Domestic mass-killers believe that the hatred they feel toward others justifies their murderous behavior. They don’t understand that other people and social circumstances are not the cause of their rage and hatred. The evil begins with what potential and actual mass-killers are doing to themselves on an inner level.
In this post I enlist depth psychology to explain these inner dynamics at play in the psyche of such individuals. Further along, I’ll look at the particular case of the mass-killer who struck last month in Orlando.
The following psychological dynamics and characteristics can converge as the “perfect storm,” producing an individual ready to embark on a mass-killing spree. Here are some of the major elements at play in the psyche of such individuals:
* Whether or not they are inflicted with a mental-health disorder, these individuals are nonetheless highly dysfunctional or neurotic. This means they are plagued by intense inner conflict, particularly in terms of how they absorb abuse from their inner critic and in terms of how they inwardly create the impression of being marginalized, insignificant, and alienated from self and surrounding society.
* They feel devalued, unworthy, and disconnected from their better nature. Hence, they lack sensitive or generous impulses or instincts toward others. Such an individual is highly thin-skinned and easily takes offense, meaning he is quick to interpret everyday encounters with others as if he is being overlooked, rejected, or disrespected.
* They are likely to have a vicious inner critic that constantly devalues them. Through their inner critic, they become their own worst enemy. From their inner critic they absorb vicious negative attacks upon their person and character, producing depression, self-rejection, self-alienation, and self-hatred. Such an individual absorbs these inner attacks upon his essence and his character to a masochistic degree. This unconscious, non-sexual masochism means he’s acutely passive to his inner critic, and as a result he’s induced to incorporate its primitive maliciousness and cruelty into his character and personality.
* Because of the extent of the rejection and hatred they unwittingly absorb from their inner critic, such individuals feel a heightened sense of oppression and victimization. This misery is produced in large measure by their oppressive inner critic, yet they blame their misery on society and other people, while completely overlooking the evil of their vicious inner critic. The more such a person is under the influence of this inner evil, the more he unconsciously projects that evil into the world and “sees” it in others.
* Unconsciously, such people use the “certainty” of religious or secular dogma to compensate for their inability to connect with personal strength, courage, and integrity. Their righteousness enables them to produce a sense of superiority or conviction that serve as (paltry) compensations for their underlying self-doubt and self-hatred.
* They are also under the influence of an infantile psychological factor, namely lingering megalomania or extreme self-centeredness. In this manner, they believe: “What others do is bad, what I do is good; what others believe is wrong, what I believe is right.” This condition, especially in young men, can produce an acute insensitivity to the value of the life of others.
* They fantasize hurting and killing others, largely as a psychological defense to cover up their willingness to be the passive recipient of the self-condemnation and self-hatred they experience coming their way from their inner critic. This unconscious defense enables them to claim: “I’m not passively absorbing self-hatred. I’m not willing to experience myself as a passive and hopeless nobody. I am (whether in my imagination or in actual fact) the aggressor. See how thrilled I am to see myself as an aggressive killer. In addition, my wish to harm others is justified by their vile actions and the evil intent I see in them.” The recurring fantasy of killing people becomes a pleasurable fixation. (Psychological defenses often produce a pleasurable affect, thereby enhancing their effectiveness as cover-ups of inner truth, which in the case of a mass killer is his unconscious identification and emotional resonance with being a helpless, insignificant person deserving of self-condemnation.)
* In the United States, their ability to easily acquire assault weapons enables them to fantasize slaughtering others in a way that can be exhilarating and seem quite feasible and realistic. The fantasy becomes their attempt to establish that they are right and powerful, rather than the defective inner weakling their inner critic accuses them of being. Because assault weapons are so accessible, they have “an escape clause” if they are unable or unwilling to face their inner demons with courage: They can embrace evil and, whether in their imagination or in reality, feel the intoxicating thrill of becoming an all-powerful killer. While potential mass killers are indeed constrained by legal, social, and moral boundaries, they can more easily flee these boundaries of civilized behavior because the legal availability of powerful assault weapons serves in their case as a psychological loophole.
* Certain individuals (from among those who are most savagely mocked and tortured by their inner critic and who inwardly are too passive and masochistic to protect themselves) slip into a maniacal death-spiral in which they turn the fantasy into reality. Often triggering events such as a lost job or a relationship breakup tip domestic terrorists into maniacal rage and hatred. They can’t access any sense of inner decency because, in their complete inability to protect themselves from the inner critic’s aggressive evil, they absorb so much self-hatred. They are, in a sense, being slain by the savagery of their inner critic, though, of course, they don’t see this inner dynamic with any clarity. All they know and feel is emotional anguish. Nonetheless, they react to the inner self-aggression by producing in their surroundings a counteracting external form of aggression. With viciousness, they do to others what they experience their rampaging inner critic doing to them. In their descent into evil, they personify their inner critic, revile the majesty of life, and embrace the death instinct.
Most of us absorb some amount of self-aggression in the form of self-criticism and self-rejection, while the domestic mass-killer or terrorist absorbs it much more intensely. Individuals who are more neurotic can absorb this self-aggression to the degree that it produces self-rejection, self-condemnation, and self-hatred. Typically, a clinically depressed person or someone who is suicidal is entangled in this inner conflict.
Within the human psyche are deposits of inner passivity. This leftover from the helplessness of childhood is an unconscious weakness at the heart of inner nature. Because of inner passivity, individuals are inwardly and outwardly defensive, and they can have difficulty protecting themselves from the onslaught of the inner critic. Hence the individual absorbs the self-aggression, leading to a wide range of symptoms. When an overabundance of inner passivity has flooded a person’s psyche, he becomes consumed with negativity and easily becomes entangled in feeling deprived, refused, helpless, criticized, disrespected, victimized, and unloved. As mentioned, his tendency is to feel, as a psychological defense, that his accumulating inner misery is due to the alleged malice and vile nature of others. Or else, through his inner critic, he simply blames himself, but for the wrong reasons. The individual doesn’t see the degree to which this dreadful negativity is being churned up inside him, turning him against himself and then others.
Mass killers don’t fit any one diagnosis, according to experts. But these experts are only seeing surface symptoms such as paranoia, intense resentment, and narcissism—which are all symptoms of inner conflict. A clue to underlying inner passivity is found in a report by Dr. Deborah Weisbrot of Stony Brook University. She interviewed about 200 people, mostly teenage boys who had a history of making threats to others. “What they have in common,” she said, “is a kind of magical thinking, odd beliefs like they can read other people’s minds or see the future, or things that happen in their dreams come true.” Dr. Weisbrot’s interviews provide strong evidence that potential and actual mass killers act out of profound passivity. The common characteristics she detected are all claims to power, meaning that, due to their underlying passivity, these young people embrace these illusions of power because they are so desperate to counteract their underlying passivity. The illusions serve as an unconscious defense that goes like this: “I don’t want to feel powerless—look at how thrilling it is to feel or know that I have these powers.” Their passivity, in turn, invites their inner critic to scold and mock them mercilessly for their entanglement in this inner weakness, leading to a buildup of self-hatred and the felt need to act out aggressively.
This inner dynamic, with the addition of one distinctive aspect, can be seen in the Orlando killer. He possibly had homosexual desires. If so (and taking into account his terrible crime), he likely hated himself for having such desires. (Many readers already know this but I’ll say it anyway.) His problem was not, of course, that he might have been gay but rather that, through his inner critic, he turned on himself for being unable to moderate or regulate gay fantasies. He was apparently conflicted: his desires produced sexual interest or arousal, yet he was inwardly flooded with the message from his inner critic (a message that can be amplified by cultural or religious beliefs) that his desires were wrong and forbidden. Despite this inner condemnation, he remained compulsive in his wish to experience the sexual intrigue. This intensified his inner conflict: he felt helpless to regulate the desires and alluring fantasies, yet his inner critic condemned him relentlessly for having them.
As he passively absorbed this self-condemnation, he was likely filled with self-loathing and self-hatred. As a defensive mechanism involving inner denial, his self-hatred was shifted or projected onto gay people, and he would then have begun to fantasize going on a killing rampage in a gay nightclub. In his convoluted manner of thinking, he “rationalized” that gay people—and not him—were the evil ones who, in desiring what was allegedly forbidden, thereby deserved condemnation and destruction (though this condemnation originated from within as self-condemnation). As a defense, he could blame them for causing him to have such desires. If he obliterated them, his aggression would “prove” he wasn’t passively willing to be obsessed with gay fantasies and passively receptive to self-aggression from his inner critic.
Simply put, the killer projected his self-hatred onto gay people, thereby covering up his own passive acceptance of self-condemnation and self-hatred for harboring “forbidden” wishes.
It’s important to understand the killer’s inner passivity. Inner passivity is a kind of density or congestion in the human psyche that hinders us from awakening to our fuller humanity. Inner passivity is also in conflict with our inner critic, and in its weakness it absorbs, rather than fends off, much of the negative aggression from our inner critic. Because of inner passivity, the Orlando killer failed to protect himself from the irrational onslaught of his inner critic. Inner passivity is a major source of self-doubt and the sense of lacking in self-regulation. The killer’s passivity made him feel helpless to control or regulate his desires concerning gay sex. The more profound his passivity, the more likely he would have begun to produce contravening thoughts and impulses that embraced violent aggression. The more passive he felt in his inability to moderate his gay desires and avoid being obsessive, the more he would feel the need to cover up or defend against his unconscious resonance with this passivity. Thoughts of violent aggression become a defense: “I don’t want to feel passive: Look at how much I want to behave violently and aggressively. Look at how intoxicated and motivated I feel in imagining myself the powerful agent of destruction and the destroyer of evil.”
Inner passivity is also a major factor in the behaviors of Islamic terrorists, particularly in terms of how easily they are brainwashed and in terms of how emotionally disconnected they are from their humanity and from an appreciation for the sanctity of life.
The knowledge of how, through inner conflict, we produce negativity and evil impulses within ourselves is not being taught in our schools, universities, or publishing and media outlets. Once people see how they produce their negativity (self-pity, cynicism, dissension, apathy, anxiety, fear, hatred, depression, etc.), they are in a much stronger position to practice effective self-regulation of unruly emotions and to avoid self-defeating behaviors.
The inner conflict between passivity and aggression arises, in varying degrees of intensity, in the psyche of all humankind. This conflict produces widespread personal and social disharmony, and the knowledge of these dynamics can help many of us to ease our misery and self-defeat.
For more about depth psychology, read Peter Michaelson’s e-book, Why We Suffer: A Western Way to Understand and Let Go of Unhappiness.