Monday, 17 December 2012

The mind of a killer

It's traditional to tell horror stories at Christmas. This year, the media have got a real live one.

The media are falling over themselves trying to 'understand' why 20 children were killed at Newtown. Hacks, amateurs and psychologists who should know better are speculating about the motives and mental state of the killer.

We need a reason and we need to know that Adam Lanza was a monster, not 'normal'. Not like us or anyone we know so we can keep the horror at arms' length. All of this speculation is like the stories small children tell themselves when they're scared of the dark. They're comforting.

The monstering of this child-killer who was little more than a child himself is the same as the monstering of child abusers. We need to know they have the mark of Cain on them but now that 'evil' alone is not a reason that many of us accept (or that sells papers), we have to resort to psychology, or what passes for it. (I wrote about the problem with blaming evil here).

The best the media have come up with so far is the fact that he was shy and didn't have a Facebook page. Unless Adam Lanza left a detailed written explanation for his actions, we may never know why he did it, which is something that discomfits the media and a lot of us.

The worst the media have come up with includes details of how he shot his mother in the face, that the school principal should have had a high-power rifle in her office, self-proclaimed 'heart-wrenching' photos, blaming Lanza's 'paranoid gun-crazed mother', confusing his alleged Asperger's with mental illness. And on. And on.

President Obama has said that the dead children were 'called to God', another comforting fiction. America's current principal God was bound to be dragged into it at some point and Obama's narrative is one way of forestalling 'why did God let this happen?', of making sure everyone knows his god is one of the good guys in this story. Except, what kind of bastard god kills children for reasons we mere humans are not privy to as he moves in mysterious ways? Obama didn't mention whether this god of his had also called the six adults who were killed.

The focus on why Lanza did it is also a convenient distraction from how he did it. With guns. Legal guns. For us in the UK, gun laws are not a key issue, so the media focus on the deaths. The fact that one of the dead children was British gives them an excuse they don't need to wallow in their foetid mire.

The list of American school shootings is a very long one. And every killer did it for a different reason or complex set of reasons and circumstances. Even if Lanza's motivation is understood, it won't stop the next one. Does it matter why he did it? Should someone have spotted the signs? There's going to be a lot of 20/20 hindsight, a mixture of accusations against society and individuals or the shrugging off of accusations (by the NRA, for example).

There's also a kind of 'it wouldn't happen here' self-reassurance being promoted by certain parts of the media so we can tuck our children into bed feeling superior to the gun-toting frontier mentality of the colonials.

It's a very human response to feel for the bereaved and to need to know, to understand, but this need can infantilize us, make us content with bedtime stories to ward off the monsters, real or imagined. Meanwhile, the media have given themselves a big fat Christmas present.

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