In September 2019, a public version of the “How to Love a Mass Murderer” talk was delivered at TEDx BoggyCreek exploring the psychology of mass murderers and proposing that perhaps these ‘evil monsters’ are not so very different from you and I when explored at a fundamental level.
Although the title theme of the talk focuses on the psychological pathway to mass violence, the inner message is about self-knowing and universal characteristics of our conditioned selves which obstruct the genuine experience of compassion, love, and our greater spiritual identity.
As English speakers, it’s easy to assume that our language is somehow superior due to its status as an international standard in many fields. But, truthfully, our dictionary often pales in comparison to the rich vocabulary of other languages when expressing subtleties in concept.
One good example is the word, Love.
The Ancient Greeks recognized that not all love is the same, and used different words to describe variations…Storge, for love of family. Philia, as love of friends. And of course, Eros, as romantic love.[i]
And as perhaps the crown jewel of them all, a fourth kind of love called agape—altruistic and unconditional love of fellow humans.
It seems natural to experience love for family, friends, and those who appeal to our sexual desire. And despite our differences, it seems most of us also experience a natural degree of empathy and compassion toward humanity at large.
But what about the Omar Mateen’s and Nikolas Cruz’s of the world?….People who commit such horrific acts as the massacres at the Pulse Nightclub or MSD High School in Parkland.
This question arises occasionally when discussing the subject of love. In my day job, I work as a consultant specialized in managing risks of mass homicide…terrorism, workplace and school shootings, and similar types of violence.
When this subject arises, I like to begin with the word, Empathy.
Empathy is defined as: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
With this definition in mind, it’s quite obvious we cannot experience genuine empathy (the precursor of agape) if we view mass killers as ‘evil monsters’ beyond sensible understanding. So let’s start there…
What really differentiates us from the mass killers of the world?
Almost all acts of mass homicide are characterized as predatory aggression resulting from a process of ideation, planning, and preparation.[ii] The phrase, “He snapped,” is largely a myth. Although acts of mass homicide are often triggered by an event, such as a termination or dismissal from school, the pathway to violence is usually established long before the carnage commences.
Although this pathway process is largely universal, the motivation for violence is often different between terrorists and non-ideological perpetrators.
Terrorists rationally adopt the use of violence to further an ideological cause. The key characteristic distinguishing a terrorist from any other idealistic visionary is that the terrorist views the use of violence as necessary, morally-sanctioned, and values their ideal over the lives of others…and often their own life too.
Sounds pretty messed up, huh?
Well, let’s pause for a moment.
In early youth, I was enamored by the hero myth and American ideal of global freedom. I was a true product of Cold War era nationalism and cultural suggestion that being a warrior was the ultimate expression of masculinity. And at the age of 17, I joined the Army.
During those days, I would have killed any enemy soldiers as instructed with a conscience cleansed by the noble aim of saving humanity from communist oppression.
When I look at it closely today, perhaps the only fundamental difference between me in those Army days and the terrorists of this world are the specific ideals motivating violent intent, and the rationale for distinguishing which human lives are valuable from those that are not. The individual ideals and beliefs were different, but the underlying mechanics are exactly the same. We both perceived violence as justified, necessary, and valued an ideal as greater than human life.
So what about those who never wore a uniform?
Well, I propose mass killers aren’t fundamentally much different than you too.
Most non-ideological mass murderers align with Dr. Park Dietz’s definition of a pseudocommando.[iii] These individuals often evolve from angry, narcissistic personalities and harbor perceived injustices as a grievance for revenge.[iv]
Violent fantasy becomes a refuge for the pseudocommando’s damaged ego and provides a sense of power and control. If this process of continues unabated until nihilism takes place, commitment to violence is affirmed and often commenced in a planned manner or initiated by a trigger event.[v][vi]
So what does any of that craziness have to do with you and me?
Well, perhaps the pseudocommando’s pathology is nothing but an exaggeration of behavior we witness every day in most human beings.
Starting with narcissism, it seems most people spend the majority of life viewing the world through a subconscious prism of “What does it mean to or for me?”
In essence, we find ourselves perpetually motivated by desire for the ‘good stuff’ (pleasure, comfort, approval, attention, superiority) while simultaneously seeking to escape the ‘bad stuff’ (pain, discomfort, disapproval, rejection, inferiority).
And if we watch closely, we can see how these primal impulses dominate our attention and behavior.
Now I suspect these polaric driving forces served a great value in evolutionary survival. Perhaps they’re the reason we derive pleasure from sex and eating calorie-rich foods, or seek warmth when our body temperature drops low.
But in the modern world, these subconscious urges often result in a rollercoaster of irrational wants and fears resulting in all manner of mayhem. Just look at some of the things that stress people today…“Do I look good in that picture on Instagram?”, “Will my boss disapprove if I’m out sick today?”, “Will my kid be a future failure because she got an F in math class or dyed her hair blue?”
Now, I am sure a few listening to this may be offended by the notion that people are largely narcissistic in varying degrees.
If you disbelieve me, great! Try an experiment to disprove my hypothesis:
Over the next week, consciously observe how much attention you devote to things that suggest possible reward or threaten harm.
Watch closely and you may get a glimpse of just how deep and subtle this gets.
Here’s another area where maybe we don’t differ so much from the pseudocommando.
Most people can’t navigate a single waking hour without experiencing blame to some degree. It usually begins early when we blame our kids for leaving the milk out overnight or blame ourselves for misplacing our keys. This blame circus then continues up to the time we go to bed when we blame our dog for barking or our spouse for hoarding the bed covers.
If you don’t believe me, try an experiment:
For the next few days, observe how many thoughts or statements you make in conversation expressing blame and its related behavior, complaint.
And just as a tip, keep a counter handy!
Take it a step further if you really feel adventurous:
Observe how often blame and the emotions that often accompany blame (like annoyance, anger, guilt, and resentment) actually change past events, fix situations, or make anything better in any way.
And you can extend this experiment further to include all negative emotions for that matter.
When was the last time anxiety prevented an undesired event from occurring? When was the last time jealousy caused Santa to pop up and grant your magic wish?
It’s truly amazing how much attention and energy we devote to these emotions which, when we look at them closely, seem to function like an “appendix for the human soul.”…Serve no useful purpose and only make us sick when they get inflamed.
Perhaps in the end, the only difference between the average Joe and the pseudocommando is the degree of attention and importance devoted to blame.
So where does this blame stuff come from in the first place?
It seems blame is just a default cognitive response to situations where perceived reality doesn’t match our ideal (our vision of what ought-to-be). And this point circles us right back to beliefs and ideals.
We humans seem stubbornly committed to the imaginary concept of a “Perfect World” and correspondingly spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to ‘fix’ what is, worried, or otherwise spinning our wheels in frustration.
Here’s another fun experiment:
Choose an uneventful weekend and write an essay about your “Perfect World.”
Just let it flow in a ‘Finnegan’s Wake-style’ of whatever nonsense comes into mind. Really put some heart into it! It’s actually quite fun.
Here’s a sample from Craig’s Perfect World:
“All traffic lights turn green as he approaches intersections.”
“All cigars taste like black pepper and cocoa.”
“Planes always fly on time.”
“And all women on the planet are petite brunettes with specific features, and find him sexually attractive…And his wife is fine with that too!”
Exhaust this exercise well and note any realizations that emerge.
And by the way, if you wrote less than ten pages, just keep going because you’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.
When we really peel the onion to its core, perhaps the only difference in motivation between us and the mass killers of the world are the specific ideals that occupy and fascinate our imagination.
Well, maybe mass killers just have delusional (or incorrect) beliefs and ideals
After all, my beliefs are the right beliefs! My perspective of reality is the true perspective of reality!
When conducting threat assessments, we try to emphasize focus on understanding how a person of concern perceives a situation (such as bullying or mistreatment by others) over just the facts of the situation itself. What the subject thinks is going on (in essence, his or her perspective of reality) is ultimately what matters in identifying a possible motive.
For instance, Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui wrote an angry, vitriolic manifesto detailing his perceived persecution by people over the years. But when investigated later, no one in Cho’s life ever remembered him being mistreated in any way.[ix]
Roger Eliott, responsible for the 2014 Isla Vista attacks, wrote a lengthy autobiography describing his hate for all girls because they didn’t want him, and boys for having the girls. Perceived sexual rejection was his grievance for revenge.[x]
From the way Elliot described the situation, you would think this rejection stemmed from some condition of extreme unattractiveness such as obesity or physical disfigurement.
Quite the contrary, he was a good-looking kid. It was basically all in his mind.
And that last statement, “all in his mind,” is a critical point in this discussion.
Most people approach life with the belief that they experience reality as objective truth. When in fact, all experience of reality is a constructed mental process influenced by countless subjective variables.[xi]
In waking states, information is received through sensory organs and processed into a mental image of physical reality.[xii] This sensory data is then interpreted through a complex cognitive process to provide context actionable for functioning. And belief plays a tremendous role in that final composite experience of reality.
Belief gives birth to ideals. And ideals give birth to judgement.
And judgement, in turn, dictates how we value, relate, and react to our environment.
It’s the complex prism through which everything we experience occurs.
Belief is defined as “something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.” Beliefs frame the architecture of what we call reality. Without them, we couldn’t function as human beings. In the absence of complete knowledge, we need to operate on some degree of assumption.
It seems where we get tripped up in life isn’t the existence of beliefs. But rather when we hold our beliefs as empirical truth, rather than simply acknowledging belief as confident hypothesis.
It’s easy to point at mass killers and label their beliefs as delusional. However, how many times in our own lives do we pridefully defend beliefs that we later discover are untrue?
As another underappreciated fact about human behavior, whatever you, I, or the mass killer does is perceived as being right or justifiable at the moment it’s done. Now we might experience conflict coming to that decision or feel differently five minutes later, but at the moment we act, the action is perceived as right or justifiable.
So not only does the killer perceive their act as right or justifiable at the moment it’s done, but perhaps it was the only thing he could do at that moment considering all factors of influence.
When we blame mass murderers and ponder how someone could commit a horrific act of violence, we speak with the assumption that the killer acted with a conscious choice.
But if we observe carefully, it seems most actions executed by human beings are largely dictated by personal conditioning…these beliefs, ideals, gain/escape impulses, and the circumstances that provoke or influence that conditioning. In essence, something ‘pushes our buttons’ and we react. Sometimes life pushes a ‘happy’ button, other times an ‘angry’ button. But most people live from button-press to button-press with an inner experience largely dictated by circumstance.
When circumstance takes form as a suggestion promising something desirable or threatening harm, we often behave quite predictably in accordance with our conditioning. This power of suggestion can be witnessed everywhere in the form of advertising, sales, politics, leadership, education…and maybe even TED talks too.
Consciously or not, we all know this truth and use it every day to our advantage when interacting with others. But when it comes to us personally, people often stand in denial.
Now if the notion of behaving mechanically offends you, make note of that feeling of offense. Did you consciously choose to feel offended? Or did my words dictate your inner experience?
Once we understand how people function, we may begin to see that the killer’s conditioning resulted directly from a seamless chain of interconnected events beginning at birth and right up to the moment he picked up a gun or strapped on a suicide vest.
And that principle seems to be true for all of us.
For the speaker, that chain started in August 1968 in a Pennsylvania hospital and continued through 51 years of interconnected experience right up to the moment of speaking to you today.
So what does any of this have to do with loving a mass murderer?
A poet once wrote: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Maybe there’s a profound wisdom in those words.
Perhaps love is like light naturally radiating from a sun that never sets. You don’t have to look for it. It’s always there, shining. Only it’s eclipsed as we stand with our back to it, blocking its warmth and luminescence. Instead, we often live like Plato’s cave dwellers, experiencing reality overcast and distorted by the shadows of our beliefs, our ideals, and ultimately, judgment.
So where do we begin?
Well, the four experiments presented in this talk are one possible place to begin. Shine a light inward. Just watch. Perhaps the simple act of observation can be a catalyst to something quite remarkable—a depth and availability of love you never knew was possible!
Thank you for letting me share with you.
[ii] Meloy, J. Reid, and Hoffman, Jens. International Handbook of Threat Assessment. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2014.
[iii] Dietz, Park D. “Mass, Serial, and Sensational Homicides.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 62:49-91. 1986.
[v] Meloy, J. Reid, and Hoffman, Jens. International Handbook of Threat Assessment. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2014.
[vi] Knoll, James. L. “The “Pseudocommando” Mass Murderer: Part II, The Language of Revenge.” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 38:263–72, 2010
[viii] Calhoun, Fredrick, and Weston, Stephen. Threat Assessment and Management Strategies: Identifying the Hunters and the Howlers. CRC Press. Boca Raton, FL. 2016.
[ix] Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech. April 16, 2007. Report of the Review Panel. Virginia Tech Review Panel. August 2007.
[x] Roger, Eliott. My Twisted Life. (Unpublished Autobiography) N.p. 2014.
[xi] Heuer, Richards. Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. Central Intelligence Agency. Washington, DC. 1999.