Whenever a mass killing occurs, such as the recent tragedies at the movie theater in Colorado or the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, we get reams of speculation about why the killer did it. Many of the explanations, as I've written here before, consist of amateur or long-distance psychiatric diagnosis, in which people who should know better attempt to diagnose people they have never met.
Only occasionally do we see something as insightful and thought-provoking as a short post in Britain's The Independent, written by Alex Bryan, a freelance writer and student at the University of York. Bryan argues that we can get some insight into these horrific acts by looking a little further back--to Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.
Raskolnikov, Bryan points out, is driven to extreme ideas by his retreat from society. "He develops a theory of humanity which divides all people into two categories; the ordinary and the extraordinary, and in an attempt to show himself as extraordinary, and therefore able to act without regard for laws, he commits a murder."
The little we know about James Holmes, the movie-theater killer, or Wade Michael Page, who committed the Sikh nurders, suggests that they could be isolated, ordinary individuals attempting to make themselves extraordinary by their acts.
Some of Bryan's suggestions are mistaken, in my view. He notes a resurgence of interest in the U.S. in Ayn Rand, whose work he characterizes as celebrating the extraordinary individual. I'm no fan of Ayn Rand, but it seems harsh and misguided to include her here.
And I take issue with his kicker: "...regardless of whether gun control legislation is enacted, there will still be individuals for whom the desire to perform these acts is strong." Fair enough, but gun-control might, at least, restrict the kinds of weapons available to these individuals and deprive them of high-capacity magazines.
Incidentally, if you've been away from the news during this sleepy August, you might have missed this story: Yet another mass killing occurred on Monday, when Thomas Cafall opened fire on police. Two people were killed and four wounded before Cafall was killed by police. On his Facebook page, he posted a list of what he called influential people. It included Carlos Hathcock, a sniper who killed 93 people during the Vietnam War, and Vasily Zaytsev, a World War II Russian sniper, according to Manny Fernandez of The New York Times.