Nation: The Symptoms of Mass Murder

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ALL murder is horrifying, but the work of such as Charles Whitman or the Chicago nurse-killer produces an almost hysterical quality of shock and dread. Numbers of dead alone cannot entirely account for it. Nor can the unsettling plaint of Austin's police chief that "this kind of thing could have happened anywhere." What is ultimately so disturbing about the 23 lives so taken is that nearly all were snuffed out for no reason and at random. In almost every case, they were unnamed and unknown to their killers, the incidental and impersonal casualties of uncharted battlefields that exist only in demented minds. They were sacrifices to the irrational, wherein lies, as it always has for reasoning man, the ultimate terror. They were victims of the blind fury of the psychotic murderer.

Many psychiatrists believe that there is something intrinsic in modern American society that causes on occasion the sort of senseless mayhem practiced last week in Austin. Some of the violence of the frontier still lingers in the American character, they believe, aggravated to extremes in a few individuals by the pressure to succeed and the social and economic mobility of American society. Perhaps, as many psychiatrists insist, the American mother's increasingly powerful position in the family has weakened the ego of American men, who are with rare exceptions responsible for mass murder in the U.S. All, or none, of this may be true—or, most likely, part of it. But the fact is that mass murder is by no means an exclusive American institution; it has been perpetrated in scores of countries down the ages, from Caligula's Rome to the Congo.

Helpless & Haunted

Of the nearly 2,500,000 Americans who were treated for mental illness in hospitals and clinics last year, almost a third were classified as psychotic: a person who, by minimum definition, has lost touch with reality. Many types of psychotics are harmless and helpless. The most dangerous type, the paranoid schizophrenic, on the other hand, is a powder keg of lethal emotions. He frequently has deep sexual problems, often involving his mother. He not only lives in an unreal world that may be dominated by either macabre or fairyland fantasy, but is haunted by fears and delusions of persecution. In his befuddled mind, an accidental bump on a crowded sidewalk or a passing criticism from his employer or family can be transformed into an illusion that the world is plotting against him. When he chooses to retaliate, he may become an irrational killer.

The psychotic does not murder often; neither, for that matter, does the professional thief. "Contrary to popular myth," says Wayne State University Psychiatry Professor Emanuel Tanay, "murder is not the crime of criminals, but that of law-abiding citizens." The great majority of the nation's 9,850 murders last year were family affairs, committed by outwardly ordinary people who, asserts Tanay, "practically never repeat this or any other crime again." When the psychotic whose trouble is deep enough does strike, the result is often wholesale slaughter.

Compulsive Need

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