If we’re truly serious about stopping massacres like Aurora, we need to cure our addiction to evil.
Still from The Dark Knight Rises © Warner Bros. All rights reserved.
In 1996, a man shot and killed 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania. If degrees of abjectness are assignable in such cases, for a massacre to unfold at Port Arthur was, for Australians, doubly awful. As Robert Hughes wrote in The Fatal Shore, his superlative history of the country’s origins as a penal colony: “Port Arthur has always dominated the popular historical imagination in Australia as the emblem of the miseries of transportation, ‘the Hell on Earth.’” Since the late 1970s, the ruins at Port Arthur, once the British Empire’s most pitiless labor camp, had been treated on the model of the European death camps; as a secular holy place, a site to wander in while meditating on how human beings subjugate and deform and generally thieve the dignity from other human beings. One of the first victims of the Port Arthur massacre, facing the barrel of the gun, said simply: “Not here.”
As a nation in no small part ancestored by convicts, Australia has a sober relationship to criminality, and the country’s response to the Port Arthur massacre was magnificent in its sobriety. The federal government enacted strict gun control laws and initiated a massive firearms buyback program. (In the 18 years prior to the Port Arthur massacre, Australia experienced 14 mass shootings; in the subsequent 16 years, there have been none.) But the reaction to the Port Arthur tragedy went beyond legislation and into a serious attempt to understand the causes of the “civil massacre,” as it’s labeled in the literature, an effort that began more or less immediately. The Port Arthur perpetrator had been assigned a defense psychiatrist named Paul Mullen. When Mullen first interviewed the shooter, he was struck by his repeated queries about the death toll: He wanted to know if he had exceeded the body count of the Dunblane massacre in Scotland, which had occurred six weeks earlier.
Mullen had a suspicion about his client’s repellent one-upmanship, and his research confirmed it: that civil massacres were by their nature copycat crimes, “modeled,” as Mullen has since written, “on Rambo-like images and informed by knowledge, and occasionally study, of prior massacres.” While it is true that civil massacres occurred throughout the 20th century, they were rare until the mid-1960s, when the phenomenon took a grimly familiar shape with the so-called “tower sniper.” The incident at the University of Texas, in which a former Marine held the Austin campus under siege from a bell tower, received massive media attention and was even turned into a well-known TV movie. It provided, according to Mullen, a kind of ritualized script (Mullen’s word) that civil massacres have followed ever since.
A young man stages a mass gun killing as a grand and redemptive act of vengeance on the world, an act so spectacular it draws the apparatus of instant notoriety —the news media—into action, thus lending the perpetrator an aura of power so sorely lacking in his ordinary life. OK, asked Mullen, but who is this young man? Piecing together a profile of the typical perpetrator, Mullen noted that among “pseudocommandos” (another term from the literature) feelings of guilt and worthlessness were conspicuous for their absence. These were invariably young men with a high (if deluded) self-regard, who believed they had been grossly undervalued by the world —so much so, their lives had become one long psychic injury. They had often been bullied or neglected as children, had grown up into loners, and often had recently lost their last shred of emotional connection or support (job, girlfriend) with the world. But their dominant experience was one of persecution; their dominant affect, one of resentment.
Narcissism, persecution, resentment—even as I write it, I think check, check, check.
From a social-psychological point of view, young men are a thicket of false positives. Who can pick from among the millions of alienated boys who will, triggered by loss, sow chaos? The preventative focus must come elsewhere; and to this end, Mullen, along with many other researchers, have looked to an unusual antecedent. The English phrase “running amok” is derived from the Malay concept of pengamok, or someone who commits an intensely violent and indiscriminate homicidal assault, often with a machete or a dagger, often in a crowded public space. Westerners have been fascinated by the pengamok since Captain Cook first visited the Malay archipelago and recorded its existence in his journal, in 1770. Since the amok was regarded as an extreme form of gila kena hantu (a kind of possession by evil spirits, or tiger spirits) or gila buatan orang (possession by witchcraft), it was treated with enormous tolerance—even, researchers claim, subtly sanctioned by the Malay tribes.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.