The Killing Room: The Psychosis of an American Shooter

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The Dance at the Marienplatz

For the last 107 years, if one stands in Munich in the Marienplatz beneath the New Town Hall at the late-morning hour of eleven o’clock, they will be treated to a performance by clockwork figurines in two parts. The first is a marriage banquet with jesters and jousting and general merriment. The second bit is the Coopers Dance, said to be a performance by men in the streets to instill a sense of peace in harsh times, specifically a time when the city was beset by plague in 1517. I have stood in Marienplatz and seen the clockwork figurines play out their dance in two parts, and the display was bizarre. Everyone stands and watches the figures move, transfixed despite the fact that we could all watch the very same display on our phone or computer. To be clear, the glockenspiel is nothing amazing by today’s standards, but like all rituals it must be observed, it must be watched because it has been watched before by so many others. I remember finding it rather quaint, while still realizing that an individual with the novel eyes of the year 1909 might find it to be quite breathtaking. I imagine that those in years long past may have found the moment far more electric than I. This is the nature of spectacle and time.

Now we move quickly along to the year 2015 on the day of October 1st. It is morning in the pacific region and early afternoon in the East. The first hints of unrest arrive on social media with tweets about a lockdown in Umpqua community College in Roseburg Oregon. Everyone watching sees the words “active shooter” and takes in that slight breath of acknowledgement. It is a term we have been taught to dread and love at the same time. Through narrowed eyes we scan the news-feeds looking for numbers and cultural categorizations. How many did this one kill? Is he still active? What was his race or his creed? All these questions pass through our minds because, much like the glockenspiel figurines, we recognize the dance. We have done it before. We have been given the steps and the tune. It was no surprise when the first bits of information surfaced regarding the shooter Chris Mercer, that he was a loner, had infrequent human contact and that he did most of his socializing on the internet, but I will return to him in a moment.

Then came the political part of the dance, the typical posturing from both sides of the aisle. The president said on the day of the shooting: “But as I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” He went on to add: “We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also remarked: “It is beyond my comprehension that we are seeing these mass murders happen again and again and again.” Apparently the clock had struck eleven in Roseburg, and strangely it nearly had. Obama went on to say in his address: “Somehow this has become routine.  The reporting is routine.  My response here at this podium ends up being routine.  The conversation in the aftermath of it.  We’ve become numb to this.” I would agree with him on this point, but not specifically his politics, yet this is not a political piece. Much like the natives of the city of Munich who walk beneath the glockenspiel in Marienplatz at eleven o’clock in the late-morning, we may give a brief glance to the figurines which play out their dance and not give a second look. Roseburg has all but disappeared from the headlines in the last week. This is not some indictment of American morals, it is just an observation of the collective American psyche. Yet we must carry on in the face of things, the Coopers whirl in the street to carry us through this time of plague, and there are those who would insist that there is a plague.

Mike Lupicia wrote an article in New York Daily News, a highly politicized piece which capitalized on the ambiguous American gun fear which inevitably follows these events, titled “50 states of crisis: Latest stop in America’s gun plague is Oregon – but it could’ve been anywhere.” This is the media’s part of the dance, and he knows his steps flawlessly. He lashes out at his political rivals with barely calculated vitriol: “Somebody needs to tell Rubio and all the other candidates who act like members of the NRA pep squad that what is tragically and fundamentally wrong is that mass shootings become a routine part of American life, and death.” He goes on to complete his lamenting article to say: “We never find our best selves on the subject of gun sanity. We just end up with more shootings and the death of more innocents, and hear once again that guns aren’t the problem here.” This bring us to the other side of the aisle. If guns aren’t the problem, then what is?

Well the other side of the aisle knows their steps of the dance just as well: it is an issue of mental health. Chris Christie made his opinions rather plain in the wake of the shooting: “I’m very concerned about the mental health side of this,” and “We don’t want to involuntarily commit them, to put them away. . . We want to protect others and get them the help they need.” Jeb Bush, in a much more noncommittal statement commented: “We’re in a difficult time in our country and I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this. I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else.” While I am no big fan of Jeb Bush, I think he was getting a little closer to the issue than Christie, who looked to be chasing people down with a straightjacket. I find the mental health questions, while legitimate, much more disturbing. In pursuit of determining who is the sort of psychological profile that will potentially carry out a mass shooting, there is always a good deal of room for misdiagnosis. This is a problem.

The Antikythera Mechanism

In a recent article on Psychology Today, Clark McCauley declares that the shooter Chris Mercer fits a profile of the mass shooter. Despite the obvious fact that he killed nine people, McCauley has a few other reasons. He throws out two terms which define the sort of person capable of this kind of act: “disconnected-disordered” and “caring-compelled.” My focus will be on the first of these attributes. In the article McCauley went on to explain that Mercer fit the format of the “disconnected-disordered” by pointing to the general building blocks of his life-state: He lived with his mother and was unemployed, he goes on to cite The New York Times, “Spending most of his time indoors in his mother’s apartment and deflecting neighbors when they asked him how he was doing.” McCauley then cites the article further in reference to Mercer’s history of emotional problems and that “He did not like his lot in life, and it seemed like nothing was going right for him.” He concludes: “It is perhaps not surprising that the disconnected-disordered profile, which was drawn in part from study of school attackers, describes the most recent school attacker.” While McCauley does admit that it is tricky to reverse engineer a killing-type from Mercer’s psychology, there can be some useful information taken from the “disconnected-disordered” and a fascination with killing.

His reason for making this connection is a statement from an online post made by Mercer on the subject of the Flanagan live broadcast shooting earlier this year: “’I have noticed that people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are…Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.’”  After the fact of the shooting, we can certainly point to that as a moment of inspiration, but I think this is far too easy. By doing this, Mercer is reduced to a simplistic collection of obsessive tendencies and misguided frustrations. I think this definition of the killer does not serve the exploration of the “why”.

Now to qualify my issue with McCauley’s approach. Chris Mercer was a person with a system of philosophy like any of us, a complex human being. The method of reverse engineering his murderous act based on his personality does not explain what made him capable of that act. What it does do is hold Mercer out at arm’s length and describe the ways his personality type falls outside the norm or is aberrant. Divorcing ourselves from him does not reveal anything, it merely segregates him as a freak. This in effect proves that he was right all along, that the cards are still stacked against him and that nobody will ever understand him in a basic and empathetic way. The only way to prove him wrong is to bring him kicking and screaming to the table and call him one of us, all of us, whether he likes it or not and whether we like it either.

Very little of Mercer’s online musings have come to the forefront, but there are some cited in news articles. Perhaps the most interesting comes to me thanks that an article by Heavy. They point to a post made by the shooter called “The Material World is a Lie.” For the sake of full examination I will post the entirety:

The material world is a lie. For so long we have been taught that what’s important in life is to buy this and have that. To always have the latest fashion, biggest tv, fanciest car, nicest house, and blah,blah, blah. Well, the truth is we’ve become so attached to these things, our spiritual development has been halted. Just like they say in fight club “We become owned by the things we own”. Most people will spend hours standing in front of stores just to buy a new iphone. Those same people will complain about how they don’t have enough money but will always have money to spend on apple products. This attachment produces so much of the stress and worrying in the world today. I used to be like that, always concerned about what clothes I had, rather than whether or not I was happy. But not anymore. Since then I have learned the truth that such attachments are falsehoods and will only bring misery.

On the face of it, without the knowledge that the writer carried out a mass shooting, (because at this point he was not a mass killer) this post is actually quite sensible. Many people would agree that Americans are too attached to the trappings of consumerism and tend to tie their immediate happiness to the little bits of brief enjoyment which the fast-new brings to the chemistry of the human mind. I’ll admit that his reference to fight Club certainly points to pop-psychology’s profile of him as a “nihilist”, but these concepts are thousands of years older than fight club. Additionally, anyone arguing for “Spiritual development” is certainly not an all-out nihilist.

Another online post of Mercer’s often referenced is his observations and reaction to the live broadcast shooting in Virginia. If we also look at the entire post, which McCauley referenced as promoting or admiring the live broadcast shooter in his Psychology today analysis, the whole view is much more balanced:

MM

Yes, Mercer does comment on the name recognition offered by being a mass shooter, but he also attempts to analyze the psychology of the shooter, much in the same way McCauley dissected Mercer himself after the Roseburg shooting. Mercer even points out the very same environmental triggers as McCauley that set Flanagan off, despite the fact that they were factors in his own life. He was not some blind monster with no knowledge of human strife outside his own personal issues. He was very aware of it, perhaps precisely because some of the same issues were present in his own life. That fact does not dismiss his observation. Yes, there is an element of masochism present in this post. His claim that “The only thing left to do is lash out at a society that has abandoned them” does evince a solipsism in which the world hinges on the importance of the self, but has not social media only helped to increase that psychosis? Mercer is certainly, at least passively, self-absorbed, but every person who ever posted a “selfie” is just as absorbed in their own self-importance. Yes he does go on to describe the video of the shooting as “good”, but the point here is to point out the essentially human logic of Mercer, which I would argue is very present in his analysis.

It is also rather interesting that Mercer discussed the social media element of Flanagan’s shooting and that he felt compelled to capture the video and put it online. If Mercer were inspired by the Virginia shooting and sought the same kind of validation, then one would think that there would be a similar method of an attempt at publicity. In fact, if Mercer was simply aping via admiration the body-count method of gaining name recognition, then he did not do a very good job. Apart from brief media mentions of a note he gave to a student during the shooting, there does not seem to be any plainly visible attempt to take hold of a microphone as it were. This could mean one of two things: either Mercer was not overtly inspired by Flanagan or he did not pre-meditate the shooting as much as the media seems to believe. Yes, the Roseburg Sheriff did insist on not revealing details about the shooter in an attempt to undermine any play at glory, but Mercer was very active on the internet, so why would he not pursue those avenues? Why would an internet savvy young man who “admired” Flanagan’s method’s of gaining publicity not capitalize on the very methods he posted about online? McCauley and the others who seek to reverse engineer Mercer like the Antikythera Mechanism seem to have missed that detail, one which I believe points to a lack of premeditation or planning necessary to gain the publicity the news reports insist that he so craved.

I think it is worth exploring the possibility that this shooting was not as thought out as the media claims. The Mercer presented in his online blog posts is thoughtful and analytical, he understands the motivations and methods of the publicity killer, so I think it is reasonable to entertain the possibility that he did not have time to do any planning along those lines. He was certainly capable of it if he had wanted to. What I think may have been the driving force behind the shooting also shows how potentially damaging these retroactive psychological analyses of the killers can be: I believe Mercer was in a sudden state of psychosis when he did this, and what made him capable of carrying out the act also removed his present state of consciousness on that day from the young man who very deliberately and thoughtfully dissected Flanagan’s shooting spree.

Disease of Machinery/The Dark Rooms

I think it is important to approach Mercer’s case from the realm of neurology as much as psychology. In the book “The Chemistry of Conscious States”, J. Allen Hobson points out frequently that the current state of the brain-mind is made up of delicate chemical balances. He does not mince words in describing how tenuous and nearly arbitrary this equation of awareness and self really is. To use his words: “Our brain-minds can and do occasionally jump out of this equilibrium. Some people go insane, the rest of us just dream – or change our minds. These events are the supernovas, tidal waves, and thunderstorms of our lives.” It is important to make the distinction that the Chris Mercer writing logical posts on the internet was not the same Mercer bloodying the classrooms of a community college; the chemical makeup of his brain was not the same at the time of the attack. It was a supernova in an otherwise outwardly somewhat peaceful galaxy. I understand that this analysis is unacceptable for many people as they point to his stockpiles of guns etc. But we have to remember that, in some cases, these mass shooters are not the gun collecting type. The Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza did not own a stash of firearms, though he used his mother’s and she was reported to have many. Yes he had access, but he was not a gun hoarder like Mercer. I think the availability of firearms is less of a precipitating factor in these cases than the chemistry of the brain. We are left with a bizarre version of the age-old question of Gyges’ Ring: does an otherwise logical and decent person take lives with a gun merely because they have the capability? One side says no, so the problem must be in the head. The other side says maybe, so we might as well take the ring just to be safe.

Well, what if we are cast into a world where we cannot always trust Gyges to be himself? What I mean by this is: what if there is another element that actively contributes to these shooters, one that is just as dangerous as the weapon used, and we simply are not pointing to it? I am speaking of pharmaceuticals.

Picture a large, old house with many rooms. In this house there is only one room in use and it has a light on so that the occupant can perceive their surroundings. In the rest of the chambers the lights are off and the doors are sealed. The single occupant cannot leave their room, but they can hear activity in the rest of the house, the things that “go bump in the night”. This is the human brain. The room with the light on is the conscious element of the brain, and the darkened and sealed rooms are the unconscious elements. They are all parts of the same whole being, but the resident of the lit room cannot see the workings within the other areas. I think mental stability can be modeled quite well with this example. The more things going bump in the night within the unseen rooms, the more paranoia and fear of the unknown in the conscious portion, the more “disorder” as McCauley would say. The self-aware portion of the human brain can only react to the unknown, and the unknown can come from internal sources just as often as external. This likely sounds a bit reductionist and anti-human, but the chemical state of the aware being is just that in the neurological sense. We cannot know the effects of certain inputs on those dark rooms of the house and the things that “go bump in the night”. This makes me rather doubtful concerning the effects of mind-altering chemicals such as antidepressants.

To use a personal example: Years ago I struggled with issues of anxiety and insomnia. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to get back to sleep. Other times I would lie awake into the late hours inventing a Rube Goldberg Machine of self-perpetuating thought processes. At times I would feel trapped by my thoughts, as though I were paralyzed. Eventually I went to the doctor and explained these sensations. Without batting an eye, she prescribed me something that would “help me sleep”. I picked it up the same day and went home. As a curious and somewhat distrusting individual I searched the name of the drug as soon as I was in front of my computer. It was then that I discovered that nortiyptyline, the drug I had been prescribed, was an anti-depressant. Let me make this clear: the doctor told me at no point in the appointment and consultation that she was prescribing me a tricyclic antidepressant. I had to find this out for myself. This made me hesitant but I wanted to sleep and lessen my anxiety so I took it.

What followed was half a year in which I was “not myself”. What followed was an extreme waveform of highs and lows with pinnacles reaching into the realms of mania and valleys kissing the sudden consideration of suicide. I long ago kicked the prescription and stopped taking it, and I have never had a hyper-manic or suicidal-ideation related episode since then. In retrospect though I have to wonder: what was worse, the initial problem or the cure? There is no means of being entirely certain either way, but I did learn the reality of having the immediate perception of one’s brain chemistry sudden altered to the state of “not me”. The problem, however, is that it was me at the time. If I had, in a state of mania, done something outside my normal boundaries, then everything I had said or done up until that point would have been used as evidence of my flawed psychology, just like Mercer. People would be searching the internet for my posts to dissect my psychology. The problem is that psychology hangs on brain physiology. This is what I mean when saying that the Mercer who posted his thoughts on the internet was not the same Mercer who bloodied the halls of a community college. It is very likely that there were enough things “going bump in the night” in the dark rooms of his brain that he could, in the immediate sense, see no other way to act.

I think it is quite possible that Chris Mercer was, in his final act, living a waking nightmare. I will return to J. Allen Hobson to make this point. One of the elements Hobson points out in his book is the psychosis of dreams, that, through a form of confabulation, our own brains trick us into temporarily believing that a construct of its own making is an external reality. How else can we explain being duped by our own dreams if we are supposedly so unflappably sane and aware all the time? We have all woken up in the middle of the night in the throes of a dream-panic, and as the minutes wear on, the ruse breaks down and we laugh at our temporary gullibility and turn over to go back to sleep. Is it not possible that pharmaceuticals, which run rampant through the dark rooms of the house, can increase the delusion of what we see in the singular lit room? I am not the only one who has experienced the sudden and unexpected alteration of reality along with the arrival of suicidal thoughts that can come on when using these drugs. In fact a Reuters article from just last month cites a study finding increased tendencies toward violence in young people taking antidepressants. Another article from 2010 in the daily mail recounts a young woman’s journey into the deranged world of anti-depressants. In the sense that perception is reality, why are we all so seemingly unconcerned about the wild swings in perception that these drugs can and do cause? In these cases people often complain at how easy it is to acquire a gun, despite the damage it can cause. This is a fair concern, but is it not equally fair to ask why is it also so easy to be prescribed mind-altering drugs? We know that Mercer was taking drugs for psychological issues. An article in The New York Times cited his mother’s online posts on the subject: “She said that ‘my son is a real big problem of mine,’ ” Ms. Jefferson said in a telephone interview. “She said: ‘He has some psychological problems. Sometimes he takes his medication, sometimes he doesn’t. And that’s where the big problem is, when he doesn’t take his medication.’”

I think McCauley and the others who try to analyze mass shooters like Mercer tend to overlook neurology and the potentially crippling danger of a perspective altered by chemical inputs. In the face of Hobson’s analysis of mania and the violence-causing effects of prescription psycho-actives, calling somebody “disconnected-disordered” seems a bit cruel, as if to say that we all aren’t somewhat disconnected and disordered in the modern world. I’m sure if teams of investigators tracked all our online posts and searches and cries out into that internet void for attention, then we would all probably come off as a bit deranged and lonely.

El movimiento se demuestra andando

(You demonstrate movement by moving)

To be clear, I am in no way trying to absolve Mercer of his guilt in this heinous act. He is unequivocally guilty. My concerns come when the media frenzy follows and then suddenly dies down. As I write this, Mercer is no longer in the headlines. Anyone perusing the news-feeds online would not even know that he existed or killed ten people. The question of the danger posed by mind-altering drugs was never addressed in the national conversation. This brings me to three conclusions.

Conclusion one: Mercer was right and wrong. If Mercer did this for publicity, which I find dubious, then he was right to an extent. He did have “His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day.” People certainly heard about him, but it was really only for a day or maybe two. There is no way to read into his authorial intent and be sure whether he meant “the course of one day” to imply brevity, but in retrospect he was right in that way. Another way he was right was in seeing himself as a freak or an outsider. Nobody is talking about Mercer anymore because he has been laid to rest alongside Vester Flanagan in the sepulcher of the lunatics and the inhuman, and even in death nobody sought to understand him outside of a psychological profile of disconnected-disordered-ness. Mercer is yet another of those tragic missed opportunities to devote more focus to psychosis than psychology.

Conclusion two: There is a step missing in the cooper’s dance of the mass shooter. In forsaking an intense study of a moment of psychosis and the catalyzing effects of psychoactive prescription drugs in relation to these cases, we are left with no clear view of the killer. In fact, I would argue that we are offered no insight at all, really. The intense mutiny of the conscious state which can set someone off is not coalesced from bits of online posts and psychological profiles. Mercer and others are not killers their whole lives. They are killers only once and for a little while. In the clockwork dance, the parents and family members always say that they cannot understand why their son or brother is capable of committing the act, and this is often met with ridicule, as if to say: “Yeah, well apparently he was.” Yet we are all capable of riding the tidal wave of sudden brain-mind collapse. None of us are capable of things until we suddenly are, and the ability of mind-state altering drugs to bring about that capability is terrifying and tragically ignored. This brings me to the last conclusion.

Conclusion three: We are all more like Mercer than we want to believe. We all have our moments of darkness and dissatisfaction, we are all capable of going crazy or merely just dreaming. Mercer wrote in his Flanagan post that “Anyone who knew him could have seen this coming.” This is the manifest insanity of the rampage killer. Can we really know the killer Mercer who shot his way through the community college in Roseburg? Did the people who claimed he was not the sort of person who did this not know him, or was he “not himself” when he became an active shooter? Can we ever know that person, or does the brain-mind nexus of that killer identity defy knowing? Let us return to the glockenspiel and the dance that went by as the clock struck eleven, the brief media and political circus. How certain can we be of anything in life? How certain can we be of the shooting in Roseburg and what came after, of our judgments and politics? Less than a fraction of a fraction of one percent of people have been to that town. The overwhelming majority of us have not gone there in the wake of this event to stick our fingers in the bullet holes and behold the reality of what happened there. I do not intend this to be conspiratorial, but an illustration of how disconnected-disordered we all are in this modern age, and how tenuous the concept of “knowing” really is. How often would one think to climb the New Town Hall in the Marienplatz in Munich and crawl into the workings behind the face to the very mechanics of the thing, to see if the Coopers who dance sit inanimate and waiting in the darkness, collecting a small bit of dust until the clock strikes eleven the next day? To know if they exist when not seen, when not on their daily sojourn?

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