Friday, December 26, 2008

A Christmas Suicide-Homicide

LOS ANGELES - A distraught man dressed as Santa Claus opened fire at a Christmas Eve party and then set the house ablaze, killing at least eight people, police said.

Several hours later, the shooter killed himself.
Another terrible suicide-homicide here in the United States. Eight people lay dead. Then the killer turns the gun on himself. Socrates, though he committed suicide, would have considered harming others, and such destruction, akrasia. Yet humans all-too-often feel driven, or actively desire to go, to such extreme acts.

As families around the nation celebrated Christmas Eve in love and joy, Bruce Pardo shot an 8-year-old girl in the face as she opened a door. He shot a 16-year old girl in the back as she fled. After killing eight friends and relatives, both with a gun as well as by setting the home on fire, he fled the scene and later turned the gun on himself to commit suicide.

In the background, as I research this story, I am listening to a man doing his best to organize people around the world. He seeks to provide books and libraries to very poor African villages. It is an unrelated story to this Christmas tragedy, yet it is a counter-point to the wide difference in the logic, the humanity, and the morality between examples of humans.

What strikes me is the inversion, indeed, the perversion, of values. How a man in a Santa Claus outfit, the symbol of generosity and goodwill, turned into a monster. How the “civilized” western world is reduced to be as brutal and barbaric as ever. It strikes me how much there is in America that we could take solace and joy in. How so many of us take for granted things like education, reading books, electrical power, and the Internet. Yet, tragically, how miserable we can make ourselves, and each other.

Bruce Pardo could have helped the homeless and needy for Christmas. He could have relaxed and chalked up 2008 as a particularly bad year of his life. He could have called up his ex-wife and simply apologized for anything that went sour between them. He could have called a suicide prevention hotline, or turned himself over for psychiatric care or counseling. He did none of these things. And what he did do was monstrous.

The Greeks would have called this akrasia: acting against our better judgment. It is almost too small a term for his deeds.

James F. Welles, Ph.D. would simply and bluntly call this “stupidity.” Defined in his book Understanding Stupidity as “a normal, dysfunctional psychic phenomenon which is caused when a schema formed by linguistic biases and social norms acts via the neurotic paradox to establish a positive feedback system which carries behavior to maladaptive excesses.

Suicide-homicide surely is a gross example of maladaptive excess. Rather than adaptive behavior, it is destruction of all: taking those otherwise fit to survive, and judging them as unfit to live. The guilty and the innocent. Indiscriminate destruction, followed by self-destruction.

Behaviorally, there is no significant difference between this man or one of the Mumbai attackers. It doesn’t matter, per se, if one is motivated by the perceived social injustice of Hindus and Westerners committed against Muslims, and if another man is motivated to wreak vengeance following a contentious divorce.

Once we condone, or at least simply shrug, at the cause of one act of suicide-homicide, we become inured to other causes and reasons for violence. “Who cares? What can I do about it? All of this is beyond me.”

Is this “beyond us?” In a way, it is. The psychology of these people was so far to the side of anti-social psychopathy that they could not likely be dissuaded from their actions. Yet the conditions which engendered these feelings and allowed for these people to commit their deeds could have been affected by others. There are certainly people who produced guns, and explosives and incendiaries which ended up in the hands of the Mumbai attackers and in the hands of Bruce Pardo. They did not just magically appear out of thin air.

I freely concede these heinous acts are the direct responsibility of those who commit them. Yet it is the responsibility for all of us to deal with the aftermath. And it is the responsibility of society to look to protect each other and to watch out proactively, to minimize such monstrous deadly calamity.

We can all help influence others, throughout our lives, to seek to achieve our ends through healthier, more productive, and less-catastrophic means.

With the increasing stresses of the economy, and the fractious nature of national and international politics, there will likely be more violence. Borne out of frustration, anger and grief. It behooves us to try to ameliorate and sooth social crises. To watch for the warning signs of those who truly do seek to conduct violence against others.

I watched a show on television yesterday. About a man who was divorced and repeatedly told his co-workers about how he planned to murder his ex-wife. They all heard him talk over and over about it. Then one day, his wife disappeared, never to be seen again. She was presumed murdered. In all that time he had bragged and plotted on how specifically he would commit the murder, after all those expressed desires, no one had contacted the police. It baffled me. No one believed him. That he’d actually do it.

We have to face the reality of violence in our world. It may be chaotic, but it is not random. It is often predictable in personal relationships, and at the higher level in gross demographic terms: incidents per hundred thousand. While each actor has non-rational, non-predictive choices they make each day, we can consider what helps calm people, and makes for more sane, socially healthy individuals. And what is less-likely to produce wholesome individuals.

My heart goes out to those who, in this holiday season, were or are still being brutalized by physical and emotional violence. Those for whom there is little joy in Christmas. Little solace or hope. I pray they find peace again.

To those who are considering committing violence, I pray you change your hearts and avoid causing grief. For every rational or irrational reason drummed up in someone’s head for why they “have to” commit violence, there is another, stronger, more wholesome and more ethical reason as to why they could avoid committing harm.

The final term I ponder over this morning is that of malice. The phrase from the Wikipedia definition that resonates strongly with me is “an abandoned or malignant heart.” Merriam-Webster defines malice as “desire to cause pain, injury, or distress to another,” or “intent to commit an unlawful act or cause harm without legal justification or excuse.”

While this is so, what it leaves out is the cause of such desire or intent. As I said above, the specific motive almost doesn’t matter. I seek to go beyond the instances of what keyed off each of these suicide-homicides, and consider the more general theory of what drives a person to commit such. What is in the “stupidity” of the maladaptive schema that provides “suicide-homicide” as a supposedly-rational solution to a socio-political or interpersonal problem.

I’ve been up for hours thinking about this issue tonight. Not that I can single-handedly “solve” this sort of problem in a blog. But I keep thinking about this sort of psychological trauma. The kids getting shot on Christmas Eve. A party ending in mass-murder and a house in flames. I am relating it to Mumbai, and 9/11. To Columbine. And Jonestown. All over Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Palestine. The thousands of other suicide-homicide attacks around the nation and the world in recent decades.

I keep wondering what sort of social or psychological motivation can be applied to make people who would consider committing this sort of crime less-likely to do so in the future.

Christ would say we must love one another. Turn the other cheek. Seek not to judge, lest we be judged. Forgive.

Others would derisively mock people who would do this sort of malicious act as losers. Idiots. They’d heap excoriation and exasperation on them. Dismiss their motives as insane and asinine. And, most likely, deride Jesus of Nazareth as a liberal loser soft on crime.

How do we encourage people to be on their best behavior? What do we do when we have hints and indications they will purposefully act with malice and forethought to do as much harm as possible? When do we consider a person devoid of ethics, or beyond the bounds of sanity or morality? What do we do when a person is unrepentant and unstoppable by social persuasion alone?

Still others, I know, just don’t care, and have already switched the channel to a favorite holiday movie.

What is your reaction to this situation, and what do you believe can, or should, be done about such domestic violence, as well as international violence, and the issue of suicide-homicide?

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