What the psychology of mass murderers—from Charles Manson to Bashar al-Assad and ISIS—can teach us about the method behind their madness.
Charlie was a pretty good musician. He played guitar, composed songs.
Dennis Wilson, the drummer and co-founder of the Beach Boys, befriended Charlie and tried to help him make it in the music industry. He arranged for the young man to make a studio album, which eventually came out in 1974. But before that, the Beach Boys recorded a tune Charlie had written for them. The song, Never Learn Not to Love, debuted in 1968 as the B-side of Blue Birds Over the Mountain.
But the relationship between the two musicians soured, quickly. Dennis Wilson had changed the title of the song—from the rather downbeat Cease to Exist—and altered the lyrics as well. Worse, Charlie’s name didn’t appear on the single. That meant Charlie wasn’t entitled to any of the royalties.
If Charlie had been a different person, he would have sued the Beach Boys. Instead, Charlie threatened to kill Dennis Wilson. He even showed up at his house to follow through on his threat. Wilson beat him up instead.
Charlie never got over that treatment. It didn’t help that he had a criminal record and was heavy into the drug scene. Charlie drifted deeper into psychosis. His entourage, a group of hippies he called his “family,” encouraged him in his delusions. They ultimately helped him take revenge on the “system” by carrying out a brutal set of murders in August 1969 that left Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate and several others dead.
Charlie was, of course, Charles Manson. As Allen Frances explains in Psychology Today, Manson fits the classic pattern of a mass murderer: “The mass murderer is an injustice collector who spends a great deal of time feeling resentful about real or imagined rejections and ruminating on past humiliations. He has a paranoid worldview with chronic feelings of social persecution, envy, and grudge holding. He is tormented by beliefs that privileged others are enjoying life’s all-you-can-eat buffet, while he must peer through the window, an outside loner always looking in.”
Charles Manson—musician, injustice collector, mass murderer—was the face of evil for many Americans of a certain age. Though he looked like a long-haired hippie and spoke vaguely of environmental concerns, Manson directed operations as if he were involved in a military campaign. It was war, Manson said in an interview with Barbara Walters some years later, and he was sending his soldiers into battle. One of his disciples, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, went so far as to attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
This potent cocktail of military posturing, feelings of resentment and persecution, cult-like behavior and sociopathic tendencies has been served up time and again in recent history—from Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine killers to Anders Breivik and Dylann Roof.
In Paris on Friday the 13th, mass murderers again went on a rampage. They too believed that they were soldiers in a war. As members of an economically marginal community—Muslims in France and Belgium—they experienced both real and imagined persecution. And in following the orders of the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—who shares with Manson a criminal background, an apocalyptic vision and multiple delusions of grandeur—the Paris killers have also given an entirely new meaning to the phrase Je Suis Charlie.
Anatomy of a Mass Murder
Many mass murderers want to create a spectacle. “Do something witchy,” Manson told his followers. “Leave a sign to show the world you were there.” The Manson family used the blood of their victims to scrawl slogans on the walls of the crime scene, including the infamous Beatles quote, “helter skelter.”
The Islamic State similarly specializes in the theater of cruelty. It stages elaborate set pieces of decapitation, crucifixion and immolation. It blows up a Russian passenger plane. It sends two suicide bombers into a poor neighborhood in Beirut to kill Muslims of a rival sect.
The perpetrators of the recent Paris atrocities also demonstrated their affinity for Grand Guignol, using the city as their stage. They planned their spectacle in advance, enacted it in public and put themselves and their victims on display. They prepared to be killed—or to die in suicide bombings—because martyrdom is part of their preferred story line. They are out for revenge, not against specific individuals but against some larger entity: community, country, society.
But not all mass murderers follow this script. Some try to conceal their acts in an effort to preserve some façade of normalcy.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is just such a mass murderer. He’s a white-collar professional: a would-be ophthalmologist turned politician. He has a photogenic family. He has no intention to die for his cause. And he’s responsible for more death than all the terrorists in the world combined over the last five years.
Assad also has no interest in killing anyone other than his own people. He has no plans to bomb the cities of Europe or the United States. He doesn’t direct a legion of “lone wolves” who will sow mayhem and destruction at his command.
Assad, in other words, is a conventional mass murderer, a thoroughly modern type who doesn’t bloody his own hands but rather uses the machinery of the state to execute his plans. Concealing his crimes is integral to achieving his main goal: staying in power.
It’s hard to know precisely how many civilians the Assad government is responsible for killing. A 2014 report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights puts the number at over 100,000, including over 15,000 children but not including the nearly 5,000 people who have died in custody of torture. That compares to the roughly 87,000 deaths by terrorism that took place between 2010 and 2014, more than half of them in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Syrian government doesn’t publicize figures of “collateral damage,” preferring the world to believe that it’s only killed combatants, extremists and the like. That puts Assad in the same category as the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel and all the other countries conducting aerial bombardments and drone attacks that have claimed the lives of thousands of non-combatants. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, it’s part of the DNA of the modern state to conceal the atrocities that are so much part of the warp and weft of geopolitics.
That’s why the West will eventually find some kind of accommodation with Assad, even if only temporarily. And that’s why the West won’t sit down to negotiate with the Islamic State, its pretentions to statehood notwithstanding. Although history is full of examples of siding with one mass murderer against another—with Joseph Stalin against Adolf Hitler, for instance—neither the United States nor Europe will team up any time soon with Assad against the Islamic State. Indeed, even an alliance of Moscow and Washington against the Islamic State isn’t yet in the works.
But the Paris killings once again remind Europe and the United States that ousting Assad isn’t their most important objective in the Middle East. A ceasefire in Syria that leaves Assad’s position ambiguous—one possible outcome of the current peace talks in Vienna—would amount to a tacit alliance against the Islamic State.
At first blush, the Islamic State would seem to be acting with all the irrationality of a mass murderer by encouraging and taking credit for brazen acts like the Paris massacres, the Beirut bombings and the downing of the Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula. By striking at French, Lebanese and Russian citizens, and bolstering the resolve of the world community to unite against it, the Islamic State would seem to be signing its own death warrant.
… Francois Hollande has already responded to the Paris attacks with the predictable declaration that “France is at war” and it will “destroy ISIS.” The United States reacted in the same way after 9/11. It was the wrong approach … War is exactly what the Islamic State wants. War legitimizes its claim to be a state and to be treated like a state.
But there is a rationale, if not a rationality, behind the Islamic State’s “foreign policy” of killing foreigners. For instance, the Islamic State dreams of an apocalyptic battle in the Middle East not unlike the end of days that some Christian fundamentalists eagerly await. As Craig Whitlock and Ellen Nakashima explain in The Washington Post:
“According to the group’s extremist ideology, the caliphate will eventually triumph in a great war against infidel forces, culminating in a final end-of-days battle in Dabiq, an obscure Syrian town near the northern city of Aleppo.
“The group’s online propaganda magazine is titled ‘Dabiq.’ Each edition features the same prophetic quote about how the conflict will unfold: ‘The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.’”
In a similar way, al-Qaeda hoped that its 9/11 attacks would lure the United States into overreacting by launching a war (or two) and implementing Crusade-like policies in the Muslim world. The Islamic State leaders, perhaps because they are closely following the Republican presidential debates, believe that the West will fall for this trick again.
The Islamic State has an even more cunning strategy for Europe. As Harleen Gambhir points out, also in The Post: “The Islamic State’s strategy is to polarize Western society — to ‘destroy the grayzone,’ as it says in its publications. The group hopes frequent, devastating attacks in its name will provoke overreactions by European governments against innocent Muslims, thereby alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities throughout the continent.”
There are plenty of Europeans ready and waiting to overreact, including anti-immigrant political parties like the National Front in France and the UK Independence Party. Their push to bar immigrants, re-erect internal borders and strengthen external ones, and essentially criminalize the entire Muslim population in Europe plays directly into the hands of the Islamic State. The attacks demonstrate yet again that extremists in the Middle East and extremists in Europe, though they would never break bread together, sup from the same trough and depend on one another for sustenance.
As for declining the invitation to participate in an apocalypse in the Middle East, that might prove an even more difficult temptation to avoid.
The Choice Before Us
French President Francois Hollande has already responded to the Paris attacks with the predictable declaration that “France is at war” and it will “destroy ISIS.” The United States reacted in the same way after 9/11. It was the wrong approach, just as if the US government had declared war on the Manson family back in 1969. War is exactly what the Islamic State wants. War legitimizes its claim to be a state and to be treated like a state.
The bombing strategy—whether pursued by Francois Hollande, Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin—is also doomed to fail, even if it succeeds in its narrow objective of destroying the Islamic State. That entity, after all, emerged after the defeat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And who knows what will replace the Islamic State when it too passes away. “The Chinese have a saying: before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves,” I wrote back in 2007. “The U.S. pursuit of vengeance, rather than justice, has been similarly self-defeating.”
President Obama has generally tried to find the middle ground. Even as he continues the aerial bombardment of the Islamic State, he’s ruled out sending in ground troops. He’s also rightly pushed back against Republican critics who want to bar Syrian refugees from the United States—or, as Ted Cruz argues, non-Christian Syrians—because of the possibility that terrorists lurk in their midst. What a great way to sow the dragon’s teeth of resentment for generations to come—by refusing entry to people desperately trying to escape from the clutches of one mass murdering entity or another.
Meanwhile, governments are focusing on ringleaders. And indeed, individuals like Charlie Manson, Dylann Roof and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi should be the proper focus of law enforcement efforts. But it’s even more important to dry up their pool of followers, the ones who are not sociopaths.
In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell describes these followers as responding to different thresholds of violence. They aren’t the first people to throw bricks in a riot, and they might not even be the second or third person to do so. It’s only when a lot of bricks are flying that they pick one off the ground and aim at the nearest shop window.
In the Middle East, in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the riot has been going on long enough that plenty of people are eyeing the bricks on the ground and getting ready to join the fray. The responses so far have been either to bomb the riot or neutralize anyone with a brick in hand or bending down to pick one up. But wouldn’t it be better to figure out how to stop the riot, and then alter the conditions that generated it in the first place?
*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.