Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial


The Missing Word Is Panic.

When morality is blinding

Posted Jul 16, 2016

(Update July 23rd)

Here’s the tragic puzzle we’re up against. Killing triggers such a powerful moralistic reflex in us that we lose sight of motives. A nobody rents a truck to murder pedestrians in Nice and world leaders instantly proclaim it a terrorist attack: a war, with enemies to be wiped out. Whether you're a terrorist or a world leader, if you focus on right or wrong—if you moralize—you’re taking a heroic role. Each side feels supremely justified.

 When police kill innocent people or someone kills cops, both sides may feel right. In social media, a few posts called the sniper in Dallas a hero. In Oregon, a police officer posted that someone facing protesters blocking a road should “push the ‘right’ car pedal to the floor.” (AP 7/15/16) Slyly the cop was inviting us to identify with the enraged trucker in Nice.

No doubt we agree that it’s wrong to kill innocent people, so let’s skip to the hard stuff.

The murderous trucker’s sister said her brother was “temperamental and aggressive.” He “did not drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, but he also did not pray and never entered a mosque in his life,” she said. “He was just not stable psychologically and mentally. His wife and her mother both complained about his violent behavior towards her.” French police say the man had been a very small-time criminal. As a teenager he had suffered a mental breakdown lasting two years.

ISIS claims the trucker as its “soldier,” but anybody could make that claim. The attack had no discernible ideological meaning. It did have all the characteristics of the rampages we see modeled almost every day in media. The official cry that it’s a “war” with terrorist “enemies” gives the attack epic dignity.

As it happened, reporters also compared the Dallas rampage to a combat zone, with insinuations of ISIS terrorism and race war. The NY Times described the killer as a disgraced ex-soldier who hated whites and practiced military tactics in his backyard. The stories emphasized Micah Johnson’s “military tactics” and attempts to make bombs. But his “tactics” amounted to moving from spot to spot while shooting, and his bombs were duds.

In reality, Johnson was also in mental turmoil. In negotiations, the Dallas police chief said, Johnson “sang and laughed” and was ‘”obviously” delusional. He was doing “quite a bit of rambling at the scene.” (Why then did police use their high-tech “bomb robot” to blow an unhinged babbler to smithereens? The overkill suggests panic.)

Rampage killers remind us that fight or flight panic can erupt as berserk rage as well as a run for your life. Combat stress can trigger a My Lai massacre. A full-blown nervous system emergency—in slang a meltdown—originates in panic about death.  The definition of a panic attack closely corresponds to the textbook definition of trauma: “an intense attack of anxiety characterized by feelings of impending doom and trembling, sweating, pounding heart, and other physical symptoms.”

Micah Johnson’s rage was grounded in panic. “Dallas is the home of the New Black Panther Party,” whose The Nationalist Manifesto “claims that white men have a secret plan to commit genocide against all non-white people.” As history shows, the terror of extinction is engrained in all of us. [1] Johnson had handled military weapons. His USA has been inflaming white hysteria that blacks, Mexicans, or other aliens are about to “take over.” He had to know about the unarmed black men that police have been killing.

Panic can combine fight and flight, reality and delusion. Like the psychotic Colin Ferguson, who ran amok with a pistol aboard a Long Island Railroad car thinking he was in an apocalyptic race war (1993), Johnson recognized real racial injustice, even as panic was driving him to destruction. Johnson's rampage crystallized the Sovereign Citizen fantasies of Gavin Long, whose rampage killed three police in Baton Rouge (July 16, 2016), 

The French trucker had a small arsenal (the NRA would have helped him to more). Johnson also wished for a great arsenal, as the Columbine killers did. The fantasy of creating unimaginable destruction shows what’s at stake in a rampage. 

The killers face social death—the terror of being a nobody, a loser, stripped of self-esteem and identity. As a Tunisian immigrant, Lahouaiej Bouhlel probably felt the sort of alienation that the sinister Donald Trump whips up against Mexicans and blacks. As a minor criminal (road rage after a fender bender),  once fired, with many failed relationships, he may have become a copycat “terrorist” in a panicky effort to be a “big man.” If he was a terrorist at all, it was likely opportunistic. 

Like real death, social death can feel like annihilation. Hence the copycat quality in rampages, the panicky need to prove that you matter. The Iranian-German teenager who ran amok in Munich (7.22.16), had collected materials about rampage killings such as Columbine and had had been treated for depression. Reports that he had been bullied at and had shouted "I'm German" during his assault suggest panic about identity. [2] Faced with nothingness, killers dream of totally confirming the self by commanding total attention from the world through fantastic slaughter. Experiencing massive threat, rampage killers imagine massive violence to eliminate it.

And what about police? While some cops are racists, police kill in panic. On the job they focus on aggression and on social death. Naturally they fear for their lives. In the US, anyone they stop they may be concealing a gun to kill them. And even if you’re as innocent as Bambi, you resent cops suspecting and stopping you. Policing always means conflict.

Like soldiers, police have elevated survival reflexes. With a gun in hand, a trigger is potentially a hair-trigger. No amount of training guarantees self-control. The splitsecond chaos of an emergency is unpredictable, even unimaginable. You see panic whenever a cop keeps shooting someone who’s fallen, wounded and helpless. Reflex pulls that easy trigger, preempting judgment.

Police earn their pay for learning to live with, and control, hair-trigger panic.  It’s a big order, and not every cop can manage it. 

Panic is dangerous not only because of its berserk potential, but also because it can build subtly, intoxicating and contagious, with no natural upper limit. To cope with that mayhem, killers fixate. Micah Johnson abandoned his plans and plunged into action because he was rapidly coming apart. Afterward, unhinged, he “sang and laughed” as a way of holding himself together.

But there is a deeper danger too: panic can seem natural, even desirable. We use panic. [3] How can that be? 

Crisis can be a handy tool for managing behavior. Crisis sells news. Deadline panic is a business tool. Terrorism, helicopter parenting, and debt come to us as crises. President Bush used a fake WMD crisis to rationalize the slaughter of Iraqis for their oil. Crises keep up the cash flow for history’s most expensive corporate military. Panic over germs sells “anti-microbial” soap.  American entertainment—thrillers, soap operas, etc.—cranks up panic. After the Dallas rampage, with no evidence whatsoever, the Internet lit up with lunatic fringe accusations that president Obama is trying to start a “race war.”

In all the examples above, panic is used to combine opposite motives.  First they panic you, then they rescue you. It’s romantic, sometimes even sexy. Being calmed after panic is the lovely feeling of being soothed by Mum and the breast. Recovering from panic can refresh you. As a crude sort of shock therapy, it can help you overcome depression. Even rampage killers can fantasize that rage will restore self-esteem and justice.

As usual, after the horror in Nice, leaders began calling again for all-out war against terrorism. In fact no western country is fully mobilized for war.  Instead of calming people, the war cries are playing at berserk rage. It’s threat display meant to massage morale.  It’s propaganda.  Terrorists know that.  And meanwhile the epic publicity models glorious infamy for marginal nobodies desperate to escape from dead end life. The moral reflex casts both the killer and those who would kill him in the role of hero.

The use of panic feels so good that we pay for the pleasure. But there is a price. In using panic, we’re partly pretending. We’re agreeably fooling ourselves and each other in order to enjoy it. In rampage killers, tragically, that quality of play eventually slips into action, with no turning back and no natural limit except maybe exhaustion or death. It’s the dream of throwing off all constraints and pressures in one apocalyptic blaze. More people died in the last panicky six months of WW2 than in all the years before. Nazis perished dreaming of super-weapons. The Americans actually produced one.

And used it.


1. For a bracing overview, see Donald Dutton, The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres, and Extreme Violence (2008)

2. "I'm German" may have expressed a conflict over ethnic identity in an era of turmoil over immigration, but it may also have been a frantic assertion that he wasn't acting for middle-eastern terrorists but for himself.

3. For a more detailed analysis, see The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller's Press) and: