On murderous madmen.
The tragic events of last week in Norway do give you pause for thought. How could anyone do that and especially to defenseless young people? Does it say something about us all? Are we all capable of doing something like that?
The answer is no and that’s not just my subjective opinion, it’s a fact. People are actually very bad at inflicting lasting physical harm on other people. It’s not that they don’t know how to do that, it’s that they nearly always pull back from doing serious violence, though they might not realise it.
Yes, violence has always been a facet of humanity, especially in our stories. From the first cave paintings of our ancestors killing game, Cain killing Abel, Achilles killing Hector and right up to Clint offing a shedload of baddies but that’s all just stories in one form or another. Stories with nothing but nice people doing nothing but nice things to each other we find boring. Add in one villain who does one bad deed and watch the story get interesting real fast.
That’s the basis of the majority of all literature and I’m not just talking about the popular low-brow genres either. The art of course is how the storyteller can make it seem somehow new. We all enjoy such tales but the downside is that despite us being well aware it’s just fiction, we unconsciously absorb some ideas about ourselves that are far from reality. The pertinent one is that the casualness and ease of committing a violent act in fiction is simply not matched in reality.
You see, a dirty secret in the dark heart of all narrative literature is that it gives release to that occasional but very strong desire to kill someone who’s really pissed us off. We know we can’t do it, we know we won’t do it, we know we’ll never do it but we can still enjoy the feeling, however vicariously, of maybe doing it through a story. Stories blow off steam or as the literati say, they’re cathartic.
There is a lot of solid psychological work which illustrates this very strong inhibition in us. The most startling came from two studies conducted by the US military shortly after World War Two ended. A newish school of psychology called Operational Psychology, had been used throughout the war to treat casualties of combat fatigue and it had been unusually successful. In most cases, the treatment not only stopped the condition becoming permanent but a lot of the time, it got soldiers back into the field too.
In the light of this success, the psychologists were asked to determine if there were any other useful things, from a psychological aspect, that could be found out by studying the military’s performance in the war. To do this, they decided to study the Guadalcanal campaign by interviewing the surviving veterans of it. This selection made sense; the Guadalcanal operation was arguably the most brutal campaign of the entire Pacific war. It was up close personal killing and a lot of it. What started coming out as they did in-depth interviews of these highly decorated veterans stunned them.
A significant portion of them admitted they’d deliberately shot to miss all the way through the campaign or after a few weeks into it. They simply couldn’t bring themselves to kill another human being. Yes, in a close quarters kill or be killed situation where the lives of their comrades were at stake, they killed but given a choice, they aimed over the enemy’s heads. Bear in mind that the brunt of the fighting on the Canal was done by the USMC, an all volunteer force that went to some length to weed out volunteers who they thought couldn’t hack it in a real war. These were the very same brave, decorated and highly motivated soldiers who had triumphed in this absolutely ferocious campaign. The more veterans the psychologists interviewed, the more this behaviour pattern was admitted to or subtly hinted at.
They wrote all this up in a report that had an executive summary to the effect that after three months of continuous unremitting brutal combat, the only fully effective soldiers left on that island were essentially psychopaths. Those lads were in hog heaven. The ordinary soldier had simply had enough of the killing. He didn’t run away or refuse to obey orders but he was just going through the motions of being a soldier; he’d had enough.
As a follow on from such a surprising study, they were asked to conduct a second one looking for the same phenomenon in previous conflicts. They looked at the American Civil War and found that what happened at Guadalcanal wasn’t a new thing. Far from it. Numerous examples abounded but the most telling was the number of muskets of dead soldiers on the battle field which were jammed with ten or fifteen balls. They’d stood their ground, loaded the musket, aimed but couldn’t fire, just loaded it again as if they had. They kept repeating that action right up until the moment they were killed. They just couldn’t pull the trigger. The second report confirmed the findings of the first.
The fact is, the ordinary person has a huge inhibition to doing real violence to another human being, even in a situation of extreme personal peril. They have to be psychologically conditioned to do so and the report made several recommendations as to how this could be done. A significant element in the training of a modern soldier is deliberately directed at weakening or breaking down this inhibition against killing, which is why in a combat situation he is much more likely to pull that trigger without hesitation than previous generations of soldiers. There has been an ongoing debate in military circles that soldiers who have received such conditioning, should receive re-sensitisation training as a normal part of their leaving the service procedure.
The family, the village, the tribe, the country, the world; these things can only work if we all cooperate with each other. A big prerequisite of that cooperation is not to kill each other when we fall out in a personal situation. Coming to blows occasionally is accepted but killing or seriously injuring in not. That sort of extreme behaviour has over the millenia been largely selected out of the gene pool but it still crops up. Yes, we all lose it at times but it’s still rare to kill or maim other people. Every stable society in the world has laws and strictures specifically forbidding these things. Do them and you will be punished.
As for that very small minority of people who naturally have no problem inflicting real violence, they are psychopaths and most armies go to some length to identify and weed them out. It’s not that such people don’t think what they’re doing is wrong, and they usually don’t, it’s that they don’t feel what they’re doing is wrong. They have no real empathy with anyone; other people are just inanimate objects to be manipulated in their world.
Don’t bother doing any heart searching about society or humanity in the light of a creature like Breivik. He’s not about politics nor is he about religion nor is he even about extremism, he’s all about being Anders Behring Breivik around whom the world should revolve, which it has for a few days. In that greater cause, nothing and nobody else really matters.
He’s actually very simple to understand; a pathetic psychopath finally demonstrating to a world that had no interest in him, how clever and superior he was all along.