Diagnosing the Killer in Colorado

James Holmes/University of Colorado student ID

In the aftermath of Friday's movie theater shooting in Colorado (12 killed, 59 wounded), we find ourselves – as we've found ourselves far too often – wondering about the whys And for science writers – many of whom cover neuroscience, psychology, biology of behavior, one particular why. Why would someone, anyone, buy four semi-automatic weapons and 6,000 rounds of ammunition for the single-minded purpose of harming people he did not know?

As Dave Cullen wrote in a The New York Times piece, Don't Jump to Conclusions About the Killer, this is tricky territory: "You have probably expressed your opinion on why he did it. You are probably wrong."

Cullen was a Denver journalist who covered the Columbine High School killings. He points out that the two high school students responsible were rapidly labeled outcasts responding to bullying and hostility at the school.  In fact, their diaries suggest that one was a classic psychopath who enjoyed the planning of death and the other – lonely and often depressed – was a rather lost follower. "The killer is rarely who he seems," Cullen emphasized.

Sharon Begley, at Reuters, makes a similar point in "Accused Colorado Killer No Easy Fit for Mass Murder Profile." There's no strong psychiatric diagnosis, she points, as  with Jared Loughner, who killed six people and injured another 14, including former U. S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona last January. Loughner was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Similarly, Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who killed 32 people in 2007, had a long history of depression and anxiety disorders.

There's nothing like that here, as far as we know, and as Holmes himself isn't explaining his reasoning, criminal justice experts have tended to fall back on more general knowledge – many mass killers have a history of frustration, of failing live up to potential, of blaming other for those failures. "They don't have close friends or family nearby to turn to and help put their thoughts in perspective," Northeastern University's James Alan Fox tells Begley. But, as he acknowledges, many people wrestle with loneliness and frustration and resentment without becoming mass murderers.

"Lone Gunmen: Experts Divided on Link Between Social Isolation and Violence," is the headline on the story by Douglas Quan of Canada's Postmedia news service.  "Alienation alone doesn't cause people to go over the edge," notes a University of British psychologist Douglas Dutton.  (Holmes' mother had reportedly worried for years about her son's growing isolation). But social isolation, Dutton adds,  can become a risk factors when other issues arise, such as  a naturally aggressive attitude, a sense of being marginalized, a lack of family support.

Quon's story draws on posts from a couple of let's say – contradictory- posts at the  Psychology Today network, notably Stanton Peele's piece, A Lonely Killer Strikes Again, and Let's Stop Stereotyping Loners by Stephen Reiss. But to me this difference of opinion just reinforces the point – that all of us, psychologists and experts alike, are trying to make sense of an action that at some level seems forever senseless. And this brings me back to the point raised by Cullen, that we can't really understand a killer based on big picture knowledge or suspicions.

We can learn from context, of course, as from Joel Achenbach's thoughtful science-infused history of American mass murder in The Washington Post. But we come even closer, I think, when we begin to see the individual, as through a story from Marisol Bello and Dan Vergano, at USA Today, that explores Holmes less than stellar academic history, suggesting that he may have struggled – both as student and as colleague – in the science programs that led him to the University of Colorado. Or in biographical notes listed in Ashley Lutz's story for Business Insider, How James Holmes Went From Shy Nerd to Accused Cold-Blooded Killer.

And we may learn more from a notebook, which police have  discovered, at the University of Colorado-Denver. The notebook was reportedly sent from Holmes to o university psychiatrist almost a week before the shootings. It reportedly provides an illustrated guide to some of his thoughts about killing people. And, as stories note, the university is not answering questions about who read it – and whether anyone took it seriously at the time.

There are many more stories and blogs, I know, that have explored the troubling science of mass murder.  I haven't done justice to the depth of the coverage so much as tried to touch on what I see as some of the key issues. And, I hope, to address the question of why we write these stories at all, of what our hindsight-infused explorations offer our readers.

I think they matter and are actually helpful on a couple of levels. They may not offer definitive answers – and we're a long way from those – but they're part of a necessary conversation. We need to try to make sense of the world around us, especially when it turns traumatic. We all of us look for answers or at least a sense that we're trying to find answers.

So there's reassurance in the fact that psychologists and neurobiologists are working to help solve these puzzles. The clues revealed by good reporting may be small but they add to a rational discussion. And the discussion itself – with all its sorrow and compassion – adds to our hope that we may do better next time.

— Deborah Blum

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