Absence and Lack: The Thoughts and Feeling of Psychopathic Murders
Just as certain names like Abraham Lincoln, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly will forever stand out in popular consciousness in America with pride, certain other names like Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and Eric Harris will also stand out, but with fear, wonder and revulsion. Bundy, Manson and Harris are what clinical psychologists would call psychopathic murderers. Not every murderer is a psychopath and the exact definition of a psychopath has been widely debated. Constant strain runs along the high profile cases of murdering psychopaths, which is "A deeply disturbing inability to care about the pain and suffering inexperienced by others -- in short, a complete lack of empathy, the prerequisite for love" (Hare, 6). Trying to determine what psychopath thinks and feels when he kills is a fascinating question which abounds in psychology today.
Five years after the tragedy that occurred at Columbine High School occurred, authorities and experts have greater insight as to why it happened and what, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold thought they were doing. Experts have dismissed Columbine as another "school shooting" because it doesn't fit the profile of typical school shootings that are often the result of bullyings. As Dave Cullen states in Slate.com, "School shooters tend to act impulsively and attack the targets of their rage: students and faculty. But Harris and Klebold planned for a year and dreamed much bigger." Cullen explains that Harris and Klebold had a far different strategy:
The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting "the most deaths in U.S. history." Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters.
Cullen explains how experts like Dr. Frank Ochberg, Michigan State University psychiatrist, and Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI's lead Columbine investigator explain that it's not a matter of determining what drove the killers, but understanding that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were extremely different people: Dylan Klebold had a short temper and was depressive. Eric Harris is the one who fits the definition of a psychopathic murderer and is harder to evaluate. When Cullen explains that many people, prior to the murders, described Harris as "nice." This is evocative of many psychologists' assertion that most psychopaths have extremely suave exteriors as that is part of their cunning. While most lay people seem to think of psychopaths as crazy, axe-wielding lunatics, this could not be further from the truth as most psychopathic murderers have: "…excellent skills in communication, no disorder of thought, mood, or memory. They do not experience anxiety, hallucinations or delusions. They simply cannot grasp what is meant by words like 'responsibility' or 'obligation'" (Calne 5).
An aspect of Harris' though process that makes him fit into the textbook description of psychopaths who murder, is his sheer contempt for other people. In the same article on Slate.com, Cullen quotes Harris' personal website, which has numerous epitaphs of pure disgust and revulsion for other people, saying things like, "YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!! People who use the same word over and over again! . . . Read a f-in book or two, increase your vo-cab-u-lary f*ck*ng idiots." Cullen is quick to point out that: "These are not the rantings of an angry young man, picked on by jocks until he's not going to take it anymore. These are the rantings of someone with a messianic-grade superiority complex, out to punish the entire human race for its appalling inferiority." Having a grandiose sense of self-worth with an overwhelming feeling of entitlement is one of the most common traits of a psychopathic murderer. Such murderers view other people as either a means to achieving a certain ends or an obstacle to those ends. What Harris shows through his rage on his website are strong feelings of derision and scorn for other human beings, with a desire to demean them.
Another classic trait of the psychopathic thought process is the enjoyment of deceit and seeing very little value or worth in the truth. "Psychopaths have a remarkable disregard for the truth" (Patrick 488), In fact, when psychopaths are questions after their violent crimes by the authorities, they often omit large chunks of fact, obviously, downplaying certain details (Patrick 488). Psychopaths often possess a chameleon-like personality, allowing themselves to adopt various facades in order to manipulate people, and feigning emotions that they don't organically experience themselves in order to fit into society when they deem it appropriate. Eric Harris admits how much he lies in his journal, just like the textbook psychopath, and his entries make it clear that he has a complete lack of remorse for the lies that he told. However, Cullen points to the remarks of Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, "Harris claimed to lie to protect himself, but that appears to be something of a lie as well. He lied for pleasure, Fuselier says. 'Duping delight' -- psychologist Paul Ekman's term -- represents a key characteristic of the psychopathic profile." Because a psychopath doesn't feel guilt, shame or anxiety when he lies, he's unlikely to make mistakes during such deceptions that the average person might make (Ekman 67).
Exhibiting unfettered manipulative qualities, glibness, deceitfulness, cold contempt for others and a massive sense of self-absorption, Eric Harris was an obvious psychopath, which makes his behavior and thought process easier to understand in retrospect, even though most normal people might find it unfathomable. Eric Harris shot his classmates, mocked them as they were in unbearable agony, and then killed them. While many see such behavior as monstrous, it is also a clear example of the psychopath using others as a mean to aggrandize himself. Psychopaths view aggression as a useful tool to satisfy a selfish need, viewing violence cognitively, attaching little emotion to such behavior and see it as little different from other instrumental tools (Patrick 489). Using all the data he's collected, Cullen concludes that with the right intervention, Klebold could've been saved and might have led a normal life, eventually, with the right help. Harris, on the other hand, Cullen asserts, was beyond saving.
Psychologists in Wales have developed a ten-minute test which can not only assist in identifying psychopaths, but gives us greater insight into their minds. This test shows the absence of empathy from the minds of psychopathic murderers. The test is simple, words flash up on a screen and the user has to classify these words by pressing one of two buttons. One button denotes "peaceful" or "pleasant" and another button denotes "violent" or "unpleasant." The test becomes more complex when the rules change and the buttons represent opposite emotions. For example, one button means both: pleasant and violent and the other button means peaceful and unpleasant. When this change occurs, normal people taking the test have a cursory amount of hesitation that they make when selecting buttons. However, psychopaths never had this hesitation and still made their selections just as quickly. This maintained speed indicates the lack of feeling that psychopaths have towards violent crimes. The BBC.co.uk quotes one of the researchers of the study, who stated, "Psychopathic murderers have diminished negative reactions to violence compared with non-psychopathic murders and other offenders." This test showcases the lack of feeling that these people truly have when it comes to violence.
This lack of feeling means that cries or begging for mercy on behalf of the victims, falls upon deaf ears. Robert Hare, in the book Without Conscience refers to a psychopathic rapist who tries to verbalize why he cannot empathize with his victims: "They are frightened, right? But, you see, I don't really understand it. I've been frightened myself, and it wasn't unpleasant" (Hare 44). Psychopaths seem to find the suffering of victims as inconsequential as humans find their cold-blooded propensity to murder unfathomable. Robert Hercz on the website Hare.org, mentions another test that Robert Hare devised that gives further insight into these dark and distinct minds. Non-psychopathic people and psychopathic people were asked to do a simple test where words flashed onto the screen. Some of the words were nonsense words and some were actual words from the dictionary. When violent words like "rape" and "cancer" flashed onto the screen, normal people were quick to flag them as words, faster than less charged words like "spoon." Psychopaths did not produce that speed, meaning, as Hercz deduces on Hare.org, "To them, "rape" and "tree" have the same emotional impact -- none."