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The very handsome and benign-looking ten year old was sitting in my office, in my client's chair, looking kind of bored.

I had been asked by his school to assess him for dangerousness.  During recess, he had deliberately tripped a classmate and then bashed him over the head with a rock.  The other child had sustained a severe concussion and was hospitalized.

Neutrally, I asked him what he was trying to accomplish by doing that.

He looked me in the eyes, smiled a little, and said, "I was bored and I don't like him."

For a long time I practiced as a child and adolescent clinical psychologist, and I've seen my fair share of children and teens who could have perpetrated a Newtown given the right circumstance.  So I'm always very interested in the dialogue when people start with the 'why' after an incident, especially when that incident was perpetrated by a child or teen.  

There is always the faux navel-gazing which makes me laugh a bit bitterly to myself.  "How can this happen?"  "They need medication!" "What is wrong with people like this?"  "How can we identify them?"

Always with the "how can we identify them?"  Followed by the idea that a registry of a particular kind of individual is the solution.

Well, I know how to identify them.  I can see them on the bus sometimes.  I used to see them on the inpatient unit regularly, and in my office somewhat frequently.

The schools used to call my team up to go out and assess children for immediate dangerousness to self and others, and to psychologically test them to determine whether they were safe to return to school after being suspended.  Schools always wanted an absolute answer as to whether this child would act out and harm others.  Of course we can never say with much certainty if today is the day, or tomorrow, or next month.  All we can say is that as of the date and time of the assessment, the teen does not appear to be planning an immediate act.

But we do know one thing -- one day we will likely read about this child, and see them on the news.  They are usually pretty neutral about meeting with people like me, as long as they think their point of view is respected and they don't perceive you as crossing them.  They are honest.

They like the attention.

And we know they like the attention.

We also know there's nothing we can do if today isn't the day.  Our mental health system is strapped.  And even if it wasn't, these are not personality types that have a problem waiting until their day.  They know they can't be hospitalized for long.  They know they are juveniles or, if adults, many times they aren't planning on coming out of the excitement alive anyway.

What people seem to have trouble accepting is that this kind of behavior is human nature.  We are all on a spectrum, a mishmash of scaled personality traits.  Some of us are active, some of us are passive, some of us are antisocial, some of us are narcissistic.  We all have these traits to a degree.  The answer is simple: natural variation in personality and biochemistry creates Columbines, Oklahoma Cities, family annihilators and child abusers.  Given the right circumstances we can all go literally psychotic.  Systemic and political support for particular personality traits in leaders creates events like the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, Stalinism.  And then you have the tendency of normal people to follow orders and happily scapegoat other "tribes", because that's the way we are. When people engage in heroism, it's always phrased in terms of "in extraordinary circumstances, people can do extraordinary things".  These situations are not particularly extraordinary.  Situations just bring out what is already there.

The problem is that altruism and human-perpetrated evil are two sides of the same coin.  Some people will sacrifice themselves for others that they don't even know.  Others will sacrifice others they don't know for their own amusement and agenda.

When the Israelis tested Nazi leadership in the hopes they would learn something specific that would prevent such a horrific time in human history from happening again, do you know what they found?


Leadership was maybe a little hung up on pomp and circumstance, orderliness, pagentry and obedience.  But the vast majority of Hitler's henchmen?  Average men who found a calling and purpose, and recognition for their work.

It is sad to me, having sat in the therapist's chair, that we keep looking to find a way to make these kinds of people "other" and reassure ourselves that these events are anomalies.  That we are not bad (whatever that means), that humans are by nature "good" (whatever that means).

These people are not "other".

They are us.

So no registry, no testing, no forced therapy, and no medication will wipe out the fact that people are capable of horrible and awful things.

It's just the way we are.  And we need to deal with it.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Other societies (12+ / 0-)

    realize this - which is why they make guns very very hard to get hold of.

  •  Any policy, ideology, philosophy.... (5+ / 0-)

    ...that depends on the "perfectability" of human beings is going to fail. We need to develop systems that recognize this fact, and mitigate the effects of the darker parts of our nature.

    "We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology."-Edward O. Wilson, in "The Social Conquest of Earth"

    by sparkysgal on Sun Dec 23, 2012 at 11:27:12 AM PST

  •  Not to be trite (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    greengemini, CroneWit, CA wildwoman

    But it does take a village.   Being "Different" as a child or adolescent and now transitioning to adulthood can be frightening, intimidating, overwhelming and without adequate support and acceptance can be further isolating, frustrating, and engender anti social behaviour .   But there need to be boundaries   "No hitting or biting" but there needs to be  place for the different, one with less psychotropic and numbing meds, where the different can participate or withdraw, as is their wont, can be accomodated.  

  •  I met a child (5+ / 0-)

    through my work with foster kids that I thought could go either way. He was two at the time and could already read. He understood preetty much everything adults said.

    He also managed to figure out what frightened each foster family the most and proceed to use it to freak them out after four foster homes he was placed in one that provided him with lots of opportunity for new experiences and learning. He started to blossom and he stopped making death threats..........

    I always figured he had a 50/ 50 chance of making the front page of the paper either through his good works or his spctacular crimes. I am thinking the scale has now tilted to the positive.

    It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is not what he has -Henry Ward Beecher

    by PSWaterspirit on Sun Dec 23, 2012 at 12:46:55 PM PST

  •  Rather, the evil of banality (0+ / 0-)

    Let's celebrate and value the not banal, but curb, abhor and reject the violence against others.  

    •  evil always boils down to low motivations (0+ / 0-)

      Acquisition, domination ... in a word, ego.  Evil is committed by people who can see no further than themselves and aim no higher than gratifying their most basic and selfish impulses.  

      To those who say the New Deal didn't work: WWII was also government spending

      by Visceral on Sun Dec 23, 2012 at 07:03:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for that truth. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    CA wildwoman

    And want a great argument that getting rid of as many high powered, large magazine guns as possible is the only realistic way to address mass murders.

    In schools, it is very hard to create mass casualties with the cafeteria's fork and knife.

  •  Wow, the scary truth honestly written ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I've met these kids & adults, too. Always chilling & calling for the sharpest kind of problem solving & excellent listening skills.

    Also, when they're good looking, people cut them more slack & let them get away with more, & give them more 2nd chances - 'They Look So Cute & Harmless!'

    I do believe there are people who require 'Environmental Management' to keep other people safe. It's a quandary for civil libertarians & needs to be handled on a case by case basis.

    Also, keep sticks & stones & guns & knives away from them as a practical management scheme.

    The Yin-Yang symbol illustrates reality, but all the edges are blurred, not sharp.

    Something that doesn't make good sense, makes bad sense. That means someone is being deliberately hurtful & selfish. Look for motives behind actions & words.

    by CA wildwoman on Sun Dec 23, 2012 at 05:29:43 PM PST

  •  Jesus or Hitler (0+ / 0-)

    Thank you for this excellent diary... I read it on my iPhone and just had to run and get my laptop so I could comment. I've always felt that each of us has within us the potential to be a Buddha, Jesus, or Krishna, but also a Hitler, Stalin, or Idi Amin.  It is very much human - these are not good or evil "others," they are potentialities within each of us.  Hence the necessity to be ultimately responsible for our behavior, and the paths it may lead us down (or up).

    Thank you - excellent contribution to our discourse.  I would very much appreciate, especially in light of our recent exposure to the insanity of an elementary school shooting, and the exposure of the paranoid paramilitary thinking of gun rights enthusiasts, more of your professional insights into human psychology and behavior.  It is entirely possible that we as progressives will not be successful unless we can understand the minds and motivations behind conservatives, especially the "authoritarians" that have hijacked the Republican party.


  •  So? (0+ / 0-)

    I believe that we need to do something beyond simply recognizing that they are us.

    There was nothing about your diary that would tend to help us avoid another Newtown incident.  I think we need to try.

    What was your point?

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