Violent crime in the United States unfortunately remains a daily occurrence, and while domestic violence is undoubtedly the most common (and underreported), there now seems to be an increased interest in the role of ideology and murder. The recent shootings in San Bernadino, CA, and Philadelphia, PA, have been attributed to murderers who have been motivated by the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and only in early October, 2015, Chris Harper Mercer killed nine people near Roseburg, Oregon, after penning his own manifesto that presumably explored his murderous inclinations. In 2014, Elliot Roger shot and killed six people and injured fourteen, after writing a manifesto entitled ‘My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Roger.’
The motivations behind killing are complex and widely disputed, but it is time for some serious scholarship on the role that ideas play in dampening the conscience, at least temporarily, to provide an individual with a window of time where they have given themselves permission to kill. The role that ideology plays in the act of killing can be explained within the framework of sociopathy, but first this has to be distinguished from its estranged cousin, psychopathy.
Psychopathy is noted as a mental disorder that is characterized by an emotional deficit and antisocial behavior . Neuroscientists have found some profound differences in the brains of psychopaths when compared to the non-psychopathic, and these differences seem to result from developmental errors [2, 3]. Two key features of the psychopathic is the lack of empathy and remorse, and while many psychopaths are killers, a significant proportion of killers are psychopaths . Psychopathy is also a clinical diagnosis, and so for somebody to truly be called a psychopath, they have to have been assessed by a professional mental health expert.
THE ROLE OF WORLDVIEWS AND IDEOLOGIES
When moving through our passage in life, we all develop a sense of what is right about the world, and figuring this out is probably one of the greatest sources of consternation many of us face on a daily basis. There seems to be a duality to this sense; feeling what is right, and then understanding conceptually what is right. When the two fit together, feeling right and being able to describe in words and ideas why we feel right, is an amazing and stable feeling, and the ideas are likely to become part of how we see the world. However, when our ideas and thoughts no longer feel right, or we feel right but do not know why, we are left feeling confused and perhaps even irritated.
Eventually, when we have had enough experiences and self-reflection, we start to develop a complex set of ideas that reflect what we think is true about the world.
During these pensive moments we suspend speculation and possibility surrounding the veracity of the idea, and it moves towards becoming a belief. This suspension could very well mark the difference between the scientific mind and the religious mind, as science only ever deals in probabilities, whereas the religious mind attributes absolute rightness to the core ideas, and this is known as faith (probabilities allow for‘wrongness’, a catalyst for the converse of faith, doubt). Indeed, always allowing a margin of error could mean that a person never has beliefs.
Regardless of how much truth currency we end up placing in our ideas, they become the mental lens that guides our behavior, gives us our sense of morality, and shapes how we will or will not understand the many more concepts and behaviors that will eventually cross our stream of consciousness. The new ideas and behaviors will be measured up against what we already have in our mental banks, and their acceptance into our worldviews will likely be a reflection of how well they agree with the rest of what we think is true about the world. Needless to say, this process can be excruciatingly hard work and can sometimes result in our peace of mind and sense of self being at stake.
PSYCHOPATHS AND IDEOLOGY
Our own personal worldviews and ideology tend to develop as we reflect on past experiences, contrast them with new ideas in the present, and then use ourworldview and ideology for perpetual self-reflection and interpreting new events as they arrive. From the case studies of psychopaths described by Cleckley  and Hare , psychopaths present as individuals who have little to no regard for their own future, let alone the futures of those they interact with. The psychopath appears stuck in the present, with an inability to make long term plans, and also has precious little regard for the past, and so it is questionable that a psychopath can develop a complex worldview.
Our worldview is also a reflection of our sense of morality. The ideas that we come to regard as good ways to live are built into how we see and interpret the world. Therefore, it stands to reason that if a psychopath has a limited sense of morality, any potential worldview or ideology is at an automatic deficit. When asked to justify their criminal behavior, many psychopaths will just admit that there was a rightness to it, mostly because they felt the dire urge to carry it out. The truth criteria behind their reasoning doesn’t fit into a complex philosophical framework, only that as
they felt they had to do it, it must have been the right thing to do.
The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used to describe the same type of person, that is an emotionless individual with a sense of grandeur and is prone to the manipulation of others, but the root words psycho and socio denote different developmental origins. As Hare notes , those who prefer the term sociopah tend to think that social forces and early experiences can explain this type of individual, whereas those preferring psychopath think that psychological, biological, and genetic factors offer the best explanation.
This polarized view of the etiology for psychopathy is terribly outdated, and falls victim to the old nature versus nurture discussion on the origin of behavior. Traditionally, a line seems to have been drawn at the skin of individuals, and everything on the inside reflects nature, anything on the outside is nurture, and they are mutually exclusive. While this framework perhaps provides a useful starting point for discussion, we now know that social influences and biology can interact together in very profound ways to influence the future path of an individual from the level of the cell all the way up to the organism. Our senses are lapping up so much information on a daily basis, and all of that information is creating changes in our biochemistry, especially in our nervous system. If a parent yells continually at their child, we may think, “Well, that’s terrible nurturing,” but it is also elevating the level of cortisol in the child’s circulatory system; soundwaves stimulating cells, sending signals that prompt tissues and organs to release molecules into the blood. All sensory stimulation leads to biological changes and activity, which is why this distinction between the two terms denoting etiological differences does not work.
Crucially, Hare and Babiak describe the sociopath as someone who has a sense of morality, but their sense of right and wrong has been informed by a subculture . This
difference between the psychopath and the sociopath is profound, because unlike the psychopath, the conscience and the ability for rationalization in the sociopath are fully intact, which indicates an entirely different neurology. If sociopaths have an ideology, ideas of right and wrong, these ideas must be behind their eventual murderous behavior, and also goes a long way to explain the spree killer.
The term spree killer refers to an individual who is motivated, with varying extents of planning, to commit an act or acts of atrocity in a short space of time. One of the striking features about these types of events is that there is no attempt to hide or conceal the destruction or any associated fatalities or injuries. There is only the event, which must be completed, and often the only outcomes for the killer will be death by a shootout with law enforcement, death by suicide, death by sentence of the death penalty, or lifelong incarceration.
These outcomes provide some insight into the minds of these individuals leading up to and during the act of atrocity. It is inconceivable that at least the majority of these types of killers had no awareness of what would befall them after the event, which means at least one of two things. First, the act itself was valued by the killer more than their own life, and second, there was a physiological drive so powerful in their mind for completing the act that no other behavior was possible in the moment. The necessity of the act, which the killer could have justified to themselves many times, is heavily idea based, and because of this they were likely to have had a worldview containing ideas that devalued the lives of others.
THE GREATER GOOD
The idea of the ‘greater good’ is intriguing because when it is placed within an ideological framework that is supposed to promote the good or health of a group as a whole, it inevitably leads to the denial of the rights or even life of an individual or a subgroup of individuals. When the rights of people are often trampled upon for the greater good, the justification for this treatment is often seen as a necessary sacrifice, or once the new ideas or policies are in place, everyone will benefit (legislating common sense).
In order to implement a social or political system that is predicated upon greater good ideas, those with power have to be convinced, legitimately through debate or tacitly through violence. The style of the fight employed for the realization of these ideas is indicative of how well these ideas are to be received and the immediacy with which the advocate needs them to be realized. A potentially receptive audience and a debate reflect an advocate that is patient and willing to modify or compromise. A perceived unreceptive audience and violence reflect an advocate that feels compelled to act and is not willing to compromise. We can spot instances of these behaviors throughout history, particularly in terms of governmental behavior, but the desire for self-expression and the acceptance of ideas also operates on a much smaller scale.
For many, seeking acceptance among peers, or perhaps more potently in school, is a natural, but often painful, part of life. Finding a personal happy medium between what friends think is right and what you think is right is a daunting experience. To add to this, teenagers, by virtue of being young, do not have many other experiences with which to compare their immediate experience in school; this lack of experience in determining what is right for them results in grief and anxiety, and often puts them at the mercy of going along with a group that has met with their approval, even though there is sometimes respect for those who have the confidence to be different and not be influenced by the group, perhaps because it is such a huge pressure to overcome. The acceptance of ideas and behavior in these environments is similar to political expression at a higher social level, and could even be all the worse because of the huge emotional price tag of group acceptance. The perceived receptivity of the group and the compulsion for ideas and behaviors to be accepted could determine a change in tact of how an individual will later confront the group.
Even though many spree killers have no doubt accepted their own demise before they act, it is this notion that fuels their drive to act. They feel that their expression has been permanently blocked by those that need to validate these ideas (and related behavior), and so the only conceivable route of expression becomes violence to those who are blocking. This creates a fertile ground for accepting ideologies that dehumanize these ‘blockers.’ With resentment already in place towards those preventing self-expression, dehumanizing ideology towards these individuals will become palatable and sticky. This ideology, if unchecked, becomes the greater good for the individual in question.
Indeed, it could be useful to look at prejudicial worldviews in light of barriers to self-expression and a person’s right to the pursuit of happiness. Misogyny from men could result if men believe that women, by virtue of being women, will prevent their self-expression, especially sexual expression and subsequent gratification and acceptance. Likewise, Anti-Semitism results when an individual believes that Jews, by virtue of being Jewish, will always seek to prevent the self-expression and pursuit of happiness of non-Jews. At the heart of prejudice, there is always a lazy mind that is unwilling to evaluate people on an individual basis, as sweeping blanket condemnations seek to address painful and confused emotions. A lack of worldly experience, perhaps, would also prevent the person from having the cognitive maturity to make these individual assessments. It is worth asking, therefore, what is the object of the hatred preventing the subject from experiencing? When we have an answer to that question, it tells us all about how the subject thinks they should be able to exist in the world; behaviors they should be allowed to express, and ridding behaviors and ideas that muddy the waters of their idealized life. Knowing this could lead to methods of prevention or even intervention.
THE MANIFESTOS OF SOCIOPATHS
When reading a sociopath’s manifesto there are a few important points to note about the writing. The sociopath is usually presenting a history that supports the necessary action that will arrive by the end of the manuscript. As the sociopath’s mindset is heavily ruled by a guiding ideology, their main points or perceived milestones in their own development are likely to be heavily skewed or even fabricated.
However, much insight can be gained into their mind by realizing that the manuscript reflects back to them how they would like to be seen, perhaps not just by their community or the population after they carry out the devastating act, but also to themselves; the manuscript is how the sociopath would like to be seen in the mirror. Once the reflection pleases them, they are free to act.
The sociopath is likely to have spent months, maybe years, carefully crafting the manuscript and gone to painstaking detail to get it just right, and so this helps to combat the idea that they have intentionally gone out of their way to fabricate in order to trick readers. While this is still a possibility, the manuscript is usually a testament to what the sociopath believes is right about the world, after all, it provided them with the justification to act. While the history they present might not be objectively accurate, or perhaps even stunningly ignorant, the sociopath sees themselves ultimately as truthful and righteous, and no doubt want others to see them that way, too.
WHY WRITING CAN BE IMPORTANT TO THE SOCIOPATH
While not all manifestos are written, it is worth taking a long hard look at the ones that are. There is a very intimate relationship between an author and their writing, after all, writing is a way from them to organize and catalogue their own thoughts. The linguist, Noam Chomsky, is famous for noting that the majority of our language use is internal, and far exceeds our use of language in dialogue. Just take a moment to realize how frequently your thoughts are rolling through your mind, and how most of them drift in and out of a language, usually your primary one. Writing is the art of taking these ticker-tape thoughts and stabilizing them on the page, and the words can then be further manipulated until they meet with the satisfaction of the author, i.e. capturing (almost) perfectly the author’s intent.
For the confused or troubled mind, where thoughts and feelings are whizzing around like delocalized electrons, writing helps to pull them together into one place and provides the writer with focus. When an individual is experiencing emotional pain and confusion, therefore, this focus provides stability and a platform from which they can move forward. This is far from unique to the sociopath, and is most likely one of the main reasons that people keep diaries or write blogs. Writing facilitates clear thought, and clear thoughts, among other things, help to calm the mind and allow one to plan and project their future; goals can be determined and decisions made over the required behavior to meet those goals.
At some point in the life of the sociopath, the idea for committing an act of atrocity must enter their mind. The ease with which this idea is entertained will depend upon what they think is an accurate worldview (the right and wrong of the act), how necessary the action has become, and how compelled they feel to carry it through. This toxic idea will be stuck in their mind while they seek every justification for accepting it as more than just a good idea, but as something that they are compelled to act upon. During this time, there will likely be a high level of fantasizing and imagining, and an increased exposure to materials and ideas that facilitates the potential action in the mind of the sociopath; the act, slowly but surely, becomes inevitable.
The manifesto is a large part of making the act inevitable. It is worth bearing in mind that these acts are not a part of most people’s daily repertoire, including the soon-to-be-killer, and involve marathon amounts of planning and self-reflection. The sociopath needs to be able to see themselves actually doing the act, and there is very little room for doubt or uncertainty. This is why the manifesto is so important, because it allows the person to review and re-create their life history as if their life was always leading up to the deadly and devastating moment that they have decided is necessary. By cataloguing their history through the lens of their contemporary perturbed mind, therefore, right up until the present day, they are providing themselves with the consent and conviction that they need to go through with their plan.
This manufacturing of consent could also be why it is a good reason to stem the release of the manifesto after an act or at least hide many of the details surrounding the killer for as long as possible. If the manifesto was used as a tool to provide the author with consent to act, there is every chance it could be used by another individual with a similar history as a tool to act. If a like-mind is exposed to the manifesto soon after its author has acted, it could prompt the feeling of the immediacy to act again, perhaps resulting in a copy-cat killing. Silencing the thoughts and ideas of a killer after they have acted can only be effective for so long, but is still worth doing as a precautionary measure.
1. Hare, R.D.; Harpur, T.J.; Hakstian, A.R.; Forth, A.E.; Hart, S.D.; Newman, J.P. (1990) The revised Psychopathy Checklist: Reliability and factor structure, Psychological Assessment: A Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2(3), 338-341
2. Raine, A.; Lencz, T.; Taylor, K.; Hellige, J. B.; Bihrle, S.; Lacasse, L.; Colletti, P. (2003). Corpus callosum abnormalities in psychopathic antisocial individuals, Archives of General Psychiatry, 60(11), 1134-1142
3. Raine, A.; Ishikawa, S. S.; Arce, E., Lencz; T.; Knuth, K. H.; Bihrle, S.; Colletti, P. (2004). Hippocampal structural asymmetry in unsuccessful psychopaths. Biological psychiatry, 55(2), 185-191
4. Hare, R.D. (1999) Without Conscience, New York, Guilford Press
5. Cleckley, H. (2015) The Mask of Sanity (3rd Ed.), Brattleboro, Echo Point Books and Media, LLC.
6. Hare, R.D. & Babiak, P. (2006) Snakes in Suits, New York, Harper Collins