G. Heath King: Massacre of the Innocents Then and Now

Friday, 28 Dec 2012 07:28 PM

By G. Heath King

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G. Heath King's Perspective: Not since the hangings of the innocent during the first witch trials in Connecticut in the mid 17th century — well before the better-known persecution in Salem, Mass. — has such a harrowing act of inhumanity as the massacre of the children in Sandy Hook befallen the nation. Indeed, the first hangings were conducted in Hartford less than fifty miles from Sandy Hook.

Yet the intentional execution of toddlers is a depravity that takes us still further back in time to biblical accounts eerily in keeping with an event that preceded the holy day we now celebrate. The scene of the mothers searching for their children must have taken on a tragic intensity akin to Matteo di Giovanni's painting The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem.

While we know Herod's motive of power and jealousy of the birth of Christ, one can at this point only intuit that of the shooter Adam Lanza based on the scant biomarkers that have been revealed, and based on the psychological link between matricide and mass murder in this case. I believe the key to deciphering the multilayered etiology of the act will be found precisely in this thus far overlooked relation between matricide and the mass murder of the children.

It will no doubt be revealed that the boy was traumatized during the divorce of the parents. For three years prior to the shooting Adam reportedly refused to speak to his father after he began dating someone else. While divorce and feelings of abandonment can be destabilizing for any child, it would be greatly magnified in a boy who is said to have Aspergers or a related condition and who will have been withdrawn already and all the more in need of a safe and secure environment.

Beyond that, there is no basis to construe that Aspergers Syndrome, if that was indeed his condition, is in any way a ‘cause’ of the shooting. For though such individuals are withdrawn and have special needs, violent ideation is not a component of their character. They are, in fact, commonly highly gifted and have made formidable cultural contributions. They include, it is believed, such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein.

Adolescent mass murderers are commonly traumatized by a destabilizing estrangement at home as well as by relations at school where they were often rebuffed and deprived of a surrogate 'family'. One may think of the case of 17 year old Luke Woodham who in 1997 stabbed his divorced mother to death, then went on a rampage at his school killing and wounding several students. Prior to this the only relatively secure relation he had — with his girlfriend — ended.

In the case of Woodham we know his mother blamed him for the divorce, and this no doubt fostered rage against her, festering over time. This rage would have been exacerbated by her overprotective, controlling ways. She apparently even accompanied him on visits to his girlfriend.

Fragments of information about the Connecticut shooter point to a similar profile. The mother had the financial means to find proper care for the boy, yet she appears to have likewise been overprotective and controlling, perhaps owing to her own loneliness and apprehension as a "survivalist." When the mother volunteered as a teacher at the Sandy Hook Elementary School Adam was said to have reacted with jealousy, feeling that she loved the toddlers more than him.

Her poor judgment even extended to keeping a collection of guns in the house and taking the boy to the firing range. Having been enmeshed in an apparent co-dependent relation with his mother, the shooter may have felt betrayed when her intention of committing him to a psychiatric facility became known to him. In thereupon annihilating the mother and the children, Adam in the same stroke avenged the childhood he never had, one that he experienced as severe powerlessness, estrangement, and distress.

At some point tormented adolescents of this kind drift over to the malevolent dark side to such a degree that it is embraced and cultivated, now more often via morbid immersion in instant wall-to-wall annihilation dispensed by video games and cross-fertilizing liaisons with the simpatico unstable in cyber space.

Novelists have described this deviation long before the as yet imperfect conceptualizations of the psychologists. One may think of Miles and Flora in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw; or the sociopath Patrick Hockstetter in Stephen King's It, who trapped animals in a refrigerator and later killed his baby brother, much as did Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold batter a pet dog to death prior to massacring the students.

A novel that in my view also perceptively casts light on this process is The Bad Seed by William March where the psyche of the eight-year old serial killer Rhoda is limned. Finding resonance in the hidden depths of the national psyche it won the National Book Award in 1955 and was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

The impression conveyed in these works of art — that a predilection to evil may be inborn — has received credence from genetic and neurological studies. Brain scans presented by Dr. Adrian Raine in 2004 and more recently by Dr. Jim Fallon indicate that a disconnect in the neuron flow from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex may contribute to lack of empathy and surge in impulsivity observed in psychopaths. This in itself does not explain the making of a psychopathic murderer, but it does signify another dimension to the influence of the environmental factor. As Kant presaged in the 18th century, it is an amalgam of nature and nurture that forms the individual.

Owing to privacy laws that irrationally put freedom from personal disclosure over the safety of society, we do not yet know if or what medications the Connecticut shooter was on. However, we do know pharmaceutical side effects were a major contributing factor in magnifying the malaise of other notorious criminals, bringing them over the edge.

Luke Woodham was on Prozac; Charles Whitman, the sniper on the tower at the University of Texas at Austin, imbibed barbiturates and amphetamines; President Reagan's would-be assassin John Hinckley was on Valium, Jeffrey Dahmer tranquilizers and antidepressants; child killer Jeremy Strohmeyer was on Dexedrine; supermarket killer William Cruse psychiatric drugs since the age of 13; Andrea Yates, who drowned all five of her children, was prescribed Haldol; Luvox was found in the system of Columbine killer Eric Harris on the morning of the massacre.

Clearly we are in need of a national mental health protocol. It should be led by the best minds from various fields, a coordinated interdisciplinary effort of integrative medicine, something similar to what has been initiated at the micro level at Johns Hopkins. Ultimately this is the only chance we have of meeting the crisis. More effective gun laws should be implemented, advisably, in my view, modeled on the comprehensive ordinances of Israel, but they will only address the manifestation of the symptoms, not the cause, and as such will not alone provide a lasting solution.

In order to accomplish this we will have to reassess our values and priorities as a nation. A report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness revealed that between 2009-2011 the majority of states reduced their expenditure on mental health services by $1.8 billion, and that 2/3 of the states cut services for children with mental conditions. The recurrence of such mass murders internationally likewise mandates a global reassessment. According to a UN report in 2002, only 4.1% of total health budgets worldwide were allocated to mental health. In 2011, the World Health Organization stated that global spending for mental health averaged less than $3 per person annually.

Historians note that Herod suffered from mental illness and massacred not only innocent children, but also like Adam Lanza, members of his own family. He had failed in an attempt to commit suicide in his final hours, where Adam succeeded, but only after the devastation. Perhaps we are at the stage of history where the carnage of future Herods can be averted.

G. Heath King, Ph.D, is a psychoanalyst and former professor of interdisciplinary studies at Yale University. He is author of "Existence, Thought, Style: Perspectives of a Primary Relation, Portrayed Through the Work of Søren Kierkegaard." He explored the philosophical foundations of psychology at the University of Freiburg, Germany, where he completed his doctorate.

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