Psycho-Killer Nation, Part II

Two weeks ago, I wrote a ZNet essay titled “Psycho Killer Nation.”[1] Sparked by sociopath James Holmes’ automatic rifle and pistol slaughter of movie-goers in Aurora, Colorado, the article connected the Aurora tragedy, other terrible U.S. gun massacres, and the nation’s high levels of murder and gun violence to lax gun laws, the related political influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the nation’s violent history, media, and military culture. 

We have already had another gun massacre – the killing of six Sikhs at a temple outside Milwaukee by the psychopathic white supremacist ex- US Army solider Wade Michael Page. The drumbeat of smaller, less spectacular murders (there were 179,000 homicides in the United States during the 2000s) goes on and on. A sidebar to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report I found on the Sikh tragedy[2] reads as follows:




* Supervisor killed during meeting with employee

* Police identify victim of fatal shooting

* Police identify man killed on south side

* Family of homicide victim to join walk for peace

* Man slain outside north side tavern

* Recent graduate killed in shooting

* Feud, fight, broken glasses lead to killing

* Family of slaying victim pleads for help from public

* 2012 Milwaukee killings now total 42

*Two slain in north side homicides


Running through this little slice of mayhem, I reflected on a recent trip I took to southern Ohio where the local television news from Cincinnati was a litany of homicide, one after the other.


The Sociopath 4%


Reflecting on all this and the recent sentencing of the sociopath Jared Lee Loughner, the grinning maniac who gunned down Congressional representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others outside a Tucson shopping center last year, it struck me that I had failed to ask a basic question. Why are there so many sociopaths in the U.S., the nation that U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson once described (in a 2002 speech supporting Congressional authorization of the sociopath George W. Bush’s right to psycho-pathologically bomb and invade Iraq) as “the beacon to the world of the way life should be”? 

You do not have to be a sociopath to kill. Most sociopaths are not killers. Still, one does generally have to be a sociopath to mercilessly and murderously assault masses of people they don’t know.


The Me-First Culture of Guiltless Victimization


A sociopath is someone without a conscience. It is a person who feels no guilt or remorse no matter what they might do, a person with no limiting sense of concern for others. It is a person unrestrained by feelings or thoughts of responsibility, culpability, or shame – a person with ice water in their veins. 

As the clinical psychologist and longtime Harvard Medical School professor Martha Stout noted in her bestselling 2007 book The Sociopath Next Door, reliable methods of psychological testing have determined that 1 in 25 Americans “are sociopaths, meaning essentially that they have no conscience. It is not,” Stout elaborated, “that this group fails to grasp the difference between good and bad; it is that the distinction fails to limit their behavior. The intellectual difference between right and wrong does not bring on the emotional sirens and flashing blue lights, or the fear of God, that it does for the rest of us. Without the slightest blip of guilt or remorse, one in twenty-five people can do anything at all.” [3]   

That’s 12 million U.S. sociopaths. Let’s call them “the 4%.” 

One in 25 is the average for the Western world, but things are different in East Asia, where sociopathy is quite rare and close to non-existent in some locales. What’s the difference about? Sociopathy results from a combination of inherited neurobiological factors (“a significant aberration in the…ability to process emotional information at the level of the cerebral cortex”), childhood family factors, and the broader culture in which people are socialized. There is no evidence that Americans are more genetically predisposed to socio-pathological behavior than East Asians. 

What is clearly different, however, are belief systems and culture. As Stout explained, “from the Wild West of the past to the corporate outlaws of the present, American society seems to allow and even encourage me-first attitudes devoted to the pursuit of domination.” Stout cited Dr. Robert Hare, a psychologist and internationally acclaimed expert on psychopathy and author of the Psychopathy Checklist[4], the standard diagnostic text for researchers and clinicians around the world. Along with a large number of researchers and theorists, Hare finds that (in Stout’s words) “North American culture, which holds individualism as a central value, tends to foster the development of antisocial behavior.” In the U.S., Stout noted, “the guiltless manipulation of other people ‘blends’ with social expectations to a much greater degree than it would in China or other more group-oriented societies.”[5] 

In contrast with the United States’ egoisitic, me-victorious pattern, “certain cultures, many in East Asia, dwell theologically on the interrelatedness of all living things. Interestingly,” Stout added, “this value is also the basis of conscience, which is an intervening sense of obligation rooted in a sense of connectedness. If an individual does not, or if neurologically he cannot, experience his connection to others in an emotional way, perhaps a culture that insists on connectedness as a matter of belief can instill a strictly cognitive understanding of interpersonal obligation.”[6]


The Corporation as Sociopath


Here Stout might have added something important. Four yours before she published The Sociopath Next Door, the Canadian law professor Joel Bakan published the widely read volume (subsequently adapted into a popular film documentary) The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power – an analysis of the nation’s dominant institution as a fundamentally pathological entity. Noting that the U.S. judiciary essentially defined corporations (e.g. U.S. Steel and Standard Oil) as legal “persons” by the end of the 19th century, Bakan asked what kind of “person” American and global corporations are. His answer: a sociopath. 

It’s not only or even mainly about “corporate outlaws.” It’s about standard and fully legal – indeed legally directed – operating procedure. The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue relentlessly and without exception its investors’ economic self-interest, regardless of any harm it may cause to others and the common good along the way. Interestingly enough, Bakan asked Dr. Hare to evaluate the modern corporation against his acclaimed Checklist. The results were chilling:


‘…Hare found there was a close match. The corporation is irresponsible, Dr. Hare said, because “in an attempt to satisfy the corporate goal, everybody else is put at risk.” Corporations try to “manipulate everything, including public opinion,” and they are grandiose, always insisting “that we’re number one, we’re the best.” A lack of empathy and asocial tendencies are also key characteristics of the corporation, says Hare – “their behavior indicates that they don’t really concern themselves with their victims”; and corporations often refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions and are unable to feel remorse: “If [corporations’ get caught [breaking the law], they pay big fines and they continue doing what they did before anyway. And in fact in many cases the fines and penalties and the penalties paid by the organizations are trivial compared to the profits they rake in.”….Finally, according to Dr. Hare, corporations relate to others superficially – “their whole goal is to present themselves to the public in a way that is appealing to the public [but] in fact may not be representative of what th[e] organization is really like.” Human psychopaths are notorious for their ability to use charm as a mask to hide their dangerously self-obsessed personalities. For corporations, social responsibility may play the same role.’[7] 

The fact that the leading institutional force and form in U.S. economic (and political and cultural) life – giant, for profit corporations – are institutional sociopaths is no small matter when it comes to understanding the societal milieu that generates 12 million individual sociopaths in the U.S. Most of the 4% are comparatively small time harm-doers but a certain number hold key positions of power and the anonymous mass include a small but deadly cohort who become lethal partly thanks in part to a corporate media that socio-pathologically glorifies and legitimizes deadly mass violence and to a corporate gun industry that socio-pathologically makes preposterous levels of firepower and ammunition available to killers – “natural born” and culturally manufactured alike. 


American Sociopathic Militarism


Another cultural factor that Stout mentioned in The Sociopath Next Door was militarism. War-making states heap glory on “steel-cold killers,” whose capacity for guiltless slaughter is seen as a “special aptitude” by military officials and their allies. “From Rambo to Baghdad [and Fallujah – P.S.], the glorification of killing – the glamorization of the deepest infraction of normal conscience – has been a lasting feature of our mainstream culture, and may well be the most pernicious environmental influence of all on the vulnerable sociopathic mind in our midst,” wrote Stout.[8] Her passage reminds me of how eerily appropriate it was that James Holmes’ rampage occurred at a midnight showing of yet another mass-murderous high-tech Hollywood blood-and-guts extravaganza. 

Stout found nothing distinctly American about the cultural influence of militarism since, “nearly all societies – Buddhist, Shinto, Christian, and purely capitalist – make war.” [9] Here she faltered in a way that matters when it comes to understanding the presence of an especially lethal brand of sociopathy in American life. The United States, after all, accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but for nearly half of the world’s military spending. It’s gigantic “defense” budget pays for an historically unmatched global killing machine that maintains more than 1000 military installations across more than 100 “sovereign” nation (the use of the word “defense” to describe its sprawling empire is itself a testament to the Orwellian sociopathy of public relations). America’s culturally celebrated military slaughters untold millions of innocents, freely dispatching masses of officially designated distant others to early graves both directly (as when bombs or drones level an Afghan or Pakistani village or the Marines attack ambulances, homes and hospitals in Fallujah) and indirectly (as when U.S. airpower destroys water treatment plants to cause an epidemic of deadly water-borne diseases). They do so with savage Orwellian impunity, remorselessly denying criminal behavior and citing their purported allegiance to higher and benevolent ideals like peace, freedom, stability, and development. 

Some of the guilt-free killing takes place with joysticks modeled on video game hardware, manipulated in climate-controlled homeland compounds. “To close the circle between virtual entertainment and remote killing,” the urban theorist Stephen Graham notes, “control panels for the latest US weapons systems – such as the latest control stations for the pilots of armed Predator drones, manufactured by…Raytheon – now imitate the consoles of PlayStations, which are, after all, very familiar to recruits.” [10] It doesn’t get much more sociopathic than that. Dark Knight indeed.




Something else deserves mention here: race. The ease with which America’s trained killers blast and bomb remote villages into oblivion (both in video games and in reality) is often furthered by the targets’ non-white identity. We cannot fully understand the depth and degree of American sociopathy without factoring in the role that the nation’s long tradition of white supremacy plays in denying humanity to victims of oppression and violence. The likelihood that a perpetrator will feel guilt about killing or otherwise harming others falls with the designation of his victims as less-than-human: as, for example, “hajis,” “towel heads,” “sand-niggers,” “gooks,” “slants,” “slopes” and the like. The prominent racist skinhead Wade Michael Page certainly murdered without guilt largely because of a belief that his targets (who he likely falsely identified as Muslims) were inferior beings, unworthy of human existence. From the nation’s blood-soaked Indian-killing founding up through and beyond its epically mass-murderous assault on Iraq, racism has played a prominent role in Americans’ icy propensity to kill, harm, and oppress without conscience, guilt or regret. The United States’ unnecessary and stunningly sociopathic use of two atom bombs at the end of World War II was unimaginable against white Germany but all-too-tragically more-than-imaginable against non-white Japan.



For a Reduction of Insanity


I can almost hear the members my friendly local NRA chapter clucking after looking over this essay. “See, it’s not about guns. It’s about the culture and the society. It’s about people. People kill people; guns don’t kill people. Sociopaths kill people. Apparently there are a lot of them out there: we better get armed up!” 

Well, it’s true, of course, that you wouldn’t have mass gun slaughters without sociopaths. But if the U.S. is all too full of sociopaths thanks to its capitalist, corporate, militarist, and racist (and sexist and eco-cidal) culture, then that just makes it all the more insane and irresponsible for this nation to make military-style semi-automatic weapons and ammunition mini-stockades as absurdly available as they are in the U.S. today. If the NRA’s dream of everyone being armed and packing heat in public ever comes true, moreover, gun deaths will accelerate dramatically and more sociopaths will be weaponized than ever before. And that would give new meaning to the term “Wild West.” 

In the long run, the problem of sociopathy requires a great cultural transformation. It calls us to move from the dominant amoral paradigm of me-victorious and the spiritual death of individualistic accumulation to the creation and cultivation of community, equality, democracy, and the common good. In the short term, however, we can reduce the danger that the sociopathic 4% (most of whom are not murderers) present with minimally sane gun control and a concerted effort to reduce and perhaps even eliminate the sickening adoration of deadly violence that is so perniciously prevalent in the dominant mass media. 


Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com 


Selected Endnotes 

[3] Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door (New York: Broadway Books, 2007), 9.


[5] Stout, The Sociopath, 136-137.


[6] Stout, The Sociopath, 137.


[7] Joel Bakan The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (New York: Free Press, 2004), 56-57.


[8] Stout, The Sociopath, 139.


[9] Stout, The Sociopath, 138.


[10] Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London: Verso, 2011), xxv-xxvi.

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