Two twelve-year-old Wisconsin girls have been charged as adults with attempted first-degree intentional homicide. The victim was one of their best friends, another 12-year-old girl.
What is most striking about the case—and the reason they have been charged as adults rather than as juveniles—is that the attempted murder was not a crime of passion, with a teenage fight escalating until things got out of hand.
No, this attempted murder was the product of keen, cold, calculating reasoning. Reasoning based on faulty premises, but logical reasoning nonetheless. Reasoning devoid of empathy.
In a highly touted New Yorker article, Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom argued that, "empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future” because empathy is "narrow-minded, parochial, and innumerate" (The New Yorker, May 20, 2013). In a response, my co-author and I argued instead that, "it is the marriage of empathy to principle that has always been and will continue to be our salvation. It is our ability to generalize and to direct our empathy through the use of reason that is our saving grace."
The Creepypasta attempted murder provides evidence that, contrary to Bloom's claim, when empathy is suppressed (or simply lacking), moral reasoning is not improved. Instead, it opens the door to heinous behavior.
According to police, the 12-year-old girls had been plotting the murder for months. Their goal was to "pay homage to a fictional character who they believed was real after reading about him on a website devoted to horror stories." In the fictional world described on the website Creepypasta Wiki, one must prove oneselve worthy of the leader, Slenderman, by killing. By killing their friend, they hoped to prove themselves worthy to Slender Man and simultaneously prove that he really did exist. Over the course of a year, the girls planned and plotted how to lure and murder their friend. Then they planned to walk to Slenderman's mansion, which they believed was in Wisconsin's Nicolet National Forest.
They stabbed their friend 19 times in a bathroom at a nearby park because they knew there was a drain in the floor for the blood to go down. The victim managed to get up and stumble toward the street, and, because they didn't want anyone to see her, they told her to lie down so she would lose blood more slowly. One of the girls told the victim that they were going to go for help. But instead, they stayed there watching her until they thought she couldn't breathe, see or walk. Then they left. One of the girls later told the police, "It was weird that I didn't feel remorse."
What is striking about this story is that the girls' actions were predicated on careful reasoning. Each action was carefully thought out, the costs and benefits weighed, the likelihood of success assessed. The planning took place over the course of an entire year. They wanted to prove an hypothesis—that Slenderman did exist. They selected actions that were entailed by their belief system that would allow them to test that hypothesis: Slenderman is real. Slenderman rewards those who kill. If we kill our friend, then Slenderman will reward us. If Slenderman rewards us, then he is real. Their argument was valid, but it was not sound: A valid argument is one in which accepting the premises but rejecting the conclusion constitutes a contradiction. In other words, you can't accept the premises and reject the conclusion without contradicting yourself. A sound argument is a valid argument that is based on true premises. Slender Man does not exist, so their argument is not sound. But when testing hypotheses, one doesn't know that the premises are true. That is why one is testing them.
History is replete with examples of sane people committing acts as heinous as burning people at the stake, putting people in ovens, crucifying people, flogging people, and so on. In each case, the people committing the acts were doing so because they were obeying authorities in their beliefs systems.
We could argue that the Catholics, Nazis, Romans, penal system workers, and so on were all crazy. Or we could ask what made people NOT commit these acts even when authorities and their belief systems were telling them to do so.
We eliminated these practices because we acknowledged that inflicting such heinous suffering on people--even miscreants, heretics, and criminals--was wrong. The founding fathers called these practices "cruel and unusual punishment", and they forbade them across the board.
History is also replete with people who refused to obey authorities' or society's orders to kill, maim, or inflict heinous suffering on feeling creature out of empathy and compassion for their suffering and their plight. It is that spark of compassion and empathy that stayed the hand of many a would-be torturer or executioner.
So whether these girls were mentally ill or not, the total lack of compassion and empathy should be of most concern to us. There are millions of mentally ill people in the U.S. alone, and the vast majority are threats to no one. But there are many perfectly sane people in the U.S. and elsewhere who have no problem with inflicting physical, mental, or emotional harm on others, and they, in my opinion, are a greater threat.
We can't fault the girls for their reasoning. But what we can fault them for is the total lack of empathy for their victim. In order to prove Slenderman's existence and garner favor with him, an innocent victim had to suffer horribly and die.
Their reasoning wouldn't stay their hands from executing such a heinous crime, but empathy for the victim would have—had they had any. Seeing their friend's anguish, hearing her cries, watching her die—these events should have elicited some degree of empathy for the victim—a gnawing in the belly, a sharp squeeze to the heart. These natural reactions are not annoyances that mislead, but are alarms that should reboot the reasoning system so that a crucial question can be asked: Is all this suffering really justified?
When would-be perpetrators back down, claiming "I just couldn't go through with it. I felt sorry for the victim", they haven't committed a reasoning error. They have not allowed "baser" motivations to overcome "pure" reason. They have allowed one to temper the other in order to bring about a humane outcome.
And that is also true when it comes to sentencing perpetrators. Heinous crimes elicit moral outrage, and moral outrage can lead to cruel and unusual punishment. Because moral outrage can drown out both empathy and reason.
Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins June 3, 2014; Updated June 5, 2014
Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.
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