Why Killers Kill And The Implications for Regular Life

Dear Dr. Hurd:

You recently quoted the following from Ayn Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ in the pivotal conversation between Dagny and Cherryl Taggart. “It’s true. Some people do want to destroy it. And when you learn to understand their motive, you’ll know the darkest, ugliest and only evil in the world, but you’ll be safely out of its reach.”

Can you expand on this?


I can’t reply for Ayn Rand, of course. But I will give you my own interpretation, primarily from a psychological perspective.

In a sense, there are two types of people in the world. One type is motivated by the positive attainment of rational values. The other type is motivated by the negation of another’s values.

An extreme example, first: The shooter in Connecticut, or the many who preceded and will follow him. Such a person is out to destroy values for the sake of values. The most basic value is life. In the most extreme case, a person wishes to destroy his own life, but also the lives of others. It’s really values that such a person is after, because—without life—no pursuit of any values (however one defines them) is possible.

It’s interesting that these horrific shootings so often occur in schools. Schools are, at least in theory, the place where the mind and intellect takes shape and is formed. Schools don’t necessarily tell you which values to have, but schools—at least proper, competent ones—do enable the mind to think and learn, making the achievement of values both meaningful and purposeful. It’s probably no accident that so many of the shooters choose such a setting to act out the drama of their destruction of values for its own sake. As I said: It’s values they’re after, all values.

There are many, many lesser instances of the same faulty principle that don’t involve violence, or such obvious madness or evil.

Consider the mentality of a gossip. A gossip spreads rumors about a person precisely because that person represents something valuable—if only to him- or herself. It’s that very thing that must be destroyed or at least inhibited, from the point-of-view of the petty (yet still destructive) gossip.

Consider the mentality of an envious person. An envious person resents you for having what you have, whether it’s material possessions or internal attributes. Envy is not simply an emotion of, ‘What you have is nice, and I wish I had it too.’ There’s nothing inherently destructive about such an emotion, and actually it can even lead to inspiration such as, ‘If you can have it or do it, then I can too.’

Envy refers specifically to the emotion of, ‘You have that, I don’t—and therefore you must be put down.’ Put down can, in the extreme case, mean destroyed; in the less extreme case it can mean undermine, inhibit or intimidate. In the world of adult relations, these sorts of motivations are, regrettably, in play every single day and we have all encountered them.

All of these evils stem from the same flawed foundation: A false belief that undercutting another’s values is more important than attaining one’s own.

If you scratch the surface beneath many mental disorders or syndromes, you find the same thing. Depression, for example, refers to an emotional state resulting from a chronic attitude of ‘learned helplessness.’ A depressed person does not necessarily want to destroy another’s well-being. But a depressed person, like an envious person, does on some level assume that values are not attainable, at least not to him- or herself, not in ‘this world.’ Left unaddressed or uncorrected, this premise can certainly lead to the evils we see in the homicidal-suicidal killer, as well as lesser instances of human depravity found in everyday life.

It’s similar with anxiety disorders or syndromes. Such problems flow from a faulty line of thinking that ‘the world is a dangerous place, and values cannot be attained—at least by me.’ Some anxious people stay stuck in failing to attain values of their own, because of this false but deeply felt belief. Our most deeply held beliefs and assumptions, for better or worse, shape our emotions and ultimately even our character. We are, in the end, what we think.

Perhaps the most intriguing line from the Ayn Rand quote is the following: ”when you learn to understand their motive, you’ll know the darkest, ugliest and only evil in the world, but you’ll be safely out of its reach.’

I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a ‘secret to happiness.’ But this elusive yet profound point is an absolutely necessary component to happiness. Absent physical force or literal coercion, nobody need ever get in your way to attain values. The happiest among us understand that, and are free regardless of what the rest of the world tries to do to undercut that freedom, because regardless of what people do to you physically, they can never destroy your spirit or your consciousness, not if you don’t let them. The worst among us—like the Connecticut shooter—understands this as well, but from the opposite direction. That’s why such people seek to wipe others out. The only way to erase another’s consciousness and resulting capacity for values is through outright murder.

Safety from evil requires more than safety from guns. Most killers are not literal and physical; they’re metaphorical, partial, incremental. They seek to chip away at your spirit for motivation, for love, including love of life. The world is sadly full of people whose motives, intentions and desires are less than laudable, and in some sense certainly destructive. See them for what they are, or — more precisely — what they are not: significant. Don’t let the insecurities and petty beliefs of others hold you hostage from the happiness that we all deserve, that we all initially (as children) desire — but we can only by ourselves attain.


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