violence. It is difficult to obtain definitive information in this area. Recently a petition was sent to the White House asking for a “…formal and public investigation into the relationship between the FDA, the Pharmaceutical industry, psychiatric drugs and treatments, and the violent actions of the shooters for the last 20 years.” It is normal practice to leave such petitions open for one month to allow signatures to accumulate. After one week and 6,635 signatures, however, the White House closed down the petition and in its place posted a response titled: “A Message from President Obama about Your Petition on Reducing Gun Violence.” Incredibly, the President’s message made no reference to the possible link between pharmaceutical products and violence! I know that the pharmaceutical lobby is powerful – but do they have so much clout that they can block a legitimate public petition? You can read about this on Robert Whitaker’s site Mad in America. If the matter causes you concern, please contact the White House and ask that the petition be reinstated and allowed to run its course.
Until we address these issues, we will, I fear, see more of these heart-breaking incidents.