James Eagan Holmes, the Colorado movie theater shooter, is today’s water cooler fodder around the country, if not the world. With no online presence and described as a “shy guy… a loner,” this “anonymous” individual has catapulted to fame after committing a heinous act on unsuspecting moviegoers.
Everyone wants to know why. Why did he do it? Why tell the police he’s the Joker, Batman’s nemesis? Why drop out of a Ph.D. program where he was studying (ironically) “how people behave”? Why would he booby trap his apartment? Why kill innocent people, including children? Why behave like a lunatic and change so many lives?
The “experts” are touting their opinions across the media, but the explanation, when uncovered, will probably not surprise anyone. James Eagan Holmes is a killer; whether it’s due to drugs, hallucinations, or a neurological disorder, the massacre on June 20 comes from the fact that he’s not “normal” and he may later be described as “criminally insane” (which will be argued by some because Holmes had meticulously planned his rampage for months prior to the deadly shooting).
The debate will continue: Does Holmes have a diseased mind or a brilliant mind?
Reports have surfaced that he was discouraged, maybe depressed, because (like millions of Americans) he was unable to find work in this economy. So, he returned to graduate school to study with the academically talented, in the competitive field of neuroscience. There have been reports that he was struggling in school. So his answer was to dress up like a superhero villan and slaughter mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews?
Again, I have to ask: Why?
It will always be hard to understand the “why” and no psychiatrist’s explanation can comfort those families touched by this great loss.
And yet when violent acts occur, when a murderer is cast into the spotlight, everyone feels the need to understand the inexplicable. Why did he do it? Why?
What goes on inside the mind of a killer?
Neuroscience has identified differences in the brain and certain genes that make a person more prone to violence.
In July of 2010, Talk of the Nation did a show called ”Can Genes and Brain Abnormalities Create Killers?” Criminal law was discussed in regard to the differences in neurological functioning of killers. It’s a fascinating story that discuses brain disease and how it can be used in law cases to defend the indefensible. I recommend reading or listening to the story.
The story also mentioned James Fallon, a neuroscientist who has studied the brains of serial killers for 20 years. Fallon’s theory is that brain function and genes make the mind of a killer different from that of a healthy mind. Simply put, some people are just predisposed to violence.
When brain scan findings are introduced, the debate begins.
Matthew Taylor Presenter wrote a great article in 2011 called “Psychopaths: Born evil or with a diseased brain?” Serial killer Brian Dugan’s brain was discussed and his brain imaging showed “limited activity in the area processing emotions.”
Brain structure and functioning differences can explain “why” some killers show no remorse and can’t seem to feel empathy for their victims. Abnormal brain structure or brain functioning can be cited as one cause of antisocial behavior.
Results from brain scans on the criminal mind influence law.
Neuro-law sets up a battle: should we see killers as evil, deserving the harshest penalties and punishment for their antisocial behavior, or should we understand that they are “hard-wired” differently, suffering from a diseased mind and needing treatment?
It’s a serious ethical question, clouded by brain research, that makes seeking justice a struggle for the victim’s family. Like the brain, it’s gray matter, without a black or white stance to take. Many variables confuse the answer to the “why” question and yet no one disagrees that the criminal act was just that: criminal.
Whichever side of the fence you lean towards, one thing is certain. The actions of a murderer are difficult to comprehend, even when neuro-imaging shows differences in brain functioning. Months from now, people will still be asking “why” in the James Eagan Holmes case.