So, I’ve let this go again for a while, and just when I’m ready to come back, I find a major intrusion from reality, and this time I do believe I have something to say about it that will fit here.
I am sure it would be redundant to do more than briefly recap recent events, and I would prefer to keep it briefer than usual: Once again, someone has committed what is known as a “spree shooting”. As is usually the case, it is reasonably clear that the offender is mentally ill. This time, not for the first time, the possibility has been raised that had an Autism Spectrum Disorder. For the last few days, autism activists have been pushing back against these reports by emphasizing that autistic disorders are not associated with violence, up to and including repeating the long-standing axiom that people who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crimes than to commit them. I must say, I disagree with this response. For one thing, I think if the goal is simply to downplay speculations about crime and disability, then the activists might be better off not commenting. Historical precedent would suggest that such comments are most likely to appear early and then quickly fade, especially under low-key communication by concerned parties with the media. For another, I believe that there are real and very fundamental problems here that are overdue for discussion.
While I see no cause to doubt the above-mentioned statistical talisman about mentally ill victims vs offenders, I have always had a feeling that this is missing the obvious, and probably more besides. The most “obvious” problem is that making a talking point out of this comes close to pummeling a man of straw. Given the dissimilar nature of mental disorders, nobody is ever going to claim that all the mentally ill are equally likely to commit a crime: Obviously, individuals as different as an agoraphobic and a clinical pedophile are not going to pose the same (if any) level of threat to others. Nor is anyone likely to make any serious claim that those with any particular disorder are more likely to be violent than not: Even in the prison population, the large majority are considered “non-violent”! The point we are really making the closest approach to is simply that the mentally ill population, and any subset thereof, can and should be approached like any other people group. All of which takes us precisely nowhere in applying what we know or can reasonably deduce about the demographics of crime.
One of the less obvious issues in the equation is what could be termed disproportionate threat. This can be seen at play on two levels. First, even “violent” offenders are not equally prone to violence: Of the subset of “violent” crime, a large majority the offenses are attributed to a minority of offenders (I distinctly recall seeing the very persistent 80%-20% ratio come up). Then there is another consideration, entirely “obvious” but difficult to quantify: Quite simply, some people, even if they are no more likely to offend, are capable of far more damage if/when they do. Spree shooters themselves are among the most obvious examples, and historically they overlap massively with the even more quintessential case and point, ex-military offenders. One of the earliest documented spree shooters and my personal pick for the single most dangerous individual to come to my attention was a decorated World War 2 veteran who committed a rare building-to-building rampage in 1949. (I don’t care to repeat any names in discussing this sort of thing if I can avoid it, but here’s “his” website.)
The same kind of issues can be seen at play for mental illness. Many conditions offer nothing but obvious “outgroups”, as in the already-mentioned example of agoraphobia: People who by definition avoid going out in public are by definition unlikely to harm members of the general public! Other conditions may be said to put the individual “at risk” to offend, but make for a liability in actually carrying out the deed. Schizophrenia is the quintessential case and point: Schizophrenics are characteristically delusional, not only seeing and hearing what isn’t there, but believing it. However, the “classic” schizophrenic is also characteristically disorganized. He might rob a bank because his cat told him to, but even if the cat also dictated one hell of a plan, there’s not much chance he would carry it out successfully. The presumable principle is that this kind of “crazy” is predictably self-limiting, and there’s no shortage of real-life cases to support the point. My favorite is a famous would-be assassin who was still pulling the trigger when his empty revolver was taken from him. The ability to keep track one’s bullets is a key test of the organized criminal, and entirely failing to notice when one is out is a strong indicator that one is not suited for the “job”.
But then, there are offenders who defy these “rules”. The WW2 veteran I mentioned was declared schizophrenic and institutionalized for the remainder of his life. (Reading between the lines, it seems likely that there were people in the right places who wanted to spare him, and/or simply avoid embarrassing questions, on account of his war record.) It’s very unlikely that such a diagnosis would be accepted today, and any appeal for clemency would be denied. While he was by all indications delusional in some sense, his actions showed far too much planning and self-control for the schizophrenia diagnosis (which, significantly, was “tightened” in the early 1970s) to fit at all comfortably. Even more importantly, there was no question that he deliberately targeted at least some of his victims, which under the modern requirements for an insanity plea would be entirely sufficient to establish that he knew what he was doing and therefore could be held legally accountable for it. What is ultimately most significant about this individual is that similar “profiles” can be seen to pop up again with other exceptionally destructive offenders, including the subject in the present incident. Even subtle details, particularly a reported lack of vocalization, can be seen to match up closely.
So, exactly what are we dealing with? It’s my long-standing pet theory (developed with a little help from a couple fictional characters) that there is a significant subset of autistic people who have a combination of “high-functioning” traits and schizophrenia-like symptoms, which I have termed “delusional aspie”. (See “Autism and Overlapping Disorders” and “Conversations with O’Cleary”.) At least some “spree” offenders do seem to fit this description. This could be considered nothing more or less than an example of a “comorbid” disorder, which for schizophrenia in particular has been documented for about as long as both conditions have been known. (In fact, historic controversies occurred over telling them apart!) But then there is another way of looking at it. A psychiatric diagnosis is, first and foremost, a description of a pattern of thought and behavior. If an “overlap” of characteristics from two or more “established” diagnoses is sufficient to produce an entirely novel “pattern”, then at some point one has to consider whether it is, for all practical purposes, a completely different animal. Unfortunately, in the time it takes for the “pros” to sort out this sort of thing, it’s quite easy for whole generations to slip through the proverbial cracks, particularly by a) being “shoehorned” into a clearly imperfect diagnosis and treatment simply because nobody has anything better to do with them or b) simply receiving no diagnosis or treatment at all because nobody will venture to put a “name” to what is wrong with them.
Then there is another, very fundamental issue of criminal demographics. One of the most pervasive problems demonstrated by application of proper statistical analysis to crime is that popular anxieties tend to direct community attention away from serious “inward” problems. 1980’s-era “stranger danger” and its stranger cousin the “satanic panic” flew directly in the face of hard data on parental abductions and homicides (read Coulrophobia– it’s about time someone did). White Americans perenially anxious about blacks have long since been shown that about 80% of murdered whites are murdered by other whites, and even more strikingly, about 90% of people actually murdered by blacks are other black people. Such results of hard data can also be extended to murkier areas of folklore. For example, there can be no serious doubt that any factual nucleus of Medieval and Renaissance “blood libel” legends of Christian children supposedly murdered in Jewish rituals were simply prosaic homicides, and most likely perpetrated by family members of the victims. (Ironically, that very opinion is expressed frequently and vocally in contemporary sources, obviously to no avail against the prejudices of their peers.) It even seems possible that evidently high numbers of Jewish victims in “routine” homicides (ie beyond overtly anti-Semitic mass violence in the “pogroms”), which could be an indication of religiously-motivated or simply opportunistic attacks by (self-described!) Christian offenders, were in fact mainly killed by other Jews.
I believe it shall be “obvious” where this is going. If one accepts the proposition that one can at least attempt to treat crime among the mentally ill like that of any other people group, then the most intuitive conclusion one can make is that the greatest threat to someone with a mental illness should be another mentally ill person! Such a dramatic proposition should by all means be tested. But so far, I have yet to see it even mentioned, and I felt that it was long past time long ago.
Now I invite further consideration for just how this would affect someone’s mental condition, and indeed their entire perception of the wider world. If someone with obviously limited ability to function in society is approached by someone with ill intentions and a condition that is far less obvious, then the former party is the least likely of all people to recognize the latter as anything but a “normal” member of the public. If the more “functional” party then abuses the other, the less functional party has no way to recognize what is truly wrong with the abuser. Instead, the abused party might very well develop the notion that the abusive behavior is nothing more or less than what any “normal” person can and will do given the opportunity. Then the only “reasonable” defense is to withdraw further from “normal” human contact, which will carry with it predictable deterioration in condition and “functioning” and may all too easily make the subject an even more convenient target for the truly predatory abnormal. Sooner of later, the victim might even start to develop a plan for revenge, retaliation or merely self-defense… and we all know where that road goes to.
I don’t think I want to write any more about this now, if ever. I would like to think I have said enough. Call it what life, and my idea of a good story, is like: No answers, jut trying to ask the right questions.
David N. Brown