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.
The Killer’s Motive
Fortuitously, not only do we happen to know that the mass murderer we have in custody is guilty beyond any possible doubt, but because the killer is still alive, has waived counsel, has been deemed lucid by a battery of experts representing every conceivable psychological and psychiatric discipline, and is articulate and willing to answer any of our questions — which they will always respond to honestly due to an incurable compulsion for telling the truth — we will not, as we must when a murderer is dead, insane, or less than truthful, have to guess as to motive. Indeed, after a protracted interrogation we have extracted all the information we possibly can from the murderer, and at first blush it does seem as if we understand what the killer was thinking. As heartless and unconscionable as their behavior was, we can see a certain internal logic to their decision making. Even better, not only do we find no loose ends or inconsistencies in their statements, but when we look at similar crimes perpetrated by other murderers we see some factors that seem to correlate with such violent acts. Included are various forms of entertainment which demonstrate or dramatize violence eerily similar to the violence our killer unleashed, further tightening the apparent correlation between motive and murder.
In the end we are convinced that we understand why a dozen people were killed, and we are hopeful that this information might aid us in preventing such tragedies in the future. Unfortunately, the night before we are to turn in our findings we find ourselves in a dingy bar having drinks with a couple of strangers, and as the conversation wends its way toward dawn we discover to our horror that one of the people we are talking with shares not only the same perceptions of the world as our incarcerated killer, but they play the same violent computer games and watch the same violent movies and listen to the same enraged music. The overlap is so complete — so eerily exact — that in a moment of foggy panic we have the bar patron arrested on a trumped-up charge because we are convinced they must also have killed a dozen people.
As it turns out, however, the patron not only has no criminal history, they have an airtight alibi across the entirety of their life, leaving no possibility that they committed any crimes, let alone homicides. By every available metric they are indistinguishable from our killer, yet they have not killed anyone. While we can’t shake the feeling that the bar patron may at any minute go berserk, that unease pales in comparison to the devastating realization that some critical information is obviously missing from the motive both we and the killer ascribed to the killer’s actions. Where we thought we knew why a dozen people were dead, it turns out there is at least one other person in the world for whom all the relevant factors hold true who has not committed a crime, meaning we do not actually know what caused the killer to kill.
As an anecdotal test we run our analysis of the killer’s motive by a hundred people, explaining it step by step, and to a person they all agree we must be right. Yet we know we are not right because that same combination of environmental and personal factors applies to the bar patron as well. The motives we’re attributing to the killer sound plausible and reasonable and compelling to everyone, yet we know there is another person in the world — who has not killed anyone — for whom all of our purported causal attributions apply. Which leaves us with a choice to make, and because we have a conscience it’s a choice that makes us extremely uncomfortable. [ Read more ]