After last week's shooting in Seal Beach, California, in which Scott Dekraai allegedly killed eight people and wounded another at a hair salon, I hearkened back to something a wise psychiatrist once told me: "Premeditated psychosis is a contradiction in terms."
Those in the midst of psychosis or delusion -- as I was in the late 1990s -- tend not to plan anything, least of all violence. Terrified that they are going to be harmed, psychotics may misread situations. In such a case, they may act impulsively to defend themselves but that is very different from the meticulously planned acts of violence we have seen this year from Jared Loughner, Anders Breivik, and most recently Dekraai, the accused gunmen in mass murders in Tucson, Norway, and now Seal Beach.
Loughner is suspected of killing six people and wounding 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, at a town-hall gathering in Tucson in January. He allegedly wrote posts on MySpace in which he asked friends for forgiveness and left behind notes on envelopes at his home with the words, "I planned ahead," "My assassination" and "Giffords."
According to reports, Breivik, who posted online an extremist manifesto that denigrates Muslims, bombed government buildings in Oslo, Norway, resulting in eight deaths, and then methodically gunned down Labor Party youth on an island this past summer, killing an additional 69 unarmed civilians.
Just days ago, Dekraai strapped on a suit of body armor to preserve his life in an anticipated gun battle with police and shot up the hair salon where his ex-wife worked. Prosecutors, who suspect that Dekraai's attorneys may broach the insanity defense, have said that they will seek the death penalty in this case, the worst mass murder in the history of Orange County.
Not only did Loughner, Breivik and Dekraai premeditate their actions, they all displayed an eerie calm following their arrests. Who can forget how Loughner, after being apprehended, immediately told police that he pleaded the fifth? Then there was the smug, almost bemused, expression on the face of Breivik as he was taken away in a squad car. Add to that now the unemotional reaction of Dekraai in the courtroom as he was being jeered with taunts of "I hate you!"
Although the facts differ in each case, such premeditation and remorselessness call to mind Iago, the villain of Othello, who, jealous of the good name of Cassio and Othello, plots their destruction and relishes the collateral damage of others who get in his way.
Iago adheres to a nihilistic code, exemplified by his proclamation, "I am not what I am." One should not understate the depth of evil, a word that still has legitimacy in spite of George W. Bush's overuse of it, at the core of this credo. In attempting to refute Yahweh's "I am what I am" ethos, Iago takes aim at a pillar of Western civilization from the God who gave us the 10 Commandments.
I come back again and again to Iago because it is so clear that he is evil, not mentally ill, a precursor to Hitler, Osama bin Laden and other mass murderers, past and present.
In recent years, the press has gotten more sophisticated about the criminal mind and has done a fairly good job of not immediately labeling these assailants as mentally ill.
For instance, the Los Angeles Times, which earlier this year wrote an editorial praising the Orange County D.A.'s investigation of the Fullerton police department following the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia, has in most of its initial articles on the Seal Beach shooting limited any discussion of mental illness. While there have been occasional references to Scott Dekraai's supposed bipolar disorder and taking of anti-psychotic medication, they have been buried deep in the stories.
The headlines and opening paragraphs have typically focused on Dekraai's custody fight over his eight-year-old son with his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, who was killed in the shooting rampage. And the articles have discussed in some detail a tragedy from Dekraai's past when he severely damaged his leg on a metal cleat in an unsuccessful attempt to save a woman on a boat.
That is not to say that I agree with all of the Times coverage of this story. The headline of one sidebar on the Times blog, "Seal Beach Shooting: Suspect Suffered PTSD From Boat Injury," gave too much credence to the notion that Dekraai is mentally ill. The headline should have either attributed the diagnosis to a doctor, something along the lines of, "Doc: Suspect suffered from PTSD," or qualified the diagnosis, "Suspect supposedly suffered from PTSD." Those would have been more fair and accurate since a diagnosis of PTSD, while not limited to troops who have been in combat, would seem questionable for an adult civilian in this situation.
Undoubtedly, future articles will try to link Dekraai to mental illness. While he was harmed by the death of his friend at sea, as anyone would be, that does not mean that this emotional scar rises to the level of a mental disorder. More than anything else, it appears that Dekraai was angry at his ex-wife.
According to the Times, a restraining order, which had been issued against Dekraai, should have barred him from possessing a firearm. That he got one anyway (actually, three handguns were found in his possession) and that he allegedly committed the atrocities, just days after Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill banning the open carrying of guns in California, reminds us that like Iago before him, Dekraai would not be a mass murderer were it not for his ability to obtain a weapon.
As I argued in a piece earlier this year, legislators at the state and federal level need to write tougher gun laws so as to prevent people like Loughner and Dekraai, who in the one case had brushes with the law and in the other had a restraining order against him, from obtaining guns.
We may debate forever whether or not these murderers are mentally ill. Loughner, as it turns out, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was my own diagnosis back in the late 1990s. But I have never been a threat to anyone but myself. And the same is true of countless others suffering from mental illness including my grandfather, after whom I was named in Hebrew, who took his life years ago.
He and I are far more representative of the mentally ill than any of these killers, who are disciples of Iago.