Compassion for the Violent?

The interesting thing about the attempted shooting of an entire school board in Florida (during a public meeting) is the reaction of one of the victims. In a press conference following the incident, I watched a school board official — one of the men held hostage by the gunman — make a comment that the gunman obviously “suffered” from a mental problem.

I find the concept of “suffering” to be inappropriate and inaccurate, at least when applied to someone who plots and carries out an act of intimidation or force against another.

There are thousands, even millions, of people who suffer from feeling sad, anxious, lonely or depressed — even to the point of despair. Yet not a one of these people would ever perpetuate an act of violence against innocent others. There’s a myth that feeling sad or depressed “makes” people criminals. The implication is that they should therefore be excused for their actions. Criminals and defense attorneys may benefit from this false view, but it’s still untrue. The Florida gunman (as so many others) evidently did not excuse himself, because he took his own life. Perhaps he recognized what the experts and even some of his own victims will not: That people who initiate violence against others don’t deserve the happiness they have denied others. My point is: They don’t deserve compassion, either.

There are plenty of people who deserve your compassion. But they don’t deserve it for cracking up and becoming violent. People deserve your compassion if they struggle against all odds — and, among other things, don’t become liars, thieves or killers. Even most emotionally troubled people are rational enough to understand that harm to others won’t solve their own problems, and is never morally justified. Why are to we assume that a man who does something morally monstrous must have been driven to it by his emotional pain — while the vast majority of those in emotional pain would never even consider such a thing?

The things people are saying after this incident are the same things you hear after other such incidents, including ones that end badly for the victims. “He must have had a death wish.” No kidding. He did kill himself at the end of the tragedy. Quite likely, he had already made his mind up to end his life. This is what some depressed people do: End their lives. But unlike most depressed people — unlike the vast majority of them, in fact — he also made up his mind to take others with him first. For whatever reasons, he chose to pin blame on his local school board for his own problems and failures. It wasn’t his wife’s job or anything else he was trying to save. He simply wanted others to suffer along with him.

Much is made about the fact that the gunmen refused to fire on a released female hostage who came back to hit him with her purse. Many who dwell on this want to see “some good” in an otherwise bad man. To some people, it’s easier to think that evil doesn’t exist, even though cases like this prove that it self-evidently does.

As for his motives in treating male and female victims differently, who knows and who cares? Some irrational killers hate men more than women, while others hate whites more than blacks, or vice-versa. Killers are killers, and what motivates them matters less than the fact they take up arms against the innocent. It’s not possible and there’s really no need to make sense of the mind of an angry killer. It gives his life, and his sadly wasted mind, importance it does not deserve. It’s wasted energy.

From the known facts of this case, it’s clear that this would-be killer loved the sense of power that he received from holding people at gunpoint. It gave him a sense of control over his destiny that he clearly lacked otherwise. Letting one hostage go added to what he probably considered the thrill. The motive is the same as that of any irrational power-luster: Power for its own sake.

Reasonable people seek to attain power over their lives, by acquiring things or experiences that make them happy. They don’t want to harm others; they merely want to be happy. People who initiate violence are different. They seek their own version of happiness, but they define happiness explicitly as tearing down or harming another. It’s not merely, “I’m getting what I want and not letting anyone get in my way.” Instead the attitude is more like this: “Everyone is in my way. And some of them are going to pay.” Some criminals become this way, and some are like this their entire lives.

We have to get past this idea that “mental illness” causes people to do evil things. What we call mental illness surely does create emotions that distort reality, people and situations to some extent. But faulty or troubling emotions rarely lead to violent crime or terrorist acts. Most people who suffer with troubling emotions are peaceful and wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s a will to exert power over others that drives people to violent crime.