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James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court Monday, July 23, 2012, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes is accused of killing 12 and wounding 58 in a shooting rampage in a movie theater on Friday, July 20 in Aurora, Colo. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti, Pool) (RJ Sangosti/AP)
James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court Monday, July 23, 2012, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes is accused of killing 12 and wounding 58 in a shooting rampage in a movie theater on Friday, July 20 in Aurora, Colo. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti, Pool) (RJ Sangosti/AP)

What makes them do it? Making sense of mass murderers Add to ...

MW: So what about gun control? It’s an article of faith in Canada that the availability of weapons in the United States is the reason for many of these mass killings.

PT: We saw the evidence at this recent movie massacre. The assault weapon wan’t a hunting gun, it was a semi-automatic. When it jammed it was clear that he couldn’t kill as many people as quickly.

JF: I’m very much in favour of gun control, and if the legacy of a mass shooting like this is to see tighter gun restrictions I think it’s a good thing. It’s not necessarily going to prevent a mass murder. The thing about mass murderers – they are very deliberate and determined. They will find a way to kill no matter what legal impediments are put in their way.

MW: We use the word “monster” a lot when we talk about murders. I think of Ms. Homolka as a monster. I’ve kind of dehumanized her in that respect. But do notions of monstrosity, or inherent evil, words with a moral or religious overtone, still make sense?

PT: That’s something that bothers me. There are certainly evil acts. But are some humans deeply, psychologically evil? I think many of these people are mentally ill.

MW: I object to that. That seems to scrub out real notions of agency and responsibility.

PT: I think that labelling people “evil” diminishes the sense of personal responsibility. When we say that evil works this unknowable, some even think supernatural, force inside people that we can never understand, it also makes it seem like we can never cope with it, we can never defend ourselves against it. I think that’s giving up and it’s really dangerous thinking.

During my work on Ms. Homolka, I spent an hour in her home with her and one of the first questions I was asked was, “What was it like to be with the devil?” But evil doesn’t look or sound like the devil. It looks like a normal individual. When we pretend these people aren’t human we preclude stopping, or at least diminishing, what they are capable of.

JF: Some people are very good and some people are very bad. It’s not satanic – but some people have more empathy, some people are more generous, some people like to do good things and others feel good when they cause suffering.

MW: Would it really be wrong to say that the Norway killer is evil? A person who shot up these children at a summer camp and who seems not to be terribly insane? He seems to have completely believed in what he was doing and planned it carefully.

JF: It depends what you mean by evil. His politics lead him to do things where he put ideology above humanity, and often people will do things that are incredibly cruel because they believe in their political positions. Political prisoners, political criminals, can do horrible things because they believe that their cause justifies the means.

MW: Yes, 9/11 is a classic example of that, and we saw that as a supreme example of evil. Were we wrong?

PT: It’s not wrong to call horrific acts evil and the people who carry them out evil. But it’s a problem if we just say, “Oh, they’re evil and they’re different” and we don’t look deeper.

MW: My concern about expunging the words “evil” and “monstrous” from our vocabulary is that we reduce these crimes to some kind of personality disorder.

PT: But the truth is, it is a personality disorder.

JF: Personality disorders are very different from psychosis. One of you mentioned narcissism, psychopathy – these are disorders of the character, not of the mind. It’s just that some people are very good and enjoy pleasing others, and other people are very bad and enjoy hurting other people.

PT: I don’t think it’s that simple.

MW: Did Osama Bin Laden have a character disorder because he unleashed mass murder on New York?

JF: No, that was political.

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