Twenty or so years ago, I wrote one of the most difficult legal briefs of my career: The task was to compare and contrast the nature of the crimes and the character of the defendants for all the capital cases — those involving a potential penalty of death — in the state of Connecticut, including all the men then actually on death row. It was a process known as “proportionality review,” a now discarded requirement.
One man killed his ex-wife and son when he believed they were about to depart Connecticut to live elsewhere. Another abducted, assaulted and then murdered a bank executive on her lunch hour. We even had a mass murderer in the mix, Michael Ross, who stalked and killed his victims one by one. What accounted for these crimes?
Reading through tens of thousands of pages of trial transcripts taught me a simple truth: We really don’t know why people snap. There’s no predicting it, really, and efforts to do so are futile. Watching the press coverage in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s murders reminds me of how little we know, and of the danger of what I will call prophylactic retrospection.
In the death-row cases, I read volumes of testimony by mental health experts explaining why the defendants had acted as they did. Typically, the diagnoses reflected character disorders. There were narcissists, there were borderlines, there were men afflicted with “explosive rage disorder.” In other words, in retrospect, there was something about each man that put into perspective how it is they could bring themselves to kill.
But here’s the rub: A character disorder, or a more serious mental illness, no more explains murder than does the alphabet explain profanity. One in four Americans suffer from a mental illness in the course of their lifetime. Almost none of us become murderers. It’s altogether too simple to assign a causal role to the latest diagnosis associated with a murderer. Did Newtown’s Adam Lanza suffer from Asperger’s syndrome? Let’s not leap from there to the conclusion that all so diagnosed are incipient killers.
The evidence of character disorders offered in the capital cases seems to have had little impact on the verdicts. Jurors concluded that whatever character flaws a defendant suffered, their crimes were still so aggravated in nature that the men’s flaws were neither an excuse nor effective mitigation.
Murder is a horrific crime. One can almost say that by definition the very act is itself a sign of some profound abnormality. We grope to explain these horrors for three reasons.
First, we want to know why something happened. What accounts for the violence? A fatal disruption in the settled order destroys not just the victim and his or her family, it also sends shock waves through a community. We may all owe nature a death, but not by the violent hands of one another. An explanation is part forensic investigation, part secular prayer — we pretend that by knowing why something occurred, we are somehow in control.
Next, we want to know how we can prevent something like this from happening again. Consider the 9/11 attacks. In retrospect, it was obvious what the terrorists did it. How could we not have spotted the pattern? Kierkegaard nailed this one: Life, he noted, is lived going forward, but only understood in hindsight. If only police had searched Mr. Rodger’s apartment in April and found his cache of weapons and his written plans for the annihilation of others.
Finally, we want to hold the killer accountable — whatever that may mean. I marvel at the instinct to punish: We never redeem the dead by imprisoning others. Yet, we pretend that justice requires this sacrifice of the living for the sake of the dead as some bizarre act of existential accounting.
The Rodger killing spree has already become the rallying cry for all sorts of causes. Feminists claim it as proof positive that the world is unsafe for womankind. Shrill demands for respect resonate, as though all men share in the blood-guilt of this lone gunmen.
Lawmen, too, have found a rallying cry: We could have prevented all this if only our hands weren’t tied. If we had the power to search Rodger’s home last April, think of what we could have discovered in his bedroom. All those guns; those raving bits of lunacy on scraps of paper — we could have prevented this harm from occurring.
And beware the therapeutic state. We need greater and better mental health systems. Let’s be sure every errant soul is assigned a therapist. Give the state more power to hold the disturbed in confinement.
Feminist, lawman, mental-health worker alike all tumble headlong into the pit of prophylactic retrospection: We have studied the past, and to prevent it from happening again, give us more power, whether it be the power to police sentiments, our homes, or the metes and bounds of our psyches.
The fact is, we haven’t a clue how to spot a killer before he strikes. Even now, some loner out there types his hateful messages, imagines his moment of glory, and plans the death of others. We’ll never batten down all the hatches of spaceship Earth.
Psychodramatists speak of “act hunger” — the need to do something to discharge the anxiety of a shocking event. In the wake of Elliot Rodger, we’re pressing too hard for answers. Pretending that we have the answers is a comforting illusion.
But I pretend to be better than I am. No more than those I criticize am I able to avoid the groping for light in a dark night. I behold Elliot Rodger, and I see the “Me Generation” coming to the end of its rope. The sound of this pathetic little creep whining that he hadn’t been kissed, that all the pretty girls went elsewhere, that he was forced to be a virgin, sounds tinny, shrill even. It is mayhem reduced to farce.
Elliot Rodger bought his 15 minutes of fame. Let’s bury him, forget about him, and move on. He’s not worth a national debate.