Published April 25, 2019
In the David Fincher produced, 2017 Netflix series, Mindhunter, two FBI special agents travel the country interviewing serial killers in the 1970’s. The series, based on the non-fiction book “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit” by John Douglas, chronicles the beginnings of advanced criminal profiling techniques developed by the FBI in response to a number of high profile, and gruesome crimes carried out during the era, beginning with the Manson Family murders of 1968. Throughout the show the fictional special agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench meet with frequent resistance from other law enforcement personnel as they attempt to unravel the minds of the serial killers they meet. Everyone from their bosses in the agency to the local police officers they encounter along the way express extreme discomfort at the thought of empathizing or attempting to understand the killers Ford and Tench interrogate. These men are just evil. There’s nothing more to it. Nothing can be learned from them. No insight can be gained. They’re simply, purely evil, and attempting to say anything more on the subject is an affront to the victims, their families, and to human decency and capital-J Justice in general.
Fictionalized though the series may be, in our own time, in the era of mass shootings, one doesn’t have to go far to find similar responses to this uniquely contemporary category of violent crime. Media coverage of the killers oozes sensationalized language that depicts them as dark, evil, twisted, vile, abhorrent, insane. The public, in internet comment forms across social media, offer up their thoughts and prayers, and inevitably, the discussion devolves into a debate on the second amendment and the merits of gun control as politicians and journalists quickly move to steer the national conversation to more politically fruitful areas in order to amass momentum in passing various pieces of long desired legislation targeting gun owners or the NRA. The killers themselves, their personalities, their motivations, their worldviews, the experiences that shape them, every time quickly slip through the cracks of the conversation and are forgotten long before their respective cases are ever brought to trial.
The debate surrounding gun control is never particularly illuminating. Advocates for regulation believe it’s the only way to stop the violence. Those opposed rejoin that such regulations can never be truly effective in preventing criminals from acquiring the deadly arsenals they deploy. The advocates fire back that though that may be the case, we shouldn’t simply give up. If banning an extended magazine allows even one victim to duck out of the line of fire while a shooter reloads, that one life is enough to justify stricter measures being taken to make the acquisition of such accessories as difficult as possible for would be perpetrators. Whatever the merits of the common arguments on either side of the issue may be, the deeper question of what causes mass shootings in the first place remains a largely unspoken issue. It seems as if gun control advocates even silently agree with the second amendment defenders in their counterargument: gun control is not fundamental solution to the problem of mass violence, but is merely a mitigative measure designed to incrementally alleviate mortality rates of incidents they don’t otherwise know how to control.
At the same time, as the debate above rages on, police departments, prosecutors, and the state all quietly move to suppress the details surrounding the lives and minds of those accused of the crimes which initiated the public conversation on the issue to begin with. In the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting, the New Zealand government has moved to censor the killer’s manifesto. Video evidence of the attack has been purged from youtube. Online forum administrators who chose to host the document have been contacted for data by the New Zealand government on any of its citizens who may have accessed it.
This is nothing new. In the wake of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting, students and professors who knew the perpetrator, James Holmes, were barred by the university from sharing information about him. Likewise, evidence and documents relating to the Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza, including letters and writings written by Lanza himself, were withheld by the State Police for five years, and were only released to the public following an appeal to the State Supreme Court by the Hartford Courant. Additionally, it’s become common practice following every incidence of mass violence for social media companies like Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter to delete the public profiles and videos of the accused killers as quickly as possible. In short, not only does the public seem by and large uninterested in sincerely penetrating the motivations and worldviews of the killers they condemn, but they are aided in their neglect of the topic by censorious social media companies and state and federal law enforcement agencies which do the best they can to spare the victims further grief by burying the deeper details.
Over the course of hundreds of hours beginning in 1959, Ted Kaczynski, the future unabomber, participated in an intense psychological experiment conduced at Harvard by Dr. Henry A Murray. During World War II, Murray had worked for the Office of Strategic Services in developing personality assessment techniques designed to test potential recruits on how well they would endure interrogation and torture by the enemy. At Harvard, Murray went on to further develop his method, transforming it from a diagnostic assessment of mental anti-fragility, into the basis of a radical personality modifying procedure he hoped could be used to forcibly evolve human consciousness in order to prevent the nuclear annihilation he feared was inevitable in light of mankind’s petty national prejudices and self-interest during the period of the Cold War. Kaczynski was among his unwitting test subjects, and though his personal, radical Luddite beliefs would ultimately diverge from the kind of technocratic globalism Murray intended to inculcate in Kaczynski, in a strange way, Murray was also more successful than he could have possibly anticipated.
More than fifty years later, on the night of July 20, 2012, James Holmes was booked into the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Detention Facility for the mass shooting at Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado which he had perpetrated earlier that night. He had killed twelve people and injured seventy others. Controversially, a fellow inmate in the facility that fateful night, Steven Unruh, has claimed that he spoke to Holmes about the shooting from an adjacent cell. During their conversation, Unruh reports, Holmes told him that he had been “programmed” by an “evil psychologist” to commit the shooting, making further reference to a behavior modification technique known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Unruh’s story has been disputed by the Sheriff’s department, who insist that prisoners are not capable of communicating with one another between the cells. This denial has been enough for the majority of the media to completely discount the episode without any further attempts at corroboration from other detainees, or through an independent inspection of the facility. Unruh’s strange tale of his encounter with Holmes has, like so many other details, slipped through the cracks, and has subsequently become fodder for conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, who was banned by nearly every social media platform in the world in 2018 for the similar claims he at times entertained about the Sandy Hook massacre.
There is no reason to take Holmes’ statement at face value. Perhaps, as he emerged from the dissociative state under which he perpetrated the killings, he was desperately groping for some defense that would get him out of the situation he now found himself in. Perhaps this was simply a paranoid delusion he had begun fostering in the weeks preceding the attack. The claim doesn’t have to be taken as literally factual for it to still attract our attention. There is a period following every school shooting where those that knew the killer come forward and lament that they didn’t see the ‘warning signs,’ and the Aurora shooting was no different in this respect. At least three different mental health professionals had been involved in the deterioration of Holmes’ mental state in the lead up the incident. They saw the warning signs, and it simply didn’t matter. Furthermore, in light of Holmes’ comments to Unruh, one might even go a step further: maybe this wasn’t a case of dedicated, well-meaning psychiatrists failing to help a gifted, but troubled young man, but just the opposite… Maybe in some twisted way, the treatment came before the disease.
No case provides better evidence of this possibility than that of Adam Lanza, the 2012 Sandy Hook shooter. After years of denied requests, more than 1,000 pages of evidence relating to the Lanza case were finally released to the Hartford Courant in December of 2018. Lanza, who killed himself following the attack, left behind no manifesto. He had even taken the precaution of smashing his devices’ hard drives prior to the shooting. In the end hundreds of pages worth of Lanza’s writings were ultimately recovered by the police, and it’s only from these scattered fragments that his beliefs and opinions emerge. Like Holmes in the weeks and months leading to the Aurora massacre, Lanza was no stranger to psychiatric evaluation. Throughout Lanza’s entire life, from the age of 3, when he was first diagnosed with speech and developmental problems, he knew little else but the offices of therapists and counselors and psychiatrists. A rotating cast of mental health professionals drifted in and out of his life. They all recognized the so-called ‘warning signs’ all too well, but even with a lifetime’s worth of treatment, they completely and utterly failed to prevent his transformation into mass murderer.
In online postings Lanza expresses horror at what he calls “enculturation,” the process by which individuals are socialized into their societies. He writes that culture “inflicts arbitrary prejudiced perspectives onto people. It dismisses the differences between individuals to contrive an artificial group, to which people are coerced into submission. It enables baseless bigotry between other arbitrary cultural groups and cohesion among people in the group for which there is no reason to associate.” The idea that his mother, teachers, and psychiatrists were conspiring together to brainwash him into joining a society he disdained under the pretense of mental health seems to have disturbed him on a deep, visceral level.
Lanza goes even further, and characterizes the years of psychiatric treatment he received since childhood explicitly as abusive: “I was molested at least a dozen times by a few different adults when I was a child. It wasn’t my decision at all: I was coerced into it… What do each of the adults have in common? They were doctors, and each of them were sanctioned by my parents to do it. This happens to virtually every child without their input into the matter: Their parents sanction it.”
Of course Lanza’s doctors were well meaning people, who only had his best interests at heart. Regardless of this, however, at the same time, his identification of them as a system of psychological control designed to suppress his own individuality formed the core of the resentment that drove him to violence. Can we really conclude that more mental health treatment would have prevented what happened? Like Dr. Murray’s personality modification experiments at Harvard, perhaps the attention Lanza received backfired in exactly the right way needed to twist him around into the very thing his doctors worried he would become. Perhaps their treatments, in the end, formed a self-fulfilling prophecy of social isolation and violent, vindictive bitterness. Maybe James Holmes never meant to claim he was some kind of Manchurian candidate brainwashed by DARPA to carry out false flag attacks. Maybe he meant only to say, as Adam Lanza did, that the psychological treatment and “enculturation” his counselors hoped would bring him back from the brink, were the very thing that pushed him over the edge.
The United States spends more per capita on primary and secondary education than almost any other country. As of 2014 the U.S. is in the top 5, below only Switzerland, Norway and Austria. Despite this however, year after year, a majority of Americans report dissatisfaction with the quality of K-12 education in their country. Alternative education remains a persistent source of controversy within the public consciousness. Private schools, charter schools, school vouchers, homeschooling, all are topics that filter in and out of the national political conversation. Democrats, on the whole, maintain an unyielding support for the compulsory nature of public education in America, while practices like Homeschooling are largely written off as the exclusive province of religious fundamentalists and political separatists. The same goes for the diverting of public resources to charter schools by means of a tax exemption or credit. The argument that has formed over time to circumvent these controversial alternatives boils down to a single word: Socialization.
Public schools not only educate students in facts and skills, the argument goes, but also serve to socialize children by serving as a microcosm of the pluralistic, diverse society in which these students will one day have to live and contribute to. A private, all male school, for instance, will fail to prepare its students for the modern workplace, where they’ll have to cooperate and even take orders from female colleagues or superiors. Likewise, desegregation busing is required to ensure students experience a sufficiently diverse environment. When it comes to a wide variety of controversies in public education, the socialization argument continues to form the backbone of liberal resistance to conservative attacks on the public schooling monopoly.At the same time, as liberals defend the practice and theory of socialization, the scourge of bullying has, on-again off again, served as a cause célèbre among many of the same people. Since 2010, October has become National Bullying Prevention Month, a campaign by the non-profit PACER organization in coordination with companies like CNN and Facebook, among others. Television shows and documentaries have tackled the subject, and celebrities like Ellen regularly champion anti-bullying causes. But what is bullying but the core of Socialization? In a sense the two can almost be considered synonymous. Bullying is, after all, the school of hard knocks which children undergo to learn the complex, unspoken rules of social game playing. Socialization is about instilling conformity, and bullying remains the core experience for many children in learning about all the ways the deviate from the norm. When children are unresponsive to bullying, that’s when things are kicked up to the teachers and administrators and school counselors, and that same unpliability and unresponsiveness is re-conceptualized by well-meaning adults as developmental disorders.
In 1975 Autism was diagnosed in children at a rate of 1 in every 5,000. Today that number has soared to nearly 1 in 100. This has ignited a public controversy over the source or cause of what by every definition deserves to be called an public health epidemic. 75% of children diagnosed with Autism today are boys. There’s no need to go searching for a cause. Vaccines aren’t behind the explosion in Autism rates. Teachers and school psychologists are. School psychology today is a booming industry, one which the US Department of Labor identifies as having some of the best employment opportunities across the entire field of psychology. 75% of school psychologists are women, with an average age of 46. It is this same group of people most empowered to conduct psychological monitoring of children across the country, and over the last 30 years, they have come to classify a larger and larger percentage of young boys as having developmental issues, to the point where it’s not clear whether there is anything wrong with these children at all, or if school psychologists have simply written off a wider and wider range of behaviors which they find problematic or incomprehensible as constituting autism.
Many advocates for gun control today are keen to draw attention to what they see as a rapid increase in school shooting rates, with 2018 being a banner year. If its the case that school shootings are result of a failure to recognize the warning signs, and to dispense appropriate psychological treatment to at-risk students, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that violent incidents have risen despite a parallel growth in school psychology, in diagnoses of behavioral issues, and in the prescription of psychiatric medication to problematic children. How is that we have increased treatment, but also seen a concurrent rise in the prevalence of the disease? The math simply doesn’t add up. Post-Columbine paranoia has driven the expansion of an invasive psychological surveillance complex within American schools, which, while attempting to identify and reform at-risk students, does so by aggressively isolating them using psychiatric diagnoses and behavior modifying drugs, and by ensnaring them in a never-ending nightmare of sterile, unpleasant therapy with middle-aged female social workers and mental health professionals who are in no position to adequately understand them.
In 2013, a Texas teenager named Justin Carter was locked up for threatening a school shooting. Whether or not the threat was legitimate is another matter entirely. In a bout of online shit talking over League of Legends Carter wrote “Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head, I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts…” in response to a quip by a fellow gamer calling him crazy. He quickly rejoined: “lol jk,” likely realizing the fact he could get himself in trouble saying such things. Whether or not it was a good idea for him to make such a comment is immaterial, what matters is the violent, disproportionate response that followed. A Canadian woman, thousands of miles away, reported Carter. He was arrested and locked in jail. Bond was set at half a million dollars, which his family couldn’t afford to pay. He languished in jail, was assaulted by fellow inmates, and then locked up in solitary confinement for his own safety. After 4 months in jail an anonymous donor paid to have Carter released on behalf of his family. The state dragged out the matter for years, delaying the trial as long as possible on tenuous grounds. In the interim Carter was banned from using a computer. It wasn’t until spring of 2018 that a plea agreement was finally reached and Carter was let off with time served.
This is the paranoid system which today we entrust with rescuing at-risk young boys. This is what stands between us and more school shootings. Never mind the fact that as this system has grown, it has only led to a rise in mass shootings. Maybe the real cause of such cases is not guns, or a failure to identify and treat students, maybe the cause is these same students, following a protracted process of isolation and attempted psychological modification, learning to play the part the system has assigned to them, that of the security threat. When schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on active shooter drills and security systems, isn’t it just wasted money until someone comes along and gives them an excuse to use it? The complicated apparatus of psychological surveillance and socialization that prevails among schools today is, like the TSA checkpoint at the airport, nothing more than an elaborate piece of (psychological) security theater, and theaters require drama, and more importantly, villains. People like Adam Lanza and James Holmes are certainly killers of the very worst kind, guilty of evil, but on a larger scale, their evil is a only a reflection of our own, of the perverse societal mechanisms we’ve developed to give ourselves piece of mind, regardless of the children that must be fed to the machinery for it to function.