Today the first two funerals of the children and adults killed in Connecticut last Friday remind our nation and a watching world of the horrors perpetrated by a lone gunman, Adam Lanza. May God grant his peace and sustaining presence to the grieving families, friends, and community.
Law enforcement hunts for Lanza’s motives, hoping to identify people likely to commit such a crime and help them before they act. But how would one identify people who might commit atrocities?
Our society keeps looking to realm of psychology for answers to this question, but the issues are too complex to look to only one discipline. After the shooting in Aurora Colorado, I suggested that we need to talk about a new category of illness: moral illness. Just as psychologists have established criteria for diagnosing mental illness, we need criteria to identify when someone has slid so far down the path of moral unhealth that he would be called morally ill and in need of treatment. This approach would look for insights from various disciplines including theology.
There’s the rub. Few people want to consider that we are talking about not only a psychological issue but also a spiritual issue. But someone did, and I believe his insights need to be looked at freshly in light of the increasing frequency of these massacres.
In his 1983 book, People of the Lie, the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, suggests that certain people have departed so far from social mores that they are “evil.” Frankly, I don’t like Peck’s term, because the truth is that evil cuts through every human heart. G. K. Chesterton once noted that "Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved," (Orthodoxy, chap. 2)
With that caveat aside, Peck lists specific characteristics of “evil” people (according to today’s Wikipedia):
- Is consistently self-deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt and maintaining a self-image of perfection
- Deceives others as a consequence of their own self-deception
- Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets (scapegoats) while being apparently normal with everyone else
- Commonly hates with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self-deception as much as deception of others
- Abuses political (emotional) power ("the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion")
- Maintains a high level of respectability, and lies incessantly in order to do so
- Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency (of destructiveness)
- Is unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim (scapegoat)
- Has a covert intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury
Prophetically, Peck said that evil people typically project evil on innocent victims, often children. Unfortunately, he also says that these people are extremely hard to identify. Nevertheless, if we want to do something, then keeping these characteristics in mind could help police, social workers, school psychologists, and others to be alert to individuals who display these characteristics. Once identified, they could receive treatment which could reduce the risk of their taking violent action against others.
Previously, I argued that we need to talk about moral illness so that we don’t scapegoat people with mental illness whenever atrocities like this occur. But if Peck is right, we need a national discussion about moral illness also to reduce the likelihood that such a massacre will happen again, because the attempts we have made so far are leading nowhere.