Witness

A blog about forensic psychology

The Arizona rampage: Analyzing the analyzers

Endless loop tape spins us into a vortex of irrationality

After every high-profile crime, experts charge out of their corners with their pet solutions: Restrict high-capacity gun magazines. Increase mental health services. Revise school or workplace procedures.

Conservative media psychiatrist Sally Satel is even using the Arizona tragedy as a platform for laws requiring schools and businesses to report to authorities any student or employee who it "ejects or otherwise removes .... out of concern about behavior and dangerousness." Talk about a civil liberties nightmare!

Memorial crime control

Such opportunistic crime-control advocacy works best during moments of public crisis. When the hysteria reaches critical mass, politicians appease anxious constituencies through yet another feel-good law. Then, the latest crisis dies down and people get back to their normal lives. Watching Fox-TV, they remain blissfully shielded from the dark side of memorial crime control.

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Rather than capturing the monsters of the public's imagination -- lunatic rampagers, sexual predators, and homicidal gangsters -- this inexorable web of draconian laws ends up ensnaring the most vulnerable, mainly young African American and Latino men from poor communities.

Do you recognize the name Rodrigo Caballero? Unlikely. He is just one tiny speck in a mass of captive and unknown dark bodies, a 16-year-old mentally ill California boy sentenced to 110 years in prison for attempted murder. Any cathartic efforts of memorial crime control are short-lived, while the costly and unanticipated social costs live on. Young Mr. Caballero isn't due out of prison until 2110, long after he and all of the rest of us will be dead.

No profile of would-be assassins

There will always be the next rare event to fuel this cycle of knee-jerk response, ostensibly aimed at protecting us from every remote contingency.

Hindsight bias is a powerful heuristic that obscures an unfortunate truth: It is very hard to accurately predict -- much less prevent -- individual-level violence. As I wrote four years ago, after Cho Seung-Hui's deadly rampage at Virginia Tech:

Many people -- and especially many adolescent and young adult men -- are troubled. Many are severely depressed. Many express disturbing, violent fantasies. Fortunately, only a tiny fraction commit lethal acts against others. And unfortunately, those who do often do not stand out ahead of time.

This is what forensic psychologist Robert Fein found when he conducted a Secret Service study of all political assassins and would-be assassins in the United States over the past 60 years. Contrary to popular mythology, the assassins fit no singular "profile." They were neither monsters nor martyrs, Fein said:

The reality of American assassination is much more mundane, more banal, than assassinations depicted [in movies].

The myth of the deranged killer

Jared Loughner's delusional ramblings, revealed to the world by intrepid Internet sleuths, are the only explanation some people need. But they are something of a red herring.

First, as advocates for the mentally ill are quick to point out, the link between psychosis and violence is far from settled. Most people with severe mental disorders do not become violent. Any increased risk is miniscule compared with the risk posed by use of alcohol or drugs, according to large-scale studies. As Vaughan Bell puts it in his lucid summary of this research:

Psychiatric diagnoses tell us next to nothing about someone's propensity or motive for violence.... It's likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.

But even when an assassin does harbor delusional beliefs, this is not sufficient explanation. Loughner's gender likely played a role, too, as men commit far more violence than women. Yet we would never think we had explained the Tucson rampage with the statement: "Loughner was a man."

In fact, the Secret Service study found that the assassins who were delusional -- about one-fourth of the total -- acted out of the types of motivations as non-delusional assassins. As reporter Douglas Fox summarized:

Some hoped to achieve notoriety by killing a well-known person. Others wanted to end their pain by being killed by Secret Service. Still others hoped to avenge a perceived, idiosyncratic grievance unrelated to mainstream politics. Some hoped, unrealistically, to save the country or call attention to a cause. And some hoped to achieve a special relationship with the person they were killing.

Selecting one's lens: Micro or macro?

In our professional role, forensic psychologists use a micro lens, focusing on the individual level of analysis. But when commentators focus solely on individual-level factors, they divert the public from contextual factors that may be more amenable to prevention.

In other words, at the micro level there is no question that Loughner is a troubled young man. But at the macro level, his choice of targets certainly reflects the political tensions in the United States and especially in Arizona, which even the local sheriff described as a "Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Sarah Palin is able to evade responsibility for her violent rhetoric by strategically refocusing on the culturally entrenched myth of the dangerous schizophrenic, and calling Loughner "deranged" and "evil."

Ironically, it is the mentally unstable like Loughner who are most vulnerable to extremist rhetoric, and other memes floating around in our cultural ethos. As prominent forensic psychologist and law professor Charles Patrick Ewing noted:

These influential politicians and commentators who use violent rhetoric and images -- such as putting a member of Congress in the crosshairs, telling supporters that it is time to 'reload' and suggesting that voters unhappy with Congress resort to 'Second Amendment remedies' -- must realize that they have an incredibly wide audience. At least some members of that audience (both sane and insane) will view their inflammatory statements as an invitation to violence.... The blame for these killings does not lie with the perpetrator alone."

"Stochastic terrorism" is the term invoked by one professor of communications to describe this phenomenon, of "use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable."

What if Abdul had done it?

That the micro lens is a deliberate choice becomes clearer if we ask ourselves how media coverage might be different if a Muslim from the Middle East had shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Would the focus still be on individual pathology? Or would it be on his political affiliations and the content of his rhetoric?

The din of rhetoric about mental illness drowns out the voices of those framing Loughner's attempted assassination as an act of political terrorism. People like Jesse Muhammed, Sahar Aziz, and Cenk Uygur, who asks incredulously:

Is this a joke? He shot a politician in the head. He called it an "assassination." What part of that was unclear? ... [W]hy does the act have to be either psychotic or political? It's obviously both.... The conservative hate-mongers don't create psychos.... [But] they channel their fear, anger and paranoia.... They load them up them up with violent imagery, whether it's talk of cross-hairs or second amendment remedies or the tree of liberty being refreshed with blood. Then when they get a violent reaction they pretend to be surprised and outraged that anyone would suggest they were the least bit culpable. The reality is that it is a simple formula -- violent imagery in, violent results out.

In the final analysis, the causes of violence are multifaceted and difficult to disentangle. And it is impossible to predict which troubled, angry and alienated young man will engage in lethal violence. But one thing is certain: More laws are not the answer. They cast too wide a net, and distract from the search for deeper solutions.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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