Snap Killings – Lottery of Death

DEKALB, Ill. (AP) — Steven Kazmierczak had the look of a boyish graduate student — except for the disturbing tattoos that covered his arms. Professors and students knew him as a bright, helpful scholar, but his past included a stint in a mental health center.

The 27-year-old Kazmierczak also had a history of mental illness and had become erratic in the past two weeks after he stopped taking his medication, said university Police Chief Donald Grady.

from AP

At least since Lizzie Borden allegedly (she was never convicted) took a hachet to her father and step-mother, the American press has fixated on and glamorized snap murders – incidents in which previously unexceptional, seemingly normal individuals suddenly snap and commit acts of uncommon violence and sociopathic savagery.

It would be interesting to study the origins of this kind of killing: have they always existed, or are they a product of modern urban culture? What seems clear is that the public fascination with the phenomena is rooted in the deep-seated fear of the familiar suddenly becoming threatening – the same fear that popularizes movies about alien infections, demonic possession or Stepford Wives.

Except that in this instance the danger is very real and very deadly. Although the statistical probability that someone in your classroom or office will decide to come in strapped like Rambo on any given day is infinitesimal, it is not zero, and that is enough to keep some people awake at night and add to the background level of primal fear, instinctual unease and environmental paranoia already rampant in the atmosphere.

One of the reasons we are increasingly uncomfortable is that, whatever their origins or causes, these berserker attacks seem to be increasing in frequency. Whereas in Lizzie Borden’s time notorious cases arose every decade or so, in the past century, after the state-sponsored killing frenzies of the WWs, sudden, private sector killing sprees seemed to crop up every few years.

Post offices were so often the scenes of such inexplicable massacres the term “going postal” entered into the American lexicon.

Now, hardly a semester goes by without a horrific attack on some campus, in a kind of macabre academic lottery of death.

As a rational academic and a God-fearing sinner, the Dowbrigade has two very different gut feelings about these snap killings.

On the one hand, what we know about the practice of modern pharmaceutical psychology and the chemical causation of psychosis has convinced us that the common clue in all of these cases – “he recently stopped taking his medication” – is the key to the killings.

The human mind, for all its indomitable resiliency and adaptability, can be a fragile vessel. Given the pressures and unnatural postures minds are forced to endure today, and the paucity of spiritual support, it is a wonder more minds do not snap. After tens of thousands of generations of slowly evolving as wandering tribes primarily eking out from nature the resources needed to survive, in less than a hundred generations we have morphed into urban micro-nodes in a global cyber-organic network, completely disconnected from our environment and constantly consuming objects and ideas neither necessary nor necessarily conducive to our survival.

No wonder people snap.

Actually, under normal conditions, people do not snap, even when they go mad. Shakespeare’s glorious descents into madness (think Lear or Macbeth) paint a more typical picture: gradual loss of one’s grasp on reality, hallucinations, especially audio (hearing voices), fixations, increasingly erratic behavior. Traditionally, societies developed a series of mechanisms to deal with these warning signs; talking, praying, sleeping potions, exorcisms, cold baths, sanatoriums in the countryside.

In extreme cases, the mad were locked away in asylums or attics, or simply killed, overtly or through neglect.

But today, modern psychiatry claims to have banished these archaic and inhumane treatments, in favor of scientific therapy, usually a combination of “talk therapy” and medicine. Because time is money, and it takes a lot longer to train and prepare a good shrink than it does to manufacture and market a good pill, these days the emphasis is on the drugs. The interests of the trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry may also play a role in this.

Thanks to modern medicine millions of Americans who would otherwise be neurotic, disruptive or severely disturbed are instead able to lead productive, “normal” lives, working regular jobs, having families, paying taxes and participating in our cultural, economic and political life.

The problem is that these drugs just mask the symptoms of mental illness and bandage over the serious psychological problems which afflict these folks. Many of these walking wounded are seriously psycho, and would normally have ground to a halt or behaved in ways that demanded attention, if not for the drugs.

Think of the mind like a motor. When something goes wrong, a nut comes loose or a wire gets disconnected, it normally rattles around or shuts down until you get it fixed. These powerful pharmaceuticals allow the motor to keep functioning while broken, taking the mind to places that minds do not ordinarily go. Not good places.

One of the side effects of these drugs is that they make many users feel like “zombies”, lethargic with fuzzy thinking and muffled emotions. Imagine not being able to fully wake up, or to sense things with the strength and clarity you used to have.

So they stop taking their medication, and within 72 hours are trapped within a full-blown psychosis, delayed and intensified by the drugs, complete with voices, visions, compulsions and unstoppable urges, previously sealed up like malevolent genies in bottles of capsules, now uncorked.

And this is the rational, scientific explanation. On the other hand, despite an intense antipathy to everything associated with the religious right, the recent spate of snap killings has almost convinced us of the existence and active intervention in the waking world of the Devil – Lucifer, Satan, Mephistopheles, call him what you may.

It is the sheer malevolence of these attacks which points us in that direction, as if the killer had sat down and asked himself “What is the absolute most horrible, sadistic, evil thing I could possibly do?” and “How can I absolutely assure myself of a first-class ticket to hell, and how can I take as many innocents with me?”

It is difficult for us to imagine even the most demented or damaged human being honestly asking those questions, let alone acting on his answers, without some demonic intervention. Crimes of passion, crimes of greed, even crimes of indifference or plain cussedness, all those we can understand in human terms.

To a thinking, feeling human being struggling to fit this phenomena into our world-view, the unexpected, inexplicable evil of these snap attacks, like the miracles and saved souls on the other side of the ledger, require us to look higher, or lower, than the limits of the human soul, for answers.

About dowbrigade

Semi-retired academic from Harvard, Boston University, Fulbright Commission, Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manta, currently columnist for El Diario de Portoviejo and La Marea de Manta.
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One Response to Snap Killings – Lottery of Death

  1. sheila chunis says:

    This is the first piece of analysis that seems to make sense of our culture and explain why this phenomena is growing. Well written adn articulated.

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