Can We Profile Killers Like Jared Loughner, Nidal Malik Hasan, and the VA Tech Shooter?
Mass killers seem to share distinctive profiles (see here) – socially isolated, probably schizophrenic, mildly delusional and paranoid. All of those in the title to this post were bereft of fundamental intimacy, were not well integrated socially, blamed their problems on outside forces, and sought to resolve these issues with a self-justifying onslaught against those they thought were neglecting, belittling, attacking them.
Many responses to the Arizona shooting spree focus on these traits. Often, the pundit or politician does so in order to offset calls for an improved level of political discourse in the United States, avoiding gun and shooting imagery in campaign advertising and speeches, or for gun control, claiming that none of these were crucial in Loughner’s outburst. The only way to prevent such horrific events, the argument goes, is by developing better ways to identify such vulnerable individuals before they act.
There are problems with this argument, however – and in our ability to improve our ability to profile and to quarantine killers.
We already know enough and have enough data to have acted in the Loughner, Hasan, and VA Tech (Seung-Hui Cho) cases. All of these men’s records were rife with indicators that they were deeply troubled and prone to act out. In fact, in all three cases, concerned superiors (officers and teachers) had reported them for mental health/disruptive/violent tendencies. And nothing came of these reports and accumulated information. Why? Because there are too many such individuals – most of whom don’t act out; there is too great a cost to incorrectly identifying people as being potential murderers – including legal repercussions for violating privacy safeguards; and because when it comes down to it supervisors are too uncertain of themselves and the validity of such reports to take decisive action. Instead, the tendency is for those in some kind of supervisory role to ignore or expel these individuals so as to avoid such problems.
On his MSNBC early morning program, Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough confidently identified Cho and Loughner as suffering from Asperger’s (which he identified was true for his own son). But the sheer number of children (nearly one in a hundred) suffering from autism spectrum conditions makes it impossible to winnow out potential killers among them. Indeed, the call for greater activism in identifying those with autism and Asperger’s would actually inflate their numbers and make the task of selecting potential murderers more difficult.
And, of course, it is a prejudice to regard people with these conditions as special candidates for monitoring and restriction, since so few of them actually attempt to kill others. We could equally argue that people with conditions like those Joe adumbrated are less likely to strike out at others and more likely to internalize their emotions. Assisting such individuals to appropriately express feelings and discontents is the preferred therapeutic course to avoid both acting-out and acting-in dysfunctions.
But applying broad and effective treatment strategies is not a profiler’s job – which is, instead, to hone in on red flags in people’s dispositions and behavior and to corral these tendencies – and these people. In other words, profiling is a police – and not a therapeutic – function, and in the vast majority of cases our society needs to highlight a therapeutic response. We are not well positioned as a culture (like, say, the East German secret police were) for accumulating information for punitive or preventive interventions. In order to do so, we might have to become a different kind of society – one that, as with the East German example, creates its own set of social problems.