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IDEMA: Shattering lives and breaking hearts: A portrait of a mass murderer

• Jul 18, 2018 at 3:00 PM

The recent mass murder in Maryland marked the 154th since Jan. 1. The TV talking heads obsess with hours of airtime after each one of these tragedies, which may contribute to even more of them as potential murderers want their hours of fame. Maybe the networks should consider just stating the facts of the case, not mentioning the name of the murderer, and then turn to other news.

What I will attempt to do here is bring up some points about these mass shootings which are not discussed at all or not often enough in the mass media or the halls of Congress.

(1) The first and obvious point that I never hear discussed is that all or most of the mass murderers are male, usually young men. This is significant. We do not see women with shotguns and automatic rifles or handguns spraying bullets in our schools or movie theaters. Biology teaches us that men evolved to be the hunters and warriors and protectors of the cave or home. These inherited instincts have been tamed, somewhat, by civilization; but our aggressive, and sexual, instincts are always buried in the psyche, waiting to be unleashed in the right set of conditions. Cain slew Abel due to jealousy, for example. Mao was responsible for over 70 million deaths, in part because he delighted in cruelty and torture. Hitler and his SS were sadistic murderers driven by hatred of Jews, the mentally ill, the disabled and people of color. Most wars are started by men.

(2) Mentally ill people often do not get treatment. I studied and worked at Boston State Hospital in the 1970s at the same time this hospital and others like it were being shut down. Patients ended up homeless and were often murdered on the outside. I returned home to work in a soup kitchen in downtown Grand Rapids in the basement of the Guiding Light Mission. All of us working there noticed that the level of violence was increasing year by year as Kalamazoo and Traverse City state hospitals were shut down. There are so many more mentally ill people in our midst than when the hospitals were treating people. Community mental health was a dream that did not come true.

(3) Freud wrote of the secularization he saw in the early 20th century, and he believed that the decline of religion was directly connected to an increase in mental illness. Religious communities help people cope with anxiety and loneliness. Internalized religious symbols calm the storms within. Today, many people do not have communities to turn to and have little or no religious resources to help one cope with fear, anxiety and depression. So many people lack fulfilling emotional and sexual intimacy. I would guess this is true of all mass murderers.

(4) The availability of guns makes it easier for mass murderers to carry out their evil. Scotland after several mass murders in the 1990s banned all guns, with the exception of farmers getting permits for a gun to get rid of rats, etc. Such a ban here would never be passed by Congress, so we live with the fact that mentally ill people, and evil people, can easily attain weapons.

(5) We always talk about more money going toward mental health treatment after each mass murder, but I have never seen such funds actually being raised to upgrade our mental health system. The mentally ill are a low priority for our politicians, largely due to the fact we are not here talking about a vast block of voters. Politicians rather spend money on projects which help them maintain their jobs — e.g., planes and ships for war, subsidies for farmers, and so on.

(6) Churches have neglected the doctrine of evil and the dark forces in our psyche that I am raising up for our consideration. Throw in our neglect of the doctrine of sin, which one of my profs in grad school, Martin Marty, said is the most easily proven of all the church's teachings. Just read the papers or turn on the TV. I doubt mass murderers think much about evil or sin, and how to overcome those forces.

(7) Our culture of violence in movies, TV, video games and now on the internet surely has an impact on the murderers' souls. Our political culture has become coarse and vile, and perhaps this situation, such as repeated political attacks on the media, help warp some minds. The amount of hours per day Americans spend in front of a screen is well over five. Every place I go I see people looking at some device in their hands. Much poison seeps into the soul.

(8) Adding up all the above factors — and many more could be mentioned — I am left wondering whether we have a death wish. Freud believed all humans have such a wish. In his writings, he articulates that one of the reasons for death-wishing is to get rid, in our unconscious, of anybody "who stands in our way, of anyone who has offended or injured us." Here I think is the crux of the matter for the mass murderer. He wants to kill people who have offended or injured him, even if the actual people he kills are not those who did the injury. This is called "displacement," transferring on to others, often unconsciously, the rage and pain inflicted by other people, perhaps even people long dead such as parents.

Plato had an image of the male as a charioteer trying to control stampeding horses in front of him. Of course, those horses are our instincts. Some of us fail in that task, and a few of those who fail sometimes arm themselves and kill.

Fortunately, most of us carry out our death wishes in our dreams and fantasies, and not in reality. Tragically, a few among us act out their death wishes with tragic results, leaving many people dead and wounded, and shattering lives and breaking hearts.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune community columnist

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