2019-03-18

The Killer Was Sick, Not Suggestible


My social media were filled with think-pieces and hot takes on the tragedy in New Zealand over the weekend. This is inevitable; tragedy strikes, and people want to talk about it, to think about it, to write about it.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion I saw centered on the killer's manifesto. It seems that people wanted to delve deeply into his ideas and figure out which of those ideas are particularly dangerous. The implicit concern among these thinkers appears to be that some ideas can turn good people into killers; that we ought to hunt down these evil ideas, expose them for what they are, and…? Eradicate murder?

These folks mean well, but their thinking is sadly misguided. First of all, death and destruction has used any and every available philosophical justification. The fact that people use a given idea as a pretense to commit murder says nothing about the quality of those ideas. Murder has been committed in the name of god and anti-god, christ and antichrist, communism and capitalism, individualism and community. Every conceivable belief system has had its fair share of zealots and crazies, ready to pull the trigger at a moment's notice. Zealotry -- even murderous zealotry -- is not unique to any particular set of ideas. And since it isn't, we can't use the existence of a murderer who believed XYZ as evidence showing the bankruptcy of belief XYZ.

Secondly, though, and most importantly, we are talking about a killer, a mass murderer. We are talking about a young man who created some kind of manifesto for the world to analyze, and who then went on a media-captivating killing spree so that his manifesto would be analyzed. We're talking about a man who was callous, opportunistic, and bold; a man who was immoral, deceptive, and manipulative; a man who was shameless, arrogant, entitled, envious, and exploitative.

In other words, we are talking about a deeply disturbed individual with an atypical neurological construct. A sick man. A madman.

To be sure, understanding the pathologies of the criminally insane is a worthwhile endeavor; but rooting-out bad philosophies from the screeds of a psychopath is a fool's errand. This was a nutcase who wrote nutty things. His problem wasn't that he was a perfectly well-adjusted individual who, once having stumbled onto a bad philosophy, grew into a murderous savage. No, his problem was that his brain wasn't normal or healthy, and that he could use literally any philosophy he encountered to justify his terrible rampage.

I do understand the impulse of a philosopher, having encountered a disturbed manifesto, to poke holes in that manifesto's flaws in an effort to somehow defeat the evil he's encountered. But this is a defense mechanism, or a type of grief. This is an exercise in trying to shun the evil ex post facto. The truth is, evil will always be there, because in many cases evil is biological. That's what happened in New Zealand, tragic as it might be. The key to stopping this kind of evil in the future is in recognizing sick people and giving them therapeutic treatment before they have an opportunity to act out. Trying to prevent evil ideas from corrupting sick minds is foolish, because sick minds can corrupt even the best of ideas. That's precisely what makes them sick minds.

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