In Kentucky, this week brought news of a prisoner at the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex dead of stab wounds to his neck inflicted by another inmate. Authorities are presently still investigating the incident, but what baffles even more is learning that the perpetrator was up for parole this June, or just two months from now. Once again, human motives entice with their mystery and form the bedrock of modern psychology.
It was my wife who brought this anomaly to my attention, and I replied that maybe it was poor impulse control, which some experts have suggested lies behind a great deal of violence and criminality. Having worked with juvenile youth in trouble with the law, I find much to support this view. I also know that people, any of us, have different thresholds or breaking points, for acting out unconscious motives.
This leads to the great question as to whether human beings are fundamentally rational creatures. The great Irish writer, Jonathan Swift, apparently didn’t think so, writing Gullivers Travels to debunk such pretense. You’ll remember that in this precursor to Planet of the Apes, the horses are invested with rationality in contrast to the Yahoos, or human kind, swayed by their passions. Voltaire wasn’t far behind Swift in harboring a similar view in Candide, in which humanity’s misdeeds obliterate any claim to rationality.
In modern literature, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and Golding’s Lord of the Flies continue in the same vein. You might say it’s Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical dismissal of Man put to fiction: “The source of every crime is some defect of the understanding; or some error in reasoning; or some sudden force of the passions.”
Freud and Jung, though perhaps relegated to the back burner these days, established that there lies in all of us powerful, unconscious dynamics motivating our behavior. We are not always who we seem to be and, thus, may not always comprehend our own motivations.
Last week began with terror in Boston instigated by two brothers supposedly in their embrace of a militant, or jihadist, Islam. I would quarrel with this, for their motives may again lie deeper in the quagmire of the psychological. After their violence, the younger brother returned to campus and gave a lift in his car to another student. Neighbors have commented on their surprise that these two could commit such mayhem. The wife and in-laws of the older brother have expressed shock.
I think we’ve all seen this script before. People can be masters of disguise, fooling neighbors, families and friends. Now comes word from the New York police commissioner that the brothers may have been planning on skipping down to New York to party in the aftermath. Such callousness, of course, reflects a total lack of conscience that made their savagery possible.
My point is that they may have been in denial of their true motivation, rooted in envy and personal ineffectuality and living primarily on welfare. Now the survivor is offering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as shallow justification, not radicalization by foreign sources. More likely, in my mind, they were out to make headlines, buoying up their low self-esteem. Humans, however, are frequently unable to deal with dissonant truths about themselves and thus will resort to rationalization. As Sir Walter Scott aptly put it in Marmion, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
I haven’t read him, but Dr. Mark Leary of Duke University has written richly on the subject of motivation, twelve books in all. One of the biggest motivators, according to Leary, seems to be our need to impress our fellows. This helps explain the lust for social status–the big house, luxurious car, making big bucks, obtaining power. But for those who can’t find entry, low self esteem may result in a murderous spite bent on inflicting pain. Misdeeds like those of Aurora, Virginia Tech, or Newtown and, now Boston, are wrought by losers seeking to get even. As such, they will always constitute a clear and present danger.
Come to think of it, it was the Tsarnaev uncle in Maryland who publicly called his nephews “losers. ” He got that right!