This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay, or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.
Because acts of violence spring from the mind, and because acts of mass violence are generally seen as crazy by most people, it’s easy to conclude that any such act is a sign of mental illness — even as those who commit such acts may feel they have acted rationally. This is in fact the problem with our generic scenario, where the killer passed all mental health tests with flying colors, yet still perpetrated an act so heinous it would be characterized as insane by most. In order to resolve this ambiguity we could have long debates about what constitutes mental illness, but since the very people who are charged with making such distinctions routinely engage in rancorous, turf-protecting bureaucratic spats that seems unlikely to lead to anything more than the empaneling of yet another committee.
More expedient would be to simply agree with the proposition that committing murder is crazy, particularly given the conventional wisdom that a wide range of violent and criminal acts happen as a result of what is often termed temporary insanity. Meaning an otherwise normal, sane, law-abiding citizen — for reasons that are heavily influenced by circumstance and emotion — suddenly acts in a violent way against all apparent reason, and perhaps even against their own core beliefs. That such behavior makes no rational sense, yet seems to routinely transpire, is yet another indicator that when it comes to divining motive with precision, there will always be some uncertainty about why an act of violence occurred.
Given the established precedent, it does seem fair to conclude that committing a mass killing (including serial killings) is de facto proof of mental illness. Unfortunately, in terms of preventing such acts in the future this administrative act gets us nowhere because it only addresses the issue after the fact. Just as we cannot predict with certainty which sane individuals will go berserk, no matter how we define mental illness prior to the commission of an act of violence, at no point will we be able to show that people who meet that criteria will inevitably become murderers. We may have strong suspicions in some instances, we may see an eerie resemblance with other killers, some individuals may idolize mass murderers or openly profess a desire to kill a lot of people, but for every person who meets the criteria and goes on to commit murder we will always be able to find others who meet the criteria and do not. Worse, none of this focus on mental illness as a predictor of violence will help us prevent killings by people who show no signs of mental illness. [ Read more ]