Are We Our (Evil) Brother’s Keeper?

The headline was like a promo for a horror movie: “Officer Plotted to Abduct, Cook and Eat Women, Authorities Say.”

The work of a deranged man? Absolutely. Is he a product of his subculture? Yes. Was his gruesome fantasy related to how he internalized the role of woman in a society still deeply misogynist? Of course!

As humans we are endowed with a unique ability to reflect on our behavior. Thus we gain knowledge of ourselves and our relation to others in our society, which allows us to sculpt our identities to be like, or unlike, our family and group.

One of the most important elements in this construction of our “selves” is the collective ideas we buy into: the beliefs that arise from our family, our community, and our educational, religious, and ethical systems.  We copy and then internalize these systems. We make them our own.  Remarkably few of us break away from these values.  “Positive scapegoats,” as I call them, are those individuals who use the scapegoating process to take a positive step away from “group thing” (or group influence.)

What is the link between a disturbed policeman and his choice of victims? As a psychiatrist, I’ve examined many men like our kidnapping police officer. Yes, he is almost certainly severely mentally ill; probably psychotic and delusional.

But the form these delusions take is not arbitrary to the disease. In fact they come straight from his subculture and society, first through his family upbringing and later through work and other cultural influences.

In severe mental illness, delusions follow politics to a startling degree. When I worked on psychiatric wards in the 1960s, the Soviet Union was the favorite enemy: patients told me the Soviets were controlling their thoughts through secret research on mind control.

Once the Cold War faded and Russian Communists were no longer Enemy #1, all such delusions evaporated, to be replaced largely by Muslims or Iranians, even figures from video games. Collective fantasies like these creep into the minds of even the most healthy among us.

I’m sure women are a personal threat to this unfortunate man, and these negative feelings are part of his bizarre plan. But I’m equally sure that the way we treat women in our society — in our movies and television, and perhaps in his police community — contributes to the choice of his particular target.

Terrorists, suicide bombers, fanatics, and criminals of all kinds are weak members of their families and groups. Like missiles and drones sent to seek and destroy enemies, these weak links do the bidding of their parents, siblings, and leaders.

I am not saying that individuals who fantasize and perpetrate hate crimes are innocent. Most of us can and do take responsibility to work against heinous group forces. But the young, the weak, and the sick are victims of their particular group every bit as much as the people they are working to destroy.

Our legal system does not allow collective punishment. The guilt, from a legal standpoint, is always lodged in the individual and not the group. But it is wise when we are confronted with something as disturbing as this policeman’s fantasies to consider, when judging him, where those feelings and bizarre actions actually came from. We should ask how much of it came from him and how much belongs to the group from which he emerged — remembering, too, that the group we belong to (and that he belonged to) is the source from which we seek love, support, and acceptance.


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