It’s not a groundbreaking position to argue against the dominant media narrative of the ‘lone psycho’. Simon Baron-Cohen opposed this approach to Anders Brevik in the Guardian during the aftermath to that story last year. However, I’m often shocked by just how much resistance I come up against when I suggest that, maybe, throwing around medically loaded terms like ‘psychopath’, in the context of events like this week’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier, might have consequences.
Surely, I was told, it’s clear that whoever did this was a psychopath, demonstrating no remorse or feeling for his fellow man. You don’t need to be a psychiatric professional to see the difference, and it’s actually offensive and elitist to suggest that shrinks have more knowledge than the man on the street. The US staff sergeant who allegedly carried out the Afghan attacks, along with Anders Brevik, Raoul Moat, and every other mass-murderer you care to mention, was obviously a ‘lone psycho’, just some kind of psychological anomaly who must face the full force of the law.
But what if such a simplistic reading was not just a common-sense, obvious conclusion to draw from events? It is, of course, far scarier to believe that people can commit horrific acts without falling into any category of psychic distress, or that there can be broader social and institutional issues feeding into these acts, than to insist that terrible acts are committed ahistorically and aculturally, as a result of mental illness – scientifically definable, and nothing that needs any deeper investigation. If terrible acts such as these are merely anomalous, then strong psychotropic drugs, a padded cell, or the needle are all that is needed to bring society back into order again. Until the next time.
The political utility of the ‘lone psycho’ is clear. In the case of Brevik it masks the spectre of increased far-right militancy. In the case of the latest massacre in Afghanistan, it allows Obama to condemn the actions, and other members of military staff to express surprise and disbelief. Include suggestions of ‘a breakdown’ or ‘traumatic brain injury’, and rather than raising any questions about military training, or the attitudes of NATO troops towards Afghan civilians, this is suddenly a one-off: “This kind of rogue event is almost unknown in Afghanistan”.
However, while the attribution of mental illness to those who commit terrible acts of violence and murder is useful tool to depoliticise potentially embarrassing events, masking any possible cultural, social or historical factors which may have made such actions more likely, they also serve to cement an impression of mental illness within the minds of those who watch the news.
As the regular attribution of ‘psychopathy’ to the US soldier on twitter demonstrates, many people have very fixed ideas about what this particular condition, and its neighbour ‘Anti-Social Personality Disorder’ entail. Evoking shades of the media scare stories about ‘schizophrenics’ in the wake of Thatcher’s ‘Care in the Community’ policy, the reality of mental illness is coloured by media presentation. Peggy Phelan, in her book Unmarked, describes the relationship between representation and reality in the formulation ‘the real is read through representation, and representation is read through the real’. In other words, a discussion about media influence in discourse has to take into account the fact that people also prejudge media images, and are not merely conditioned by them.
This raises a problem when discussing the image of the ‘lone psycho’. The tendency of sensationalist news reports to attribute mental illness to violent criminals means that many people will not have ‘real’ experience with which to qualify mediated ‘representations’, due to discrimination against and assumptions about the behaviour of mentally ill people. At the same time, it means that the apparent ‘reality’ of violence among mentally ill people will lead the the assumption that anyone who has committed violent acts with no apparent motive must be mentally ill. We are caught within circular reasoning which dehumanises all sufferers of mental illness (even conditions such as depression and anxiety when they are at their most severe), while also depoliticizing actions which are no doubt shaped by more complex factors than merely experience of mental illness.
As a result of this problem, I’d appeal to everyone who reads this to try to avoid attributing mental illness to individuals who have committed violent crimes (or who cut you up dangerously on the motorway, for that matter). The US soldier who massacred 16 Afghan civilians may have suffered a breakdown, or had a traumatic brain injury, but he was also doing a job which entailed killing Afghans as a basic condition of work. Brevik may suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, but he also had a minutely worked out political programme, and his actions fitted within that. On the other hand, as far as I know, none of my schizophrenic friends have killed anyone, while ever increasing numbers of political commentators (and social media friendly charities) are agitating for wars in many, many different countries, and funding armies with the profits.