Witness

A blog about forensic psychology

Aurora Massacre: To Speak or Not to Speak?

Psychology's role in the public conversation

The blood on the movie theater floor was still tacky when mental health professionals began pontificating on the psychology of the mass murderer. Among the brashest self-promoters was a forensic psychologist who shamelessly asserted his preternatural ability to "look inside the mind" of the Aurora, Colorado massacre suspect.

Much of the psycho-punditry reads like it was pulled from a psychoanalytic fortune cookie:

  • James Holmes is a "deeply disturbed" individual. 
  • He may, or may not, be psychotic and delusional. 
  • He harbors a lot of rage.

Such "armchair psychology" is a natural byproduct of the news media's frenetic competition for online traffic. To object is as pointless as it would have been to stand in the killer's way and shout "stop!" as he opened fire during the Batman movie.

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But some are nonetheless voicing criticism, saying it is both misleading and irresponsible to speculate at this early stage about the accused's state of mind. Curtis Brainard of the venerated Columbia Journalism Review goes so far as to call it unethical, a violation of the so-called "Goldwater Rule" of 1973. That principle cautions psychiatrists not to offer a professional opinion without having conducted a psychiatric examination and "been granted proper authorization for such a statement."

While that ethics rule applies only to psychiatrists, the American Psychological Association has a very similar one. Section 9.01 cautions psychologists to "provide opinions of the psychological characteristics of individuals only after they have conducted an examination of the individuals adequate to support their statements or conclusions."

But it is in the gray area of interpreting these ethics rules that reasonable minds differ. Indisputably, we should not attempt to clinically diagnose Mr. Holmes absent a formal evaluation. But must professionals with expertise in the general patterns underlying mass killings stand silently on the sidelines, refraining from offering any collective wisdom to the public?

As a blogger who frequently comments on breaking news stories pertinent to forensic psychology, I have often grappled with this conundrum. When the UK Guardian asked me to write a commentary on Phillip Garrido, the kidnapper and rapist of Jaycee Dugard, I ultimately decided that providing general information about the forensic implications of the case was an appropriate public service that did not violate any ethics rules.

Consider this commentary by high-profile forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner on a Washington Post blog:

Mass shooting cases have the common motive of an attacker seeking immortality. Each of the attackers have different degrees of paranoia and resentment of the broader community. Some are so paranoid that they’re psychotic. Others are paranoid in a generally resentful way but have no significant psychiatric illness. But you have to hate everyone in order to kill anyone. The threshold that the mass shooter crosses is one in which he decides that his righteous indignation and entitlement to destroy is more important than the life of any random person that he might kill. This is why mass shooting are invariably, invariably carried out by people who have had high self esteem. They are people who had high expectations of themselves. It’s not at all surprising to hear about these crimes in people who either valued their own intelligence or their own career prospects at one time. They’re people who are unfailingly unable to form satisfying sexual attachments and their masculinity essentially gets replaced with their fascination for destruction.

Now, I don't always see eye to eye with Dr. Welner, author of the controversial "Depravity Scale." But the above perspective has the potential to contribute to informed discussion of the Aurora tragedy. It doesn't matter whether every single detail turns out to be a precise fit; the comments are general enough to enlighten without stepping over the line to claim an ability to see into Holmes's troubled soul.

One could even argue that we as professionals have an affirmative duty to help offset the inane speculation that pours in to fill any vacuum in the cutthroat world of daily journalism: Portrayals of Holmes as a "recluse" and a "loner" because he didn’t converse with his neighbors; assertions that he "didn’t seem like the type" to massacre a dozen people, because he appeared superficially "normal"; simplistic theories blaming the tragedy on violence in the media or the legality of gun ownership.

Our field is positioned to help the public separate the wheat from the chaff. We can discuss the complex admixture of entitlement, alienation and despair that contributes to these catastrophic explosions. Equally important, we can remind the public that such rampages are rare and unpredictable, and that knee-jerk, "memorial crime control" responses are unwarranted and potentially dangerous. We can urge restraint in jumping to conclusions absent the facts, lest we—as journalist Dave Cullen, author of the book Columbine, warns in yesterday's New York Timescontribute to harmful myth-making:  

Over the next several days, you will be hit with all sorts of evidence fragments suggesting one motive or another. Don’t believe any one detail. Mr. Holmes has already been described as a loner. Proceed with caution on that. Nearly every shooter gets tagged with that label, because the public is convinced that that’s the profile, and people barely acquainted with the gunman parrot it back to every journalist they encounter. The Secret Service report determined that it’s usually not true. Resist the temptation to extrapolate details prematurely into a whole…. The killer is rarely who he seems.

But we should also recognize the limitations of our discipline’s micro focus on the individual, and encourage the public to grapple with the larger issues raised by this cultural affliction of the late-20th and early 21st century. As I commented last year in regard to the media coverage of the Jared Loughner shooting rampage in Arizona, journalists need to train a macro lens on the cultural forces that lead disaffected middle-class men—like canaries in a coal mine—to periodically self-implode with rage. Disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and cultural studies have much to contribute to this much-needed analysis.

The irony of the Aurora case is hard to miss: an attack in a movie theater featuring The Dark Knight Rises, a movie in which a masked villain leads murderous rampages against unsuspecting citizens in public venues including a packed football stadium and the stock exchange.

As Salon film critic Andrew O'Hehir noted in an insightful essay entitled, "Does Batman Have Blood on his Hands?":

Whether or not Holmes had any particular interest in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he saw correctly that in our increasingly fragmented culture it was the biggest mass-culture story of the year and one of the biggest news stories of any kind. Shoot up a KenTaco Hut or a Dunkin’ Donuts, in standard suburban-nutjob fashion, and you get two or three days of news coverage, tops. Shoot up the premiere of a Batman movie, and you become a symbol and provoke a crisis of cultural soul-searching.

Bottom line: The larger error is not for informed professionals to respond—cautiously, of course—to media inquiries but, rather, for the public to settle for facile explanations, in which calling someone crazy or disturbed is mistaken for understanding what is going on. 

BBC radio talk show

For those of you who are still tuned in to the Aurora massacre story, I invite you to listen in on the segment of the BBC show "World Have Your Way" on which I was the featured expert. The topic was whether tragedies like this can be prevented. (The short answer, from my perspective, is “No”). Alongside me were the mother of a young man who was at the theater, another man from the local community of Aurora, and a survivor of the recent massacre in Oslo, Norway. We four were on similar wavelengths, but things got a bit heated when a psychologist from California called in to say that more could and should have been done to prevent the killings by the Man Who Has No Name.

Media critic Gene Lyons also has an article at the National Memo linking back to my blog post on this topic.  

Related blog posts: 

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

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