Thursday, August 2, 2012

Amok Time

The history of mass killings:
In 1996, a man shot and killed 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania. If degrees of abjectness are assignable in such cases, for a massacre to unfold at Port Arthur was, for Australians, doubly awful. As Robert Hughes wrote in The Fatal Shore, his superlative history of the country’s origins as a penal colony: “Port Arthur has always dominated the popular historical imagination in Australia as the emblem of the miseries of transportation, ‘the Hell on Earth.’” Since the late 1970s, the ruins at Port Arthur, once the British Empire’s most pitiless labor camp, had been treated on the model of the European death camps; as a secular holy place, a site to wander in while meditating on how human beings subjugate and deform and generally thieve the dignity from other human beings. One of the first victims of the Port Arthur massacre, facing the barrel of the gun, said simply: “Not here.”

The English phrase “running amok” is derived from the Malay concept of pengamok, or someone who commits an intensely violent and indiscriminate homicidal assault, often with a machete or a dagger, often in a crowded public space. Westerners have been fascinated by the pengamok since Captain Cook first visited the Malay archipelago and recorded its existence in his journal, in 1770. Since the amok was regarded as an extreme form of gila kena hantu (a kind of possession by evil spirits, or tiger spirits) or gila buatan orang (possession by witchcraft), it was treated with enormous tolerance—even, researchers claim, subtly sanctioned by the Malay tribes.

Historians of the amok now speculate it was a redemptive act of face saving, a way for a young male to massively compensate for a perceived loss of status. The analogy to the civil massacre is obvious. But here is where things get interesting: Incidents of amok began to decline as Malay tribes modernized and Westernized. By the mid-19th century, the amok was being described and treated as a mental illness. In effect, Western psychiatric medicine disenchanted and banalized the amok—and as a result, it lost its implicit sanction as a magnificent act signaling the presence of evil spirits. And here is where things get doubly interesting. As one researcher has written: “Inexplicably, while the frequency of and interest in amok among primitive tribes were decreasing, similar occurrences of violence in industrial societies were increasing.” It is as if the pengamok were a virus that, even as it was being eradicated on the Malay island chain, leapt to the West: to Austin, to Dunblane, to Port Arthur, to Colombine, and beyond.
Not Here: If we’re truly serious about stopping massacres like Aurora, we need to cure our addiction to evil (Slate)
"Amok is a Malay word for the homicidal sprees occasionally undertaken by lonely, Indochinese men who have suffered a loss of love, a loss of money, or a loss of face. The syndrome has been described in a culture even more remote from the West: the stone-age foragers of Papua New Guinea.

The amok man is patently out of his mind, an automaton oblivious to his surroundings and unreachable by appeals or threats. But his rampage is preceded by lengthy brooding over failure, and is carefully planned as a means of deliverance from an unbearable situation. The amok state is chillingly cognitive. It is triggered not by a stimulus, not by a tumor, not by a random spurt of brain chemicals, but by an idea. The idea is so standard that the following summary of the amok mind-set, composed in 1968 by a psychiatrist who had interviewed seven hospitalized amoks in Papua New Guinea, is an apt description of the the thoughts of mass murderers continents and decades away:

    "I am not an important man... I possess only my personal sense of dignity. My life has been reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except my life, which is nothing, so I trade my life for yours, as your life is favoured. The exchange is in my favour, so I shall not only kill you, but I shall kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process."

The amok syndrome is an extreme instance of the puzzle of human emotions. Exotic at first glance, upon scrutiny they turn out to be universal; quintessentially irrational, they are tightly interwoven with abstract thought and have a cold logic of their own.
From How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker"
The story is familiar to us today: Somebody, usually a young man, walks into a public place, kills a bunch of people seemingly at random, and (usually) ends the murder spree with a suicide-by-cop.

But this story—at least, in Western culture—is startlingly new, relatively speaking. In fact, Paul Mullen, a forensic psychologist, says we can pin a date and place on the first time it happened. On September 4, 1913, in the German towns of Degerloch and Mühlhausen an der Enz, Ernst August Wagner killed his wife, his children, and at least nine strangers. He shot more than 20 people and set several fires during his killing spree. He ended up spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum.
Forensic psychologist says mass killing is about culture, not mental illness (BoingBoing)
Violent crime has been on the rise in China in recent decades as the nation's economy has boomed and the gap between rich and poor has expanded at an alarming rate. Experts say the increase in assaults shows that China is paying the price for focusing on more than 30 years of economic growth while ignoring problems linked to rapid social change. Studies have described a rise in the prevalence of mental disorders in China, some of them linked to stress as the pace of life becomes faster and socialist support systems wither. However, authorities stress that murder, which carries the death penalty, remains far less common than in most Western countries.
Chinese teen kills nine in knife attack: reports

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