Peter Aylward writes: There is still little information about the perpetrator of the atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut, although I would be surprised if Adam Lanza didn’t fit the general profile of mass killers: a loner, introverted and on the margins of his social group. What has been reported is that he killed his mother, then went on to kill 20 pupils and six adults at the school where she apparently had links, before taking his own life.
This incident has deep resonance with the Dunblane massacre in Scotland in 1996 when Thomas Watt Hamilton walked into a primary school and shot dead 16 young children and a teacher before killing himself. My own recent research into the Dunblane tragedy established early developmental trauma in Hamilton highlighted by an unhealthy, problematic relationship with his mother and sibling and crucially an absent, and abandoning, father. This was also the situation for Anders Breivik, the mass killer in Norway.
My experience with the assessment and treatment of homicidal perpetrators at Broadmoor hospital informs me that both Hamilton’s and Breivik’s murderous rage had their roots in unresolved family relationships and conflicts that became displaced into their community; not simply that somebody has a difficult childhood and later becomes a troubled adult.
One understandable response to such incidents is to review gun laws in the hope that this will prevent further incidents occurring. This might restrict firearms access – in America’s case, this may well be a crucial step. But this in itself will never be enough: rather like the security scanning machines at airports, tighter regulation alone would do little to help us understand the murderousness in the mind. Such violent acts appear incomprehensible and the subsequent inquiries too often reach a simplistic conclusion by focusing on the social or political grievances of the perpetrator, coupled with a diagnosis of mental illness or personality disorder or both.
This misses the crucial fact that the perpetrator’s crime is inextricably linked to the individual’s early experience. All responses to violence need to include a full understanding of the history of the perpetrator in an attempt to establish the “why”. This will offer the only opportunity we have to establish the fundamental truth. The question arises, how does society deal with “marginalised” individuals in their midst like Hamilton, Breivik or Lanza, and how do we try to prevent such events from recurring?
It is sadly inevitable that we will continue to experience individuals committing criminal acts as a corollary to fundamentally feeling uncontained, excluded and emasculated (originating from the experience in their first tier of socialisation, namely the family). So there is a vital role to be played by the next tier of socialisation, namely education.
I believe we need to educate the next generation of mothers and fathers, starting at the earliest phase of schooling, about relationships. This would include the vital importance of developing the capacity to reflect, thereby mitigating exclusion and promoting that fundamental human need of a sense of belonging. [Continue reading…]