I should be spending my evening thinking about just what in the hell I’m going to do at tomorrow’s Shadow Art Fair, but I can’t stop reading about last night’s horrific events in Colorado. Predictably, a lot of people, like our friend Roger Ebert, are taking the opportunity to argue that more meaningful gun control laws are called for. And, as you might expect, others, like Congressman Louie Gohmert, are saying that this would never have happened, if only everyone in the theater had been armed and ready when the gunman made his entrance. (Gohmert also took the opportunity earlier today to share his theory that this was somehow the result of “ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs.”) The most persuasive arguments I’ve read thus far, though, have been from people who have stayed out of the gun control debate altogether, and focused instead on access to mental health assistance. I haven’t verified it yet, but, according to something that I read earlier, funding for the National Institutes of Mental Health has dropped nearly 20% since the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by a mentally ill young man in 2011, which left several, including a nine year old girl, dead. (But we had to have those Bush tax cuts, right?) So, I’m thinking about all of this, and going back to what was written by people, like Marilyn Manson, at the time of the Columbine shootings, which, coincidentally, took place just 20 miles away from the scene of last night’s mass killing. And, I’ve been debating what I wanted to share with you… what best got at the heart of the matter. Well, here’s what I settled on. It’s a thought-provoking quote from Steven Pinker, author of “How the Mind Works,” which was shared earlier today by someone on Metafilter, using the handle AceRock.
…Amok is a Malay word for the homicidal sprees occasionally undertaken by lonely, Indochinese men who have suffered a loss of love, a loss of money, or a loss of face. The syndrome has been described in a culture even more remote from the West: the stone-age foragers of Papua New Guinea.
The amok man is patently out of his mind, an automaton oblivious to his surroundings and unreachable by appeals or threats. But his rampage is preceded by lengthy brooding over failure, and is carefully planned as a means of deliverance from an unbearable situation. The amok state is chillingly cognitive. It is triggered not by a stimulus, not by a tumor, not by a random spurt of brain chemicals, but by an idea. The idea is so standard that the following summary of the amok mind-set, composed in 1968 by a psychiatrist who had interviewed seven hospitalized amoks in Papua New Guinea, is an apt description of the the thoughts of mass murderers continents and decades away:
“I am not an important man… I possess only my personal sense of dignity. My life has been reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except my life, which is nothing, so I trade my life for yours, as your life is favoured. The exchange is in my favour, so I shall not only kill you, but I shall kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process.”
The amok syndrome is an extreme instance of the puzzle of human emotions. Exotic at first glance, upon scrutiny they turn out to be universal; quintessentially irrational, they are tightly interwoven with abstract thought and have a cold logic of their own…