What a Killer Thinks

By Cullen, Dave | Newsweek, August 6, 2012 | Go to article overview
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What a Killer Thinks


Cullen, Dave, Newsweek


Byline: Dave Cullen

Is the Colorado Shooter depressed, insane, or psychotic? Anatomy of a downward sprial.

From the moment news broke of another shooting in Colorado, the question reverberated: why? As the tragedies continue, our collective national frustration has boiled over: Aurora, Columbine, Tucson, Virginia Tech ... Why does this keep happening? Why can't someone explain?

In the 80 interminable hours it took to get a glimpse at the suspect, a second question emerged: what was a look at James Holmes going to reveal?

When he walked into court Monday morning, one thing was immediately obvious. Something was wrong with this guy. Which was weirder, the dazed expression he wore most of the 11 minutes of the hearing, or the sudden bursts of wild eyes, matching his ridiculous orange hair?

The obvious explanation, which many viewers and commentators embraced, was that he was out of his mind or, medically speaking, undergoing some sort of psychotic break. But a minority view pushed back, and hard: the hair, the eyes, the sensational getup for the attack were a little too cute: a cold-blooded killer, playing crazy.

You will never understand this man if you leap to either of these conclusions. Do not look for a unified theory of mass murder, a single coherent drive. It doesn't exist. Examining all the mass murderers together yields a hopeless mass of contradictions.

Forensic psychiatrists are not baffled by these tragedies. One drive will never explain them. Instead, experts have sorted them into types, which bring the crimes into remarkably clear relief. These researchers find that aside from terrorism, most of these mass murders are committed by criminals who fall into three groups: psychopaths, the delusionally insane, and the suicidally depressed. Look through these lenses, accept the differences, and some of our worst recent tragedies make more sense: Seung-Hui Cho, who shot up Virginia Tech, was delusionally insane; Dylan Klebold, at Columbine, was deeply depressed; and Eric Harris, his co-conspirator, was the psychopath.

Occasionally, there are combinations, or rare exceptions, involving brain tumors or substance abuse. The substance danger has made a resurgence with the abuse of bath salts, recently implicated in many violent crimes.

Mass murderers do share a few common traits. The best meta-study on the subject is an exhaustive report by the Secret Service in 2002, which studied all school shooters for a 26-year period. In this cohort, all the shooters were male, 81 percent warned someone overtly that they were going to do it, and a staggering 98 percent had recently experienced what they considered a significant failure or loss.

Despite this last fact, the ubiquitous question "what made him snap?" leads us astray. The Secret Service found that 93 percent planned the attack in advance. Hardly spontaneous combustion. A long, slow, chilling spiral down. Early evidence in the Aurora case suggests it fits this pattern. James Holmes apparently spent months acquiring the guns and ammunition he used, and it's likely his descent began much earlier. What set him off down that path?

Psychopaths are the easiest to explain. They seem to be born with no capacity for empathy, a complete disregard for the suffering of others. The sadistic psychopath, a rarity, makes a cold-blooded calculation to enjoy the pain he inflicts. Killing meant nothing to Eric Harris at Columbine--humans were as disposable as fungus in a petri dish. "Just all nature, chemistry, and math," he wrote.

Harris was witty, charming, and endearing--like most psychopaths--but he artfully masked his hate. "I hate the f--king world," his journal begins, a year before the attack. Hate roars from every page, but it is contempt that really comes through. "You know what I hate?" he posted on his website. "People who mispronounce words, like 'acrost,' and 'pacific' for 'specific.

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