What Makes a Warrior versus a Killer?


 The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact. Begin to be now what you will be hereafter. Act as if what you do makes a difference. Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.  William James

On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, December 8th, I was puzzling about the relationship between violence during war and the potential for violence by those who are drawn to murder strangers.  Those who fight in wars often do so by leading armies or following the will of the authorities. There is a cause and a reason to risk death for country.

 

My father, Andrew Maloney was a Captain in the US Arm Air Force in WW II. (He is standing on the left with the pilot and on the right in the briefing photo).  He worked for Curtis LeMay.  LeMay is credited with designing and implementing an effective, but also controversial systematic strategic bombing campaign in the Pacific theater. During war, we need people who can plan the systematic murder of others.  But in these case a person in authority authorizes the killings as part of protecting the nation by winning the war. The cost of war is sever and my father was one of many who never recovered from the tragedy of war.  Perhaps this sustains my interested in how people can be convinced to kill.

We have good research about the kind of interactions that promote a majority of people to harm others under the spell of authority. This was explained in Stanley Milgram’s 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. In this research Milgram found only a minority of people can say no to authority when the action appears unethical.  The majority of people appear to have little to no choice.

We know that a majority will do whatever it is the person in authority asks.  Are there such figures in a family or in society?  Can an authority figure in a family impact a person’s ability to think for self?  Can relationships process produce people capable of mass murder?

At one end of the spectrum there are those who will kill as a part of being in the armed services.  At another point in the spectrum there are those who are aggressive and will punch, kick or bite when provoked. And at the other end of the spectrum are a few who are able to strangle others.

Researchers have found that strangulation may be a clue to the personality of mass murders.   Strangulation requires that one get very close, use extreme force and watch someone slowly die.  A link between strangulation and mass shooters is increasingly recognized.  Strangulation as a specific sign of lethality in the context of domestic violence remains largely unknown.[i] This piece suggests that strangulation may be a new clue to help identify a mass murderer.  While the link between mass shooters and domestic violence is increasingly recognized in the lay press and research, strangulation as a sign that someone could become a mass murder has just emerged as a possible warning sign.

The challenge to social scientists is to find ways to identify how specific behaviors emerge from shifts in important relationships. For example, it may be that in triangles, where one person is in the outside position for long periods of time, such individuals may not develop a self.  They may become isolated, frustrated or violent to self or others.

One researcher studying relationship process in early family life is Elizabeth Skowron. She is focused on clarifying the individual and joint contributions of neurobiology and environment to the development of self-regulation and school readiness in at-risk children. Her research also focuses on understanding the neurobiology of parenting at risk children and the mechanisms of change in interventions that are effective for supporting positive, healthy parenting and reducing child maltreatment.[ii]

Confusing, violent or very distant relationships with parents can set children up for a life of frustration and failure. As anxiety goes up, the tendency to look for problems in others is a mechanism that kicks in automatically without any thought about it.  A child can easily become the target. For example, if one parent tries to enforce a rule, then the other parent must join in. If he or she refuses they risk becoming the object of negative focus themselves. It is the two against one situation that leads to the outside position drawing the negative attention and then becoming the scapegoat.

If the anxiety is not resolved then people divorce or cut off from those who do not agree with them, whether they’re parents or extended family members. All for one and one for all seems to be a common theme in intensely child focused families.  The extreme is reached when it becomes do it my way or die.   The way emotional process works, those on the outside upon whom there’s a negative focus, are at risk of symptoms, extrusion and/or violence.

Families with violence have histories of undermining with criticism and negativity anything a child chooses to do. Some children can come out of these positions in the family with an attitude: “I will show you what I can do.” In fact, often times we see that those who become presidents of the U.S. (Clinton and Obama)  have had to contend with early loss and negative relationships with parents or the extended family.  Apparently, there are still ways to be resilient when there is enough family flexibility.

A spectrum of child focused families. 

Some families blame the child while others give into a child.   Children can frighten parents. The parents give in and join with the child and eventually the child is undermined by being allowed or even encouraged to have temper tantrums.   Eventually this can result in incredible violence.  The Sandy Hook family displayed years of giving into the child and threatening the child with leaving the area. The Boston Bomber’s family had generations of cut off, disapproval and mixed messages about violence.

How does one think about strangulation as a sign of future violence? Could it be that these individuals do not recognize the other as like self or even human?  Is there is a switch in the brain of mass murderers that sees others as not human, as the enemy?  Perhaps they have no empathy and or lack working mirror neuron? [iii]

Research may find that strangulation always points to a mass murderer, although I doubt that since there seem to be additional triggers that promote the violence. Often someone important has left or threatens to leave. We may find that there is some relationship between the brain that is capable of strangulation and a person who comes from a family system that is full of intense threats and fears leading to an inability to see and relate to others as “like me”.

Jack Calhoun’s research showed that with animals under stress, an animal can lose the ability to maintain basic behaviors, like recognizing other animals.  Calhoun forced animals to notice each other to cooperate to get water. This allowed the animals to maintain behavior competence and not run over each and engage in impersonal aggression. [iv]

The challenge of observing the family lives of mass murderers would be more subjective since it draws on what people say or remember.  After a family member has committed murder there may be a great deal of denial and/or the inability to recall with any accuracy what family life was like.  In addition, family members may refuse to tell what they recall since it implicates them in a culture of violence. If family members were indicted as co-conspirators to the murders they might have reason to be more factual as to how this person was treated in his family. But of course, they would have to face a sentence for that co-conspiracy.

Could we predict the percentage chance that this or that kind of family life leads to the potential for violence in three out of four families?   What are we up against in doing this?  It’s hard for the human mind to consider many factors.  We can look at multiple factors when it comes to weather but when it comes to looking at our own behavior it’s far harder to see the influences leading to a deterioration in behavior. Conventional wisdom focuses on single causes and effects inside the person, (their brain or their biochemistry), not in the surrounding system. [v]

Let us not forget that there are many survival level reasons that we need the human to be willing to fight and to kill others.   Much of our history has been grounded in violence, in killing and taking territory. Killing, as a function of loyalty to one’s tribe or country is seen as positive and probably has been selected for in terms of evolution. Perhaps it is not so shocking that a few mentally unstable individuals see themselves as “warriors” and go rogue, killing strangers and even small babies

One day we will know if the makeup of family alliances influences the structure of the brain, perhaps there will be evidence that mass murders are programed from seeing others as like us.  Eventually we will understand the way relationships influence us. Those who murder for seemingly no reason and in cold blood, may have had a negatively focused early family life.

Those who came from more positive environments may have been the family hero, and they can follow ethical directions and serve their country.  A percentage of ethical people bear the continuing burden of war, while those who have killed for no real reason can remain untouchable as to their deeds.

The following  note from my father was found atop his photography book with pictures of family life and better times and then the war.  The message seems to  be about understanding the cost and the need for wars, and the pain of ignorance.

IMG_2185

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/which-domestic-abusers-will-go-on-to-commit-murder-this-one-act-offers-a-clue/2017/11/16/80881ebc-c978-11e7-aa96-54417592cf72_story.html?utm_term=.e9f8f34a63b8

 

[ii] https://education.uoregon.edu/users/elizabeth-skowron

 

[iii] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230834868_Empathy_and_Mirror_Neurons_A_View_on_Contemporary_Neuropsychological_Empathy_Research

 

 

[iv][iv] https://nihrecord.nih.gov/newsletters/2008/07_25_2008/story1.htm

[v]

We have significant amounts of research about the kind of interactions that promote a majority of people to harm others under the spell of authority.  This was explained in Stanley Milgram’s 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.  But what do  we think about the way in which the family system  impacts a person, making them capable of mass murder?

At one end of the spectrum there are those who will kill as a part of serving in the armed services.  Then there is a spectrum of those at one end who are aggressive and will punch, kick or bite when provoked. At this end of the spectrum there are a few who are able to strangle others.  Strangulation requires that one get very close, use extreme force and watch someone slowly die.

Researchers have found that strangulation may be a clue to the personality of mass murders.   A link between strangulation and mass shooters is increasingly recognized.  Strangulation as a specific sign of lethality in the context of domestic violence remains largely unknown.[i] This piece suggests that strangulation may be a new clue to help identify a mass murderer.  While the link between mass shooters and domestic violence is increasingly recognized in the lay press and research, strangulation as a sign that someone could become a mass murder has just emerged as a possible warning sign.

The challenge to social scientists is to find ways to identify how specific behaviors emerge from shifts in important relationships. For example, it may be that in triangles, where one person is in the outside position for long periods of time, such individual may not develop a self.  They may become isolated, frustrated and even violent to self or others.

One researcher studying relationship process in early family life is Elizabeth Skowron. She is focused on clarifying the individual and joint contributions of neurobiology and environment to the development of self-regulation and school readiness in at-risk children. Her research also focuses on understanding the neurobiology of parenting at risk children and the mechanisms of change in interventions that are effective for supporting positive, healthy parenting and reducing child maltreatment.[ii]

Confusing, violent or very distant relationships with parents can set children up for a life of frustration and failure. As anxiety goes up the tendency to look for problems in others is an automatic mechanism that kicks in without our asking.  A child can easily become the target. For example, if one parent tries to enforce a rule, then the other must joins in. If he refuses he or she might become the object of negative focus. It is the two against one situation that leads to the outside drawing the negative attention and then becoming the scapegoat.

If the anxiety is not resolved then people divorce or curt off from those who do not agree be they parents or extended family members. All for one and one for all seems to be a common theme in intensely child focused families.  The extreme is reached when it becomes do it my way or die.   the way emotional process works those on the outside upon whom there’s a a negative focus, are at risk of symptoms, extrusion and or violence.

Families with violence have histories of undermining with criticism and negativity anything a child chooses to do. Some children can come out of these positions in the family with an attitude: “I will show you what I can do.” In fact often times we see that those who become presidents of the U.S. (Clinton and Obama)  have had to contend with early loss and negative relationships with parents or the extended family.  Apparently, there are still ways to be resilient when there is enough family flexibility.

A spectrum of child focused families. 

Some families blame the child while others give into a child.   A child can frighten parents. The parents give in and join with the child and eventually the child is undermined by being allowed or even encouraged to have temper tantrum.   Eventually this can result in incredible violence.  The Sandy Hook family displayed years of giving into the child and threatening the child with leaving the area. The Boston Bomber’s family had generations of cut off, disapproval and mixed messages about violence.

How does one think about strangulation as a sign of future violence? Could it be that these individuals do not recognize the other as like self or even human?  Is there is a switch in the brain of mass murderers that sees others as not human, as the enemy?  They have no empathy and or lack working mirror neurons.[iii]

Research may find that strangulation always points to a mass murderer, although I doubt that since there seem to be additional triggers that promote the violence. Often someone important has left or threatens to leave. We may find that there is some relationship between the brain that is capable of strangulation and a person who comes from a family system that is full of intense threats and fears leading to an inability to see and relate to others as “like me”.

Jack Calhoun’s research showed that with animals under stress, an animal can lose the ability to maintain basic behaviors, like recognizing other animals.  Calhoun forced animals to notice each other to cooperate to get water. This allowed the animals to maintain behavior competence and not run over each and engage in impersonal aggression. [iv]

The challenge of observing the family lives of mass murderers would be more subjective since it draws on what people say or remember.  After a family member has committed murder there may be a great deal of denial and/or the inability to recall with any accuracy what family life was like.  In addition, family members may refuse to tell what they recall since it implicates them in a culture of violence. If family members were indicted as co-conspirators to the murders they might have reason to be more factual as to how this person was treated in his family. But of course, they would have to face a sentence for that co-conspiracy.

Could we predict the percentage chance that this or that kind of family life leads to the potential for violence in three out of four families?   What are we up against in doing this?  It’s hard for the human mind to consider many factors.  We can look at multiple factors when it comes to weather but when it comes to looking at our own behavior it’s far harder to see the influences leading to a deterioration in behavior.

Often people revert to look for single causes and effects.  Conventional wisdom focuses on the cause inside the person, (their brain or their biochemistry), not in the surrounding system. [v]

Let us not forget that there are many survival level reasons that we need the human to be willing to fight and to kill others.   Much of our history has been grounded in violence, in killing and taking territory. Killing, as a function of loyalty to one’s tribe or country is seen as positive and probably has been selected for in terms of evolution. Perhaps it is not so shocking that a few “warriors” go rogue and attract their own.

One day we will know if the makeup of family alliances and the pressure put on the young, can be understood as part of the way that some murder in cold blood while others serve their country.

Below a note left for me by my father, Captain Andrew J. Maloney

IMG_2185

 

 

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/which-domestic-abusers-will-go-on-to-commit-murder-this-one-act-offers-a-clue/2017/11/16/80881ebc-c978-11e7-aa96-54417592cf72_story.html?utm_term=.e9f8f34a63b8

 

[ii] https://education.uoregon.edu/users/elizabeth-skowron

 

[iii] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230834868_Empathy_and_Mirror_Neurons_A_View_on_Contemporary_Neuropsychological_Empathy_Research

 

 

[iv][iv] https://nihrecord.nih.gov/newsletters/2008/07_25_2008/story1.htm

[v]