>School Shootings—What Was The Motive?
© Mayer Spivack 10/10/2006
Permission to reproduce this work is freely granted for educational, non-commercial purposes. I would appreciate notification.
We see it every week, nearly every evening on the news. Another violent crime in a school is discovered. The victims relatives and friends and sometimes the whole community or nation is saddened, outraged and frightened. The life of the suspect, already in custody, is examined. ‘He was always such a nice quiet guy— so good to his family and kids in the neighborhood’, or— ‘She kept to herself, didn’t bother anybody, no one expected that she would kill kids. “How could she (or he) do that?”
Quietness in extremes in an indicator of suppressed expression and of depression. We should become especially aware of children who have a severely narrowed emotional repertoire. These children need help now. By helping them we may prevent a violent future.
Their crimes all seem senseless because we cannot sense their causes using only our unexamined but still popular premises. The sense of these crimes eludes us. We search clues for a motive— which we mistakenly equate with— a reason. But motives are not reasons. We confuse the idea of reasons (with it’s whiff of reasonableness) with the idea of causality. The kinds of motives that satisfy the police and the courts may be probable causes but they are not reasonable causes, they are usually only thetriggering circumstances (literally and figuratively) of a particular act of violence. They are the immediate causes, the formative determinant causes causes are far older, and predate perhaps by decades the recent circumstance of motive. Facts as they are quoted and discovered by the press and the police cannot and do not explain the action to our satisfaction. We hear neighbors left pondering an image of ‘human nature’ presented as a mysterious and unfathomable dark (animalistic, wicked, sinful) horror. Yet there remains some sense to be discovered. Were we to use the right questions with more reflective, and self-reflective intentions we might pull straight the psychodynamic thread that runs through all this violence and killing.
As societies we have so far avoided wanting to know the causes of violence and cruelty, contenting ourselves with the quick and dramatic answers of motive, and the unexamined, dangerous, teaching of revenge. We preferred to hide these truths from ourselves. In doing so, we have also avoided systematic investigation of the complex emotions, psychology and the behaviors that are causal.
When someone murders, one of the first question asked is “what was the motive?” As if a murderer is a rational being, acting from healthy notions of motivation. We feel that if we only understood the motive then we would know why the act was committed and that it would all make sense to us—but that is our own irrationality.
The question of motive leads partly to nonsense. Murderers are all mentally ill! Their motives are unconscious, often to the last instant. Ourselves as civilians are merely playing at outsmarting the legal system and the detectives in a mystery story written in a language almost none of us can read —the language of psychodynamics. Motive is not the issue. Illness is. Motive does not matter, except as a way of discovering who performed the murder. Motive does matter if unconscious motive is of interest. Unconscious motive cannot be discovered, nor can we make it part of the dialogue surrounding such events if we keep within the limits of ordinary systems of thought, thought-systems that exclude psychodynamics. Short of developing an enhanced scope of information, and a far more thoughtful discovery process (and self discovery process), we will not educate ourselves to rise above our primal philosophies and our baseline of precedent dependent, legal procedures.
In violent crime, discovering, or more precisely assigning or imputing a motive to a violent criminal act is only important insofar as it assists police in finding the perpetrator. It is particularly important to us civilians at the psychodynamic level when, as silent TV witnesses of crime, we ourselves act as accusers and prosecutors, and because our desired outcome is to feel safer. We accomplish this illusion of safety by being righteous, and justify our positions by pointing our individual and societal fingers of blame at a frightening perpetrator. But self and societal justification is not justice. The reinforcement of order and law, while reassuring, is not crime prevention. It is humming loudly with our heads under the pillow.
Most violent crimes are committed by people that have been themselves long been victims of hidden or secret unreported violent crimes and cruelty, almost always experienced during the powerless, helpless, and defenseless years of their childhood. When we are shown an adolescent or adult violent criminal, we should learn to search for and see one who was once a child, hurt beyond understanding or succor, reacting as he or she was taught to do, in this society, and conforming to his or her particular family’s language of cruelty or violence. Violence begets violence. Violence teaches violence.
And what of all the people who murder themselves or those who murder themselves after killing others? These victims of violence are doubly-injured, even as they injure others. They are keeping to the special version the ‘golden rule’ as it is held by the abused, of doing unto others as they have had done to themselves. Their murderous acts are the final resting and hiding place for their own unacceptable abuse-victim’s rage that might have had earlier and healthier expression as verbal anger resulting from the pain of child-abuse and neglect. This anger might once have been expressed more appropriately and less lethally to the originally hostile persons—except for the powerlessness that abused children often feel. Those harmful adults who were often a parent, teacher, caregiver or religious authority, had once held ultimate power.
Violent acts often result from the repressed and hidden determinants of serious child neglect, humiliation, contempt, all of which are variations upon the child-abuse theme. The resultant repressed and transferred anger that can cause this later violence is so invisible to the self-killer that he believes himself to blame for his own pain, and for the pain and the punishment by his elders enacted before an audience of his peers. Thus victimized, he yearns for revenge. Once armed, he shoots at targets that resemble himself as he once was.
This misplaced revenge falls upon the innocent in the context and place of their own childhood humiliations—a school environment— repeating the endless abuse of power against children.