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Steve Hansen: The motivations of mass murderers

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Posted: Tuesday, October 10, 2017 9:48 am

Just three months ago, Representative Steve Scalise was severely injured in a multiple shooting by left-wing fanatic James Hodgkinson.

Then last week, a horrific mass murder took place in Las Vegas, perpetrated by 64-year-old Steve Paddock, using illegal automatic weaponry.

Surely, most people by now must be asking: What makes mass murderers tick?

From my experience in the mental health field, perpetrators usually fall into one of four categories: (1) The true believer. (2) Those suffering from acute depression. (3) The “I’m nobody and want to be an instant somebody” syndrome, and (4) Those with antisocial personality disorder.

While there are differences among the four, here are at least three common threads found with people who engage in this atrocious activity:

1. Perpetrators are overwhelmingly male.

2. Use of the psychological defense, “denial:” This is employed by people who have character flaws unacceptable to their own egos. Robert Hanssen, one of America’s most famous traitors, is a good example. He practiced strict Catholicism, while indulging in perverted sexual behavior, along with treachery that killed innocent people.

3. Extensive use of the defense “projection.” This attributes one’s own behavioral and emotional flaws to others. “You’re the cause of all my unhappiness.” Denial and projection usually run in tandem. Now let’s look at the first category mentioned previously, which is the “true believer.” This term was coined by philosopher Eric Hoffer back in 1951. When carried to extremes, here are two characteristics that can lead to mass murder:

1. A passionate cause (no matter how sinister) that can idealistically change the world into a utopian panacea. These people think eliminating, terrorizing, subduing or silencing those who disagree with them are paths to achieving their fanciful goals (projection).

2. A self-image that exudes moral superiority, along with the irrational judgment that one’s own savage actions are acceptable for accomplishing a paradisal perspective. Adolf Hitler is an example of someone who did not see himself as evil (denial), but thought his methods were actually saving the human race from degeneration and extinction.

The second classification is major depression or bipolar depression. Two occasional symptoms here can sometimes lead to thanatotic consequences:

1. An overwhelming desire for self-destruction that is turned outwardly toward the innocent — sometimes delusionally thought to be the cause of one’s suffering (projection).

2. A compulsive drive to have people feel as they do, and force others to experience their pain of internal torment. Family murder-suicides can fit this picture.

“I’m nobody and want to be an instant somebody” syndrome fits those who have a grandiose sense of self-importance unrecognized by others and want to change this perception by leaving a memorable mark on the world. Self described communist Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of president John Kennedy, is an example.

The above three categories reflect the conditions of most people involved in mass shootings. However, a fourth category is seen occasionally, and that is the antisocial personality disorder, sometimes referred to as the “psychopathic” personality. Hardened gangsters can fit this profile. Here are two major traits associated with this model:

1. No conscience or moral compass.

2. Lack of remorse or understanding for the pain and suffering inflicted on others.

Incidentally, as a side note on schizophrenia: These folks rarely commit acts of mass violence, despite various erroneous depictions by Hollywood writers.

Information presented in this column is only a brief outline of issues describing those who kill innocent people. Categorical characteristics can overlap. “Ego-splitting,” revenge motives, paranoiac thinking and organic impairment are additional concepts that can be discussed at a later time. Media-inspired copycats are also a factor.

Solutions to mass murders from various politicians continue to be along partisan lines with legislative proposals that have no real effect on the problem. However, until we focus on distorted human mindstates involved in this type of violent behavior, it’s just a matter of time until additional tragic events occur.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and retired psychotherapist.