July 22, 2012

Aurora massacre: To speak or not to speak?

The blood on the movie theater floor was still tacky when mental health professionals began pontificating on the psychology of the mass murderer. Among the brashest self-promoters was a forensic psychologist who shamelessly asserted his preternatural ability to "look inside the mind" of the Aurora, Colorado massacre suspect.
Much of the psycho-punditry reads like it was pulled from a psychoanalytic fortune cookie:
  • James Holmes is a "deeply disturbed" individual. 
  • He may, or may not, be psychotic and delusional. 
  • He harbors a lot of rage.
Such "armchair psychology" is a natural byproduct of the news media's frenetic competition for online traffic. To object is as pointless as it would have been to stand in the killer's way and shout "stop!" as he opened fire during the Batman movie.

But some are nonetheless voicing criticism, saying it is both misleading and irresponsible to speculate at this early stage about the accused's state of mind. Curtis Brainard of the venerated Columbia Journalism Review goes so far as to call it unethical, a violation of the so-called "Goldwater Rule" of 1973. That principle cautions psychiatrists not to offer a professional opinion without having conducted a psychiatric examination and "been granted proper authorization for such a statement."

While that ethics rule applies only to psychiatrists, the American Psychological Association has a very similar one. Section 9.01 cautions psychologists to "provide opinions of the psychological characteristics of individuals only after they have conducted an examination of the individuals adequate to support their statements or conclusions."

But it is in the gray area of interpreting these ethics rules that reasonable minds differ. Indisputably, we should not attempt to clinically diagnose Mr. Holmes absent a formal evaluation. But must professionals with expertise in the general patterns underlying mass killings stand silently on the sidelines, refraining from offering any collective wisdom to the public?

As a blogger who frequently comments on breaking news stories pertinent to forensic psychology, I have often grappled with this conundrum. When the UK Guardian asked me to write a commentary on Phillip Garrido, the kidnapper and rapist of Jaycee Dugard, I ultimately decided that providing general information about the forensic implications of the case was an appropriate public service that did not violate any ethics rules.

Consider this commentary by high-profile forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner on a Washington Post blog:
Mass shooting cases have the common motive of an attacker seeking immortality. Each of the attackers have different degrees of paranoia and resentment of the broader community. Some are so paranoid that they’re psychotic. Others are paranoid in a generally resentful way but have no significant psychiatric illness. But you have to hate everyone in order to kill anyone. The threshold that the mass shooter crosses is one in which he decides that his righteous indignation and entitlement to destroy is more important than the life of any random person that he might kill. This is why mass shooting are invariably, invariably carried out by people who have had high self esteem. They are people who had high expectations of themselves. It’s not at all surprising to hear about these crimes in people who either valued their own intelligence or their own career prospects at one time. They’re people who are unfailingly unable to form satisfying sexual attachments and their masculinity essentially gets replaced with their fascination for destruction.
Now, I don't always see eye to eye with Dr. Welner, author of the controversial "Depravity Scale." But the above perspective has the potential to contribute to informed discussion of the Aurora tragedy. It doesn't matter whether every single detail turns out to be a precise fit; the comments are general enough to enlighten without stepping over the line to claim an ability to see into Holmes's troubled soul.

One could even argue that we as professionals have an affirmative duty to help offset the inane speculation that pours in to fill any vacuum in the cutthroat world of daily journalism: Portrayals of Holmes as a "recluse" and a "loner" because he didn’t converse with his neighbors; assertions that he "didn’t seem like the type" to massacre a dozen people, because he appeared superficially "normal"; simplistic theories blaming the tragedy on violence in the media or the legality of gun ownership.

Our field is positioned to help the public separate the wheat from the chaff. We can discuss the complex admixture of entitlement, alienation and despair that contributes to these catastrophic explosions. Equally important, we can remind the public that such rampages are rare and unpredictable, and that knee-jerk, "memorial crime control" responses are unwarranted and potentially dangerous. We can urge restraint in jumping to conclusions absent the facts, lest we -- as journalist Dave Cullen, author of the book Columbine, warns in yesterday's New York Times -- contribute to harmful myth-making:  
Over the next several days, you will be hit with all sorts of evidence fragments suggesting one motive or another. Don’t believe any one detail. Mr. Holmes has already been described as a loner. Proceed with caution on that. Nearly every shooter gets tagged with that label, because the public is convinced that that’s the profile, and people barely acquainted with the gunman parrot it back to every journalist they encounter. The Secret Service report determined that it’s usually not true. Resist the temptation to extrapolate details prematurely into a whole…. The killer is rarely who he seems.
But we should also recognize the limitations of our discipline’s micro focus on the individual, and encourage the public to grapple with the larger issues raised by this cultural affliction of the late-20th and early 21st century. As I commented last year in regard to the media coverage of the Jared Loughner shooting rampage in Arizona, journalists need to train a macro lens on the cultural forces that lead disaffected middle-class men -- like canaries in a coal mine -- to periodically self-implode with rage. Disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and cultural studies have much to contribute to this much-needed analysis.

The irony of the Aurora case is hard to miss. An attack in a movie theater featuring The Dark Knight Rises, a movie in which a masked villain leads murderous rampages against unsuspecting citizens in public venues including a packed football stadium and the stock exchange.

As Salon film critic Andrew O'Hehir noted in an insightful essay entitled, "Does Batman Have Blood on his Hands?":
Whether or not Holmes had any particular interest in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he saw correctly that in our increasingly fragmented culture it was the biggest mass-culture story of the year and one of the biggest news stories of any kind. Shoot up a KenTaco Hut or a Dunkin’ Donuts, in standard suburban-nutjob fashion, and you get two or three days of news coverage, tops. Shoot up the premiere of a Batman movie, and you become a symbol and provoke a crisis of cultural soul-searching.
Bottom line: The larger error is not for informed professionals to respond -- cautiously, of course -- to media inquiries but, rather, for the public to settle for facile explanations, in which calling someone crazy or disturbed is mistaken for understanding what is going on. 

POSTSCRIPT: See media critic Gene Lyons's article, linking to this post, at the National Memo. 

Related blog posts: 


Odysseus7 said...

Week from the chaff or Wheat from the chaff?

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thank you SO MUCH! Usually my mother catches silly mistakes like that, but you beat her to it!

Valerie Carlton said...

I don't want to write very much. I have unique expertise in the area of "genius madmen". I am Valerie Carlton; www.ValerieCarlton.com. As "crazy" as it reads: "My 9 year old daughter is being held hostage by one, in Brazil, right now."

Please know, that what I have read or heard about Holmes personality and character is identical, to every letter, to the personality traits of the genius madmen I have unfortunately known most intimately.

Serial Killers are different, although they may be sincerely psychopathic, history tells us that the personalities have vastly differed.

Not so with Holmes-like madmen.

The recent Dark Knight rampage has everything to do with Holmes, Dr. Jekyll delusional vindication, and intensely self-serving need to build his ego by manipulating the masses. What we have now learned is all confirmation for me to better understand what my daughter and I are truly up against.

-Valerie Carlton-

Neuroskeptic said...

Good post. It's a tough issue. I always wish there was a moritorium or a 'cool down period' after events such as this, 48 or 72 hours where no-one speculates about the motives etc. Because so soon after the event, it's impossible to tell, and no-one needs to know so quickly; they certainly don't need speculation. There's a time for that, but it's not the heat of the moment...

Sadly the 24 hr news cycle means on the contrary that you have to speculate within that window if you want to get a wide audience at all... it's really the opposite of how I think it should be.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Plus, that initial period is when the public is most interested. Shortly thereafter, people start to drift away.

researcherone said...

One thing troubled me when I was watching a broadcast of the aftermath. An interviewee who supposedly had a PhD in a field pertinent to the incident (was she a psychiatrist?) stated outwardly that anyone who did this must also be "a bad person."

On what grounds? Apparently, she hadn't even met Holmes or conducted an evaluation on him.

Yes, the behavior is obviously bad, but I have learned that those who commit such actions are not necessarily bad people themselves. In many cases, for example, good people snap due to extreme pressure placed on them. Each instance is different than any other and must be treated as such. How can a so-called professional get on television and make such a statement when she has absolutely no clue what is/was going on inside the man's mind or his life? Was this person paid off to feed media frenzy and the ongoing attempt to manipulate public perception? If this is the case, I am disappointed--not surprised, just disappointed.