This examination of anthropoktonos, “man, murderer of man,” is written while a spate of mass killings around the world are still fresh in our memories and that have many of us asking: why do people kill?
Anyone interested in such macabre information can quickly find long lists of incidents where murderers have killed dozens of people to get their moments of infamy. There have been more than 1,000 people murdered in mass killings in the U.S. in the past seven years. School children, theatre goers, and people in shopping malls are easy targets for what we like to label as madmen.
Of the top 10 school massacres documented around the world, five took place in the U.S., claiming 131 victims. Canada is in the top ten, too: Mark Lepine killed 14 women at a Montreal university in 1989. Click the link: See the grim list of school shootings.
But it’s not only the mentally ill who kill. In fact, it could be your totally normal next-door neighbor. That’s the most disturbing finding in this book.
“I have seen the enemy, and they is us.”
The well-known quote from Pogo cartoonist Walter Crawford Kelly invariably brings smiles when viewed as jest, but the genius of the double entendre comes from exposing the truth that human nature is more murderous than funny.
Many argue that murder is an aberration. Only crazy people kill other people.
The definition of aberration is “deviation from normal.” Murder seems quite normal in our world.
For the year 2010, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime cites 468,000 intentional homicides globally.*
Whether it offends our sensibilities or not, and the reasons we have for killing notwithstanding, we are the problem. Human cognitive processes, attitudes, decisions, behaviors, and actions see 53 people murdered every minute around the world.
Think about it. Fifty three lives snuffed violently in about the time that it’s taken you to read this far.
Zeroing in geographically, there are 14,000 people murdered every year in North America: 38.4 every day. Were it not for fast ambulances and good emergency rooms, the number of murders globally would be tripled or quadrupled — 1.87 million!**
In the pages that follow, I make the case that it’s human nature to murder and to war. It’s not a difficult case to assemble because the evidence is so compelling.
The definition of murder is simple: “The unlawful, premeditated killing of one human being by another.”
Incredibly, 91% of men and 84% of women have thought about murdering someone. These statistics come from Dr. David M. Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin after his study of 400,000 FBI murder files and in-depth probes into the minds of 400 murderers.
There has been much debate and research through the years about why people kill. All this examination has produced a rather confused analysis with no simple answers. But that’s as it must be, because the reasons we have for killing are many and thus, so is the number of explanations.
Murder on our minds
You’ll read about specific emotions that make people murderous and about violent offender typologies, important information that sheds light on common psychological motivators that move people to murder. But here, in brief, are some of the over-arching explanations:
- genetics/sociobiology: the natural born killer theory (this is controversial, but it has many adherents)
- evolutionary psychology: how have millions of years of evolution shaped our emotions and violent tendencies?
- predisposition: some people move quickly to uncontrollable anger (similar to some animals; one breed of dog will tolerate extensive prodding, while others will retaliate after a single poke)
- environmental influences: killing is condoned, or in situations where people strike out after being abused
- self-interest: cavemen killed to protect food supplies and necessities, today we kill for money, property, sex, politics, religion, et al
- psychological trauma: anger, fear, loss of self-esteem, desperation
- self-preservation: kill or be killed
- aberrance: mentally ill
If you search media reports in any given news cycle, you can find examples that fit any and all of the foregoing murder categories. But there is a constant that should not be overlooked or minimized. Humans have a proclivity for killing as individuals and also a propensity to pursue war as a collective. We’ve been killing each other for hundreds of thousands of years, so it’s strange that anyone would deny that murder is part of human nature.
It’s the option we resort to when some need that we see as vital is not met, when a psychological breakpoint is reached, and when the need for disambiguation is so powerful that we are compelled to react to force some sort of resolution.
Not everyone is a killer, but almost everyone, in the right circumstance, will kill.
Neurologist Dr. Jonathan Pincus, in the book Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill?, looked into the family and medical history of serial killers and other violent criminals to determine the triggers for murder. Pincus writes that virtually all suffered severe abuse as children, as well as brain damage and mental illness, and concludes that “violent criminal behavior is the catastrophic product of a dysfunctional brain coupled with an abusive environment.”
Pincus is correct, but only partially. Many murderers weren’t abused and aren’t insane. This is why our capacity to murder is really frightening. Pushed far enough, that killer could be you or me.
From the book War, Murder & Human Nature: Why People Kill, available on Amazon and Kobo as an eBook: $2.99.