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Motives in Extreme Acts of Violence

Just as with the young man arrested in Manchester a few months ago, the perpetrator of the terrible events of last night in Las Vegas will be subject to speculation of all sorts for the next few months.   Within a few hours the ‘act’ was being referred to as one of ‘pure evil’, as contrived as this might have been.  Today the British and American press are more rationally minded and seek an understanding of motive.   It appears unlikely that Stephen Paddock was recruited by a terrorist organization through the four step process of 1) Separation and isolation, 2) Being chosen and integrated, 3) Subjugation to ideology, and 4) Dehumanization, (see Dounia Bouzar 2016). Even if he had been recruited in this way, it does not tell us very much.

I have seen a number of people who have committed acts of extreme violence, and people identified as terrorists in my work. They are marked by how different they are rather than how similar; a conclusion shared by others (John Horgan 2014). The only thing that is similar is what they have done, although the steps mentioned here are interesting for another reason.

Some of those I have seen were recruited by political organizations, have gone through the kind of process described above and some, working alone or in isolated pairs, have experienced something similar, but not orchestrated by a radicalizing handler. Their isolation is by choice rather than encouraged through internet affiliations extolling them to cut ties with family and friends. Within their own isolation they may develop bizarre thoughts, which is what happens to all of us when isolated for long periods.  We begin to see how an act of violence can have meaning, however perverse, perhaps empowering them in ways that would be unavailable to them otherwise. They start investing in the identity associated with that act of violence by seeking out material consistent with that investment (guns and ammunition) or through their dress and lifestyle. They fantasize, plan and rehearse acts of violence, demeaning potential victims and eroding the barriers to acting out this violence. All this is as familiar as 1, 2, 3, 4.

The curious thing is, when you do understand how an individual comes to the point of committing an act of extreme political violence, it is often not that different from other forms of extreme violence that are committed in non-political situations. This makes me think that the designation ‘terrorist’ is a distraction from really understanding, just as a moral frame attributing ‘evil’ to the perpetrator is unhelpful in understanding.

In my novel, The Last Truth, one thread of the storyline documents these stages, not relating to acts of terror, but as they relate to one isolated person evolving on his own towards an act of horror as a means growth and empowerment.  You do not have to be mentally ill to do something terrible like this.  You just need to see a purpose in doing it and find a way of removing the barriers to action.  The important question about Stephan Paddock is, why was he so isolated that he failed to test out his thoughts and ideas in a way that friends, neighbours and family could have challenged and disconfirmed?  How does someone become so isolated that their world view can evolve and percolate such that violence against the innocent, on a huge scale, becomes a viable means of expressing this distress?

However it happens, once this state exists, the first condition of extreme violence has been met; that of being justified.  The second condition that has to be met is overcoming the practical barriers that would normally prevent such an act. Overcoming barriers requires a great deal of planning and, of course, acquiring guns and ammunition.

From a social policy perspective, the more opportunities you create to engage in society by investing in pubic education, mental health, social services, family support, community, homelessness, housing, and so on, the less isolation will be experienced.  That which does occur has more chance of coming to someone’s notice.  The practical barriers, in the case of Stephan Paddock, appeared to be overcome by much detailed planning, access to specialized weapons, and the capacity to alter automatic rifles to make them even more deadly against a large crowd.  Regrettably, the current American administration is disinterested in investing money, time and legislative effort in either of these conditions.

We are left with sending love and good wishes to Las Vegas, and not much more.  Let’s keep the Las Vegas 59 dead and many more injured in our thoughts. The motive for this act of cruelty appears redundant already.  In any case, it will not be noticed in the pain and the loss, until the next time when we talk of it again.

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