“A single man killed is a misfortune, a million is a statistic.”
Joseph Stalin fathered the above quote, in a time of fascism and war – a time of homicide and genocide. Before any technical cognitive analyses of how normal human brain chemistry transgresses to become murderous, which is the crux of this article, let’s first make apparent the message that is often overlooked, and is revealed in pragmatics of this quote . The speaker justifies the emotional aggravation of a multitude of deaths by simply conceptualizing it as an unemotional, tangible figure, “a statistic”. What’s paradoxical about the speaker’s mind is: the inclination to empathize decreases as the monstrosity of the situation increases. The disassociation is arguably the pivotal point in which the “normal” mind “descents into madness“.
In the wake of the Tucson Shooting, Jared Loughner instantly reinforces the stereotype that people who are mentally ill are inherently violent. According to Laurie Flynn, executive director of TeenScreen National Center for Mental Health Checkups, the stigma is a false perception that inhibits those who are in need of professional help, and further pushes those individuals into social isolation. In the case of Loughner, he was socially coherent and happy as a child, but in college he became a loner and slowly “[slipped] into insanity”.
To document Loughner’s mental deviation process, he first started writing poetry in which nothing held meaning, yet that became his philosophy, known as nihilism.
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.
In the height of his obsession, he wrote to congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, “What is the government if words held no meaning?” In the same timeframe, conspiracy theories of how the government and media are trying to silence the individual overtook him (supported by the “extreme pessimist” aspect of nihilism). Giffords gave him no substantial response but nonetheless thanked him for his concern in writing. This is the point of genesis of Loughner’s immense resentment toward Giffords. He wrote “bitch” on the back of the return letter and kept it the whole time as he plotted her homicide.
The spark for his illogical resentment is symptomatic of his deteriorating mental health. There is no concrete premise for his anger. Rather, his vehement hatred is triggered by the lack of attention, which lead to an exaggerated, perverse sense of disappointment. The question he proposed to the congresswoman was a red flag. It signifies that while he holds rooted values in believing in nothingness and government conspiracy, he simultaneously believes (consciously or not) that the government can help him. After all, he sought resolution in a politician of all people, a high-profile figure. Loughner is at a point of psychosocial dissonance, or cognitive dissonance, a concept that explains how the discomfort of an individual increases with the degree of the conflict of two opposing ideas, and how the tension is released by dramatically changing one’s behavior. This might explain the “snap” in a mentally unstable person. According to Dr. Peter Ash, director of the Psychiatry and Law Service at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, there’s always a psychological build-up to that point. In parallel with the deviation process, the build-up is when the individual’s brain undergoes dissonance, and the “snap” is where the brain rejects consonance and makes the irreversible (in the perspective of corrupted brain) decision to kill.
Unquestionably, a healthy cognitive system has the capacity to hold contradicting thoughts without letting it corrupt our central morality. In our daily lives, don’t we all go through internal struggles, constantly justifying the wrongs we do, as if we had two personalities at a tug of war? So at which point does this mild degree of cognitive dissonance become problematic, causing us to “snap”? Can we see it coming? Is it recognizable? In late 2009 , researches done at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, University of California at Berkeley; the Imaging Research Center, University of California at Davis; and the Department of Psychology, University of California at Santa Barbara has located that the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula are engaged during cognitive dissonance, and is indicative of behaviorial and subsequent attitude change. Though it’s helpful in theory, how can we implement this in effective diagnosis; more importantly, practical rehabilitational application?