The tragedy in Colorado has now moved into the criminal court system there. James Holmes, the accused perpetrator, is now charged with multiple counts of first degree murder. The police investigation is no doubt on-going but the case is now in the courts. The television lawyers are going bonkers arguing distinctions between premeditation and madness. Is James Holmes guilty of first-degree murder or is he insane? I think these (legal) questions arise from an incomplete understanding of the ways humans think.
Humans think in two ways: objective and subjective. Objective thinking is most basic. All cognitive animals are aware of their surroundings. Objectively, we view the world around us in terms of what we are able to see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. Through this, we have learned to manipulate our world in many ways. Science begets understanding, which in turn, begets technology.
Subjectivity arises from within and deals with what we think and believe about our world. Subjective thinking is primarily human although some animals may also be capable of it to a very limited degree.
Belief systems abound in human experience. Political beliefs are wide-ranging from the “left” to the “right”. Religion has many objective aspects, but fundamentally, it arises from subjective belief. Movies, comic books, and other works of fiction hold our attention and influence our subjective side.
Objectively, criminals know exactly what they are doing. Moreover, they know that if caught, they will be tried and punished for their deeds. Their actions arise from flawed subjective ideas about their world and the people around them. Flawed subjectivity is the problem.
We may never know the motivation behind the shooting rampage in Aurora, CO. Indeed, James Holmes may not be able to explain it. Holmes reportedly left the theater by a back exit and returned dressed as some garish comic book super-villain. He then proceeded to wreak havoc on people in the theater just like in the comic books. When the acting was done, he was at a loss – his comic-book get-away was foiled by the almost-immediate arrival of police on the scene. No super-hero had appeared with which he could do battle – just police officers with real guns.
Objectively, Holmes knew exactly what he was doing and what he was planning. Over some period of time, he collected the weapons, ammunition, and other items needed to complete his schemes. Subjectively, however, he was apparently in a different world – one in which people don’t actually die. After all, people don’t really die in the movies, they just pretend to die – everyone knows that. This kind of flawed thinking may have motivated James Holmes to do what he is accused of doing. If he enters an insanity plea, however, we will probably never know.
Massacres and mass murders have been occurring in this world for decades – indeed, millennia – perpetrated by people whose world views are destructive in some way. They happen, the dead are buried and mourned, and life goes on. The tragedy in Colorado is only the most recent example, and we could make a long list of them from our own experience.
For instance,Ted Kaczynski, called UNABOM by the FBI, led investigators on a twenty-year chase. Objectively, Kaczynski is a very bright individual with a PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan. (Just such a character was the subject of the movie, Good Will Hunting .) The explosive devices he created were carefully constructed to go off when activated by the intended target.
Subjectively, however, Kaczynski was motivated by an impossible goal. He is described as an extreme Neo-Luddite who advocated a complete reversal of economic progress in this country and a return to the natural state of the land when Europeans first began arriving. People who resist economic progress in Frederick County could be described as Neo-Luddites. Holding such views is one thing; committing extreme acts to advance those views crosses over into madness.
The triggerman in the Norway Massacre, Anders Breivik, likewise knew what he was doing and, so far, is unrepentant. He apparently sees his actions as opening rounds in an eventual war against European Communism. Any kind of ultra-right-wing war against European socialism would inevitably fail. European politicians and people alike have gone too far down the socialist pathway to back out now. People in Greece have rioted to protect their government benefits, for example. Breivik and probably other others have set their sights on an impossible goal. Committing murder in pursuit of an impossible goal crosses over into madness.
People like James Holmes are, little by little, driving us toward a fortress mentality. This has been most apparent since the 9/11 events. The World Trade Center towers weren’t designed to take a hit from a large aircraft – didn’t need to be for that matter. The new tower rising at the site is.
We have armed sky-marshals on all U.S. commercial airline flights. Will we now be required to place armed guards in every movie theater?
Super-computers now are analyzing our phone conversations and emails watching for certain key words that might indicate an imminent terrorist strike. This activity is authorized by the “Patriot Act”, which in my view is akin to the Alien and Sedition Acts of the early nineteenth century.
We can’t simply walk from the ticket counter to a departure gate at an airport; we have the TSA in our way. Every time a “shoe bomber” or an “underwear bomber” succeeds in getting explosives on an aircraft, TSA searches become more invasive and our civil liberties take another hit. Children who happen to have the same name as someone on a no-fly list are denied boarding. Common sense is giving way to blind adherence to rules.
In the weeks to come, we will probably hear renewed calls for gun control. In my view gun control is not the answer. Despite stringent firearms-control laws across Europe, Anders Breivik apparently had little difficulty finding the materiel he needed for his crimes. Gun control will simply drive proscribed firearms further into an already-existing black market. No government anywhere has ever been able to suppress a black market in anything. The so-called “war on drugs” is a perfect example. About all it has accomplished is to advance the careers of DEA bureaucrats. (Ironically, the old Soviet Union probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did without an underground free-enterprise economy.)
This apparently is our dilemma: do we want to be “safe” or do we want to live freely as we once did in kinder, gentler times? Should we now begin censoring comic books and movies because a very few among us can’t separate fantasy from reality?
Who exactly is James Holmes? What is it in his personality that led him to his apparent crimes? Does some fine line between genius and madness actually exist? Do people like him have characteristics that would allow them to be spotted and intercepted in some way without impacting their civil liberties? We simply don’t know.
In my opinion it would be a mistake to execute James Holmes for his alleged crimes. People like James Holmes, Ted Kaczynski, and John Hinckley, Jr., are resources. We must do the science needed to understand them. Out of that understanding ought to come passive diagnostic techniques for spotting aberrant personalities and leading them to medical treatment.
For example, about a hundred years ago, a man named M. N. Bunker began work on methodology in which he correlated certain handwriting strokes and characteristics with various personality traits. This he called Graphoanalysis. (This is not to be confused with Graphology, which is too speculative and relies too heavily on subjective interpretation by the practitioner.) If properly validated, something like Graphoanalysis might be useful as an early-warning tool for spotting problematic individuals among us.
If individuals like Holmes, Kaczynski and others could be persuaded to cooperate, an array of standardized personality tests can be brought to bear. If properly validated, non-traditional tests like the Lüscher Color Test might also be useful. My take is that anything that can provide clues to potential behavior should be used to provide some behavioral early warning in locating troubled individuals among us.
We must find ways of detecting potential mass murderers. Professionals in the field of psychology may have bad feelings about some individual but nothing concrete enough to justify a search or arrest warrant. Occasionally, the police may get lucky but, more often than not, the James Holmeses will continue to slip in under the radar.