The Sandy Hook suicide attack

In one particular but quite significant way, Adam Lanza’s death was a typical American suicide: he shot himself

Although only 5 percent of Americans who attempt suicide shoot themselves, 50 percent of suicides are caused by firearms. Guns are simply much more efficient than most other methods through which people try to end their own lives. And although many people imagine the greatest danger guns pose is by being used to murder others, more people die by firing a gun at themselves. Indeed, while gun owners typically say they need their weapons for self protection, 83 percent of gun-related deaths in American homes are the result of suicide.

Since 2001, suicide attack is a phrase that has shaped American perceptions of the Middle East and framed much of U.S. national security policy-making. This is unfortunate for several reasons, not least because there is little evidence that the perpetrators of so-called suicide attacks conduct their operations in order to commit suicide — there are after all much easier ways for someone to kill themselves. Moreover, from what is known about many of the attackers, it is clear that they see the violent ending of their own lives as a means to a greater purpose rather than an end in itself.

As Robert Pape writes:

In general, suicide attackers are rarely socially isolated, clinically insane, or economically destitute individuals, but are most often educated, socially integrated, and highly capable people who could be expected to have a good future. The profile of a suicide terrorist resembles that of a politically conscious individual who might join a grassroots movement more than it does the stereotypical murderer, religious cult member, or everyday suicide.

In contrast, real acts of suicide are focused resolutely on the termination of life — not what might follow.

When each new school massacre in America is reported, it almost always turns out that the killing finishes when the shooter ends his own life. While it might seem that suicide is in some sense a logical conclusion to the blood-letting — the gunman might reasonably conclude that if he doesn’t shoot himself he will end up getting shot by the police — because the massacre becomes the immediate focus of media attention, the suicide itself is turned into a footnote. A natural reluctance to comment much on the method of the gunman’s death lest such attention suggests he might be worthy of sympathy, also has the effect of making the suicide seem peripheral to the event.

This is a mistake, for it we want to understand what happened in Sandy Hook on Friday morning we should be in no doubt that this was the way Adam Lanza chose to make certain that his own death would not go unnoticed.

Individuals who, for whatever reason, experience extreme social isolation — loners who by their nature tend to go unnoticed — are often perceived as lacking the desire to be socially engaged, but more often their isolation serves to cloak a cauldron of agony and despair born from frustrated social needs.

The way Lanza ended his life suggests that he felt separated from the rest of the world by an unbridgeable chasm. Having concluded that he would never be able to cross that divide, he found company by taking away 27 innocents lives who, to his mind, would be forced join him in oblivion.

While in a typical suicide there is a dread of life and some kind of reconciliation with the fact that we are all destined to die alone, those who kill others before taking their own lives seem trapped in a tormented fight against their own isolation.

Shooting massacres, even when they occur as frequently as several times a year, are still viewed by most Americans as isolated events — anomalies in an otherwise relatively peaceful society. But — to borrow a metaphor from the war on terrorism — the swamp in which this carnage takes place is a pervasive feature of American life: the fragmentation of individual lives separated from social networks and the life-affirming experience of physical contact with others.

Facing the epidemic of isolation in America would require a collective willingness to embark on some profound cultural changes. In many ways, this is a society that strangles its own development by making human relationships subordinate to individual freedom.

Before such changes can begin to take place there will be more tormented souls who try to follow in Lanza’s footsteps. But whether the results are equally catastrophic depends more immediately on one thing: how easily they have access to guns.

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4 thoughts on “The Sandy Hook suicide attack

  1. DE Teodoru

    Adam Lanza, I read, was only diagnosed as suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome; a form of AUTISM, where the affected individual exhibits, usually, a high level of intelligence, which somehow deteriorates as a social encounter evolves into disjointed verbal interactions where the Asperger’s victim, in arguing his case, deteriorates to emotional confusion though otherwise capable of very high levels of intellect. This leads to a self-frustration that can get to be OCCASIONAL violent, with physical violence only directed to self. Having encountered many such diagnosed college students in a pedagogical setting, I must say that they seem in no way retarded. But they lack the characteristic ability to interact with others in a socially fascilitating fashion over time; and, they cannot feel a common experience as common because they are totally trapped within a self-centered perspective oblivious of others. Neuroscience speaks of the standard social “anomie” of autistics, marked by a limbic/supra-limbic disability to relate to others via the proposed “mirror neurons” recently discovered by Italian researchers, which fire in response to an inner sense of projection to someone observed and the task performed, communicative or otherwise, and a readiness to respond to these actions communicatively through learned imitation or affective or cognitive link to the other person under observation. There are in nature some non-social animals that are solitary because they cannot form bonds with con-specific, prone to hurting even their own litter or litter-mates. Autism is a behaviorally ascribed diagnosis, but correlation with CNS developmental problems in the Amygdala-basal ganglia-limbic structures has been demonstrated. Unlike solitary animals that may easily turn on their own cubs just to bring the mother back into estrus, AUTISTICS– especially Asperger’s patients– are not ranked with the violent PSYCHOTIC human analogue of these solitary animals: the “anti-social personality disorder.” Both the autistic and psychotic individuals generally feel no reliable and trustworthy bond to other fellow humans, but are prone to acts of cruelty both in response to an interaction or even when unprovoked.

    I recall in psychiatric rotation, the presentation of a video of a man under police interrogation who had bludgeoned an old woman to death. He readily admitted it, insisting that she annoyed him when she couldn’t open her jewelry box in fear so he hit her….”and then the f—en bitch really pissed me off when she bled all over my nice Hawaiian shirt that I had just stolen from Macy’s today. The more I hit her, the more she messed up my damned shirt , so I really got mad until I finally stopped her with a lot of good swings of my bat.”

    Note his total lack of empathy for his victim. The question I would ask is: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AUTISM AND ANTI-SOCIAL PERSONALITY DISORDER? Both lack empathy, the release necessary for both the psychotic above and the autistic, Adam Lanza to perpetrate the heartless killing of innocents. The autistic suffers exaggerated waves of frustration, producing intense emotional arousal which often leads to SELF injury in a viscous circle. The anti-social personality turns on others pitilessly and tortures without seeming provocation. However, the inward vs. outward violence in response to frustration is not an obligate distinction between the two diagnoses. The “psychotic” diagnosis (anti-social personality syndrome) of the latter is made usually as a result of a specific crime against innocent victims. So it is a forensic diagnosis. Autism is usually made much earlier and so is deemed a developmental disorder. Adam Lanza was diagnoses, per the media, as Asperger’s Disorder– a form of autism, not with an Anti-Social Personality Syndrome, though if the former diagnosis had not been made, the events at the Sandy Hook School may well have led to the anti-social personality disorder diagnosis. The differential between the two, Dr. Sanje Gupta stressed on CNN, is that the autistic strikes at himself while the psychotic at others…the former being a “developmental” and the latter a “character” disorder.

    One may legitimately wonder if Dr. ( a neurosurgeon turned reporter) Gupta’s diagnosis is maybe a distinction possibly without a difference. Here is a man of 20 years of age diagnosed as autistic when a child who, as an adult, behaves as a psychotic. The common thread between the two is an inability to relate to others and empathize with them, at one time producing self-injury yet at another deliberate mass murder and mayhem. It does not seem far fetched, therefore, to ask if the developmental autism might in fact have made possible the later psychotic mayhem?

    I am in no way suggesting that we treat all autistics diagnosed in infancy as potential violent psychotics later on and lock them up. ON THE OTHER HAND, THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN AUTISTICS– AS EXPRESSING SELF-DIRECTED VIOLENCE– AND PSYCHOTICS– AS DIRECTING VIOLENCE TOWARDS OTHERS– DESPITE THE CHARACTERISTIC COMMON INABILITY TO RELATE TO OTHERS AND EMPATHIZE FOR THOSE SUFFERING, IS NOT A PROVEN DIFERENTIAL. This is in no way to suggest that autism necessarily sets one up to become a dangerous killer psychotic. Rather, I would say that maybe we don’t know enough to rule out a possible continuum between the two conditions.

    And still, I would NEVER proposed that we treat autistics as potential psychotic killers and lock them up in isolation. I think there’s enough empirical data to show that many autistics, especially Asperger’s autistics, can integrate into society. But if there’s any chance that there is a link between the anomie of autistics and that of psychotics, that autistics can end up taking out their frustrations as might have Adam Lanza, then—with 1 in 10 births today deemed autistic at some level (we have no reliable stats for the autistic birth rate in the past century)—it behooves us to end the easy availability of military-type ASSAULT weapons. As President Obama said, we’ve had too many such tragic uses of soldier’s war weapons on helpless innocent civilians to permit the assumption that no amount of NRA type “training to use weapons responsibly” will insure public safety. Such weapons of war have no place in our society with the easy accessibility they enjoy today, especially if it turns out that some autistics MAY OR MAY NOT become potential psychotics, taking out their self-centered frustrations as did Adam Lanza. The key element in both disorders is inability to empathize/relate with fellow human beings. While this should not allow us to restrict a person’s freedom, it should force us to cease making dangerous military weapons available as a “Constitutional Freedom” because it has proven to abrogate the pursuit of LIFE and happiness, as per the Constitution, for far too many of the rest of us. We must end any availability of military weapons now because the number of people who might repeat the Sandy Hook School tragedy as “copy cats” may be far, far greater than we think if it should turn out that autism in any way makes for propensities towards such psychosis as exhibited by Adam Lanza.

  2. Paul Woodward

    The problem with all these psychiatric labels is that they are imbued with medical authority in the same way as a disease like diabetes, but whereas a diagnosis like diabetes can be confirmed through testing, there are no tests that demonstrate someone is autistic or has anti-social personality disorder. These labels are merely descriptions of observable behavior. In this respect, psychiatry functions like medicine did in the Middle Ages. However, there is a big difference. Once a doctor has has waved his wand and pronounced that the patient fits the criteria for a specific diagnosis described in the DSM, he can then prescribe “appropriate” medication. Who determines what is appropriate? To a significant degree the marketing departments in pharmaceutical companies with the collaboration of doctors who accept hefty bribes, look for all possible ways of expanding the therapeutic applications of their drugs. Drugs used for treating psychoses in adults end up being given to small children with behavioral problems. The end result is that we end up with a heavily medicated society in which problems that stem from dysfunctional relationships are circumscribed as afflictions of the individual. This trend has become so massively profitable for big pharma that they can afford to pay billions of dollars to pay the fines they regularly incur for their illegal business practices.

  3. DE Teodoru


    But autism does enjoy some neuroscience science which is only in animal model form for psychosis.

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