Something is Wrong with this Picture

April 17, 2007 at 4:05 am (Uncategorized)

I just don’t understand how someone can arm themselves and then go out and shoot scores of defenceless people to death. There’s some kind of short circuit in my brain that stops me being able to access the kind of thinking that would make it possible for me to imagine doing something like that. I just reach a theoretical wall I can’t get around. It is, quite simply, beyond me.

I have a theory, and I doubt it’s mine alone, that the whole crime and punishment system is deeply flawed because it doesn’t seem to – at its foundation – acknowledge the a priori existence of some kind of mental disturbance within its strategies of prevention and rehabilitation. Mental illness. Something wrong with the way the neurons are firing. Because it seems to me something has to be wrong with you, something must be mentally imbalanced, in order for you to be capable of any number of criminal acts. If you are incapable of reason, and you must be if you fail to comprehend the gross unreasonableness of murderous feelings, then it seems to me to logically follow that you are therefore mentally unsound. And if you’re mentally unsound, then you’re unwell.

I don’t know how many criminals receive psychiatric and/or psychological treatment as part of their incarceration. Is it compulsory? And is a mental health assessment compulsory? Is there any kind of acknowledgement that, gee, you know, there has to be something mentally wrong with you if you’re capable of walking through a campus and shooting students and teachers in the face before turning the gun on yourself. Wrong. Something is definitely wrong. In the head. And whilst I do think America’s gun laws are part of the problem – it just shouldn’t be that easy for people to gain access to lethal weapons – I also think Australia shares with at least the US an inability to deal with and in some ways even accept the challenges of mental illness and its relationship to criminal behaviour.

I know I’m oversimplifying this and I’m sorry – I am not a healthcare professional, and I don’t have the language or the expertise or the experience to really grapple with these issues on anything other than a basic, generalised level – but I can’t help think there has to be something mentally wrong with someone who commits certain crimes (and maybe even the teenage shoplifter has something going on mentally that is related to their law breaking). If everything is humming along smoothly upstairs, you don’t generally go off and do sick, violent things. They don’t occur to you. Ever. In fact, they abhor you. Mentally well people do not settle their differences and disappointments this way. They just don’t. They communicate and resolve their problems in a variety of other ways. And maybe if one of those ways included really looking closely at mental health as crucial to society’s well-being overall, and supporting its development properly with funding and research and facilities and time, maybe, just maybe, one of those problems wouldn’t keep coming to this.

Rest in peace.

On the subject of gun control, or the appalling, reckless lack thereof, I received this email from Sarah just now, so I thought I’d share it with you. It’s pretty sobering stuff. Sobering and grim:

I just thought i’d pass on this list of FAQs on Virginia’s gun laws from today’s Crikey. I thought it was astonishing. Our gun laws were radically reformed after Port Arthur – I really hope that Virginia does the same. The way I see it, there will always be people who, sadly, slip through the cracks of society, but it can’t help matters when people have ready access to automatic weapons.

Speak to you soon, Sarah x

Virginia state gun laws. Frequently asked questions:

Is a permit required to purchase rifles, handguns and shotguns? No.

Is registration required for rifles, handguns and shotguns? No.

Is licensing required for the owners of rifles, handguns and shotguns? No.

Do you need a permit to carry rifles and shotguns? No.

Is a permit required to carry a handgun? A permit is required only if the weapon is concealed.

Is there a one-handgun-per-month limit on gun sales? Yes

Are there limitations on assault weapons and magazines? No

May police limit the carrying of concealed handguns? No

Must child-safe locking devices be sold with guns? No

Are background checks required at gun shows? No

Are minors restricted from possessing guns? In part

Is a licence/permit required to buy handguns? No

Are all guns registered with law enforcement? No

Is safety training required for handgun buyers? No

Is it illegal for holders of concealed-weapon permits to carry guns into schools? Yes



  1. Warwick said,

    Given the difficulty of empathising with those who perpetrate evil, I’m wary of generalisations, but one does get the impression, just from reading the newspapers, that mental illness is a common factor among those who commit random acts of extreme violence. I think we need to ask, however, whether this is actually the case.

    (… brief web search ensues…)

    In ‘Assessing the Evidence of a Link Between Mental Illness and Violence’ (1994), Professor E P Mulvey argues that while recent research suggests a correlation between mental illness and violence, most violence committed in the community is not the result of people with mental illness. Note that the research only shows a correlation: it is not clear that mental actually causes violence, The following comes from the article’s abstract:

    ‘Six statements about the relationship between mental illness and violence can be drawn from current research: Data from recent studies indicate that mental illness is a risk factor for violence in the community; although the association between mental illness and violence is statistically significant, only a small proportion of violence in our society can be attributed to individuals who are mentally ill; the risk of violent behavior is likely to be increased significantly when an individual with a serious mental illness also has a substance abuse disorder; although the association between mental illness and violence may remain significant when demographic characteristics are taken into account, there has been no comprehensive study of levels and types of violence in individuals with mental illness and matched nondisordered individuals; those with active symptoms are more likely to exhibit violent behavior than are those who simply have a mental disorder; causality between mental illness and violence has yet to be determined. The 2 phenomena may coexist, rather than being links in a causal chain of events.’

    This is good to know, but since psychology tends to focus on pathologies, I’m not sure how useful it is for understanding the workings of ‘everyday evil’. Personally, I’m more interested in understanding the problem from a situationist perspective re: social psychology. Situationists regard the behaviour of individuals as heavily influenced by external factors; crudely put, whether or not you are good person is less important than whether you are in a ‘good’ situation; i.e., one that encourages moral behaviour.

    The go-to guy here is Professor Philip Zimbardo, formerly of Stanford University and the creative force behind the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment ( ). His research helps us understand how ordinary people come to commit extraordinary crimes. (Zimbardo testified at the US military’s investigation into the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib). He currently has a new book out you may be interested in: ‘The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil’ ( ).

    Another book that that may be useful here, one that I’ve just started reading, is Christopher R Browning’s ‘Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion and the Final Solution in Poland’. Browning shows how a unit of very ordinary, middle-aged Germans were turned into cold-blooded killers through a gradual process of indoctrination and desensitization. While many initially refused to participate in the killings, eventually, over the course of about a year, this unit of 500 men were directly responsible for the deaths of nearly 40,000 Jews.

    In light of atrocities such as these, I think a good starting point for understanding evil is not ‘why do people commit evil acts?’ but ‘why don’t people commit evil acts more often?’ As for reason, I don’t know that it’s all that relevant. As Hume once wrote, it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the universe to a cut upon my finger.


  2. doctordi said,

    I’d disagree with Hume on that point. I think his preference is definitely contrary to reason, and I’d happily take the cut on my finger any day. He must have been a frightful sissy.

    I like the way your comments often challenge the validity of my questions, Warwick. This is not the first time you’ve responded to one of my posts by saying ‘That’s not really the question, THIS is really the question.’ It’s very provocative on one level, because there’s a degree to which you’re saying I keep missing the point/subtleties/intelligent reading of a given situation. And that does put the fire in my belly, which is good for debate and all sorts of other things, like pounding dough with my clenched fist. But on another level, it’s very useful to me to have someone like you around who gives even more thought to these things than I do. Perhaps if I had researched my post even half as well as you have researched your response to it, I might have answered some of my own questions and come up with the new, improved, and, as you say, relevant ones instead. As it is I am ever the laziest scholar alive. A shortcoming your always interesting and thoughtful contributions make glaringly apparent. Thank you, Warwick, I think you might have even proved the good professor’s point, because god knows I feel like punching someone now.

    I probably shouldn’t kid about such serious things, but humour – or my woeful attempts at it – does tend to save me from the gloomy alternative of pondering why people don’t commit evil acts more often. After all, there’s clearly no shortage of people doing their bit to up the averages, is there?

  3. Warwick said,

    Truth be told, I’d been steadfastly ignoring yesterday’s headlines until I read your post. I thought: another day, another disaster, another media frenzy. I wouldn’t have given bigger picture much thought were it not for your post, so seems we need each Di: I your belly fire, you my cool head. And don’t overlook the common ground either. Zimbardo would support your call for stricter gun control. A situationist would argue that the reason countries such as Australia, in many respects very similar to the US, don’t have these sort of violent crimes is because Australians don’t have automatic weapons lying around at home. It’s not that Australians are saner, more decent or more reasonable than Americans; it’s the situation in which we find ourselves that’s different; consequently, our behaviour is different too.

  4. doctordi said,

    Odd. Each of your comments has sent my computer into a viral spiral… Every time someone comments on this blog, a link is forwarded to my email account to let me know the comment is there. Both times I clicked on the link to see the comment, my computer crashed… I’ve been trying to fix it now for over an hour, so apologies for the delay in responding. I was going to say common ground indeed: I only said to Llew last night ‘Don’t you think it’s sick the way the media leaps on something like this shooting and feasts on it?’ It’s really very unhealthy, and I have kept my own exposure to it to a minimum. Although frankly right now it’s everywhere as if the media is actually revelling in the detail.

    As for the situationist, I agree. And I would also argue that the cherished ‘right to bear arms’ that gets everyone so fired up [sorry] in the US should be seen in light of situational changes as well. I really don’t think the founding fathers anticipated the gun culture of the present day. I think defending your farmland and your wagon before the Declaration of Independence a couple of hundred years ago is mighty different, pardner, from just handing out weapons to Tom, Dick, Harry, and – aw hell, let’s give everyone a gun – for no apparent reason today. Mighty different. Also, let’s not forget the practical differences as well – the type of guns that people can buy over the counter today – including one used this week – simply did not exist when this so-called right (and for the record, I do think it’s bunkum) was chartered.

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