The very handsome and benign-looking ten year old was sitting in my office, in my client's chair, looking kind of bored.
I had been asked by his school to assess him for dangerousness. During recess, he had deliberately tripped a classmate and then bashed him over the head with a rock. The other child had sustained a severe concussion and was hospitalized.
Neutrally, I asked him what he was trying to accomplish by doing that.
He looked me in the eyes, smiled a little, and said, "I was bored and I don't like him."
For a long time I practiced as a child and adolescent clinical psychologist, and I've seen my fair share of children and teens who could have perpetrated a Newtown given the right circumstance. So I'm always very interested in the dialogue when people start with the 'why' after an incident, especially when that incident was perpetrated by a child or teen.
There is always the faux navel-gazing which makes me laugh a bit bitterly to myself. "How can this happen?" "They need medication!" "What is wrong with people like this?" "How can we identify them?"
Always with the "how can we identify them?" Followed by the idea that a registry of a particular kind of individual is the solution.
Well, I know how to identify them. I can see them on the bus sometimes. I used to see them on the inpatient unit regularly, and in my office somewhat frequently.
The schools used to call my team up to go out and assess children for immediate dangerousness to self and others, and to psychologically test them to determine whether they were safe to return to school after being suspended. Schools always wanted an absolute answer as to whether this child would act out and harm others. Of course we can never say with much certainty if today is the day, or tomorrow, or next month. All we can say is that as of the date and time of the assessment, the teen does not appear to be planning an immediate act.
But we do know one thing -- one day we will likely read about this child, and see them on the news. They are usually pretty neutral about meeting with people like me, as long as they think their point of view is respected and they don't perceive you as crossing them. They are honest.
They like the attention.
And we know they like the attention.
We also know there's nothing we can do if today isn't the day. Our mental health system is strapped. And even if it wasn't, these are not personality types that have a problem waiting until their day. They know they can't be hospitalized for long. They know they are juveniles or, if adults, many times they aren't planning on coming out of the excitement alive anyway.
What people seem to have trouble accepting is that this kind of behavior is human nature. We are all on a spectrum, a mishmash of scaled personality traits. Some of us are active, some of us are passive, some of us are antisocial, some of us are narcissistic. We all have these traits to a degree. The answer is simple: natural variation in personality and biochemistry creates Columbines, Oklahoma Cities, family annihilators and child abusers. Given the right circumstances we can all go literally psychotic. Systemic and political support for particular personality traits in leaders creates events like the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, Stalinism. And then you have the tendency of normal people to follow orders and happily scapegoat other "tribes", because that's the way we are. When people engage in heroism, it's always phrased in terms of "in extraordinary circumstances, people can do extraordinary things". These situations are not particularly extraordinary. Situations just bring out what is already there.
The problem is that altruism and human-perpetrated evil are two sides of the same coin. Some people will sacrifice themselves for others that they don't even know. Others will sacrifice others they don't know for their own amusement and agenda.
When the Israelis tested Nazi leadership in the hopes they would learn something specific that would prevent such a horrific time in human history from happening again, do you know what they found?
Leadership was maybe a little hung up on pomp and circumstance, orderliness, pagentry and obedience. But the vast majority of Hitler's henchmen? Average men who found a calling and purpose, and recognition for their work.
It is sad to me, having sat in the therapist's chair, that we keep looking to find a way to make these kinds of people "other" and reassure ourselves that these events are anomalies. That we are not bad (whatever that means), that humans are by nature "good" (whatever that means).
These people are not "other".
They are us.
So no registry, no testing, no forced therapy, and no medication will wipe out the fact that people are capable of horrible and awful things.
It's just the way we are. And we need to deal with it.