Book Review: Hearts of Darkness

I recently read* Hearts of Darkness: Why Kids Are Becoming Mass Murderers and How We Can Stop It

This is obviously setting up to be a slightly controversial book from the start. Trying to delve into the psychology of mass killings is fraught with peril.
Hearts of Darkness
This book, however, seems to deliver on its theme.

At its core, the book makes two arguments. Both have merit, but both also lead to questions. At its core, the arguments boil down to this:

  1. Mass killings have become an epidemic, and are a serious issue in their own right that need to be addressed by society.
  2. Mass killings are fundamentally an intersection between the forces of society and severe mental health issues.

I have my issues with both arguments.

First, essentially all statistics on violent crime show that it’s in the decline. So while I’m not going to argue whether or not mass shootings in the dramatic and newsworthy sense are increasing or decreasing [as I haven’t looked at the stats], I’m concerned that the authors didn’t even address the fact that violent crime is decreasing in the aggregate. If you want to make the case that this particular problem is worth addressing, you’d think that including overall crime stats and explaining why this trend increasing in the face of declining crime is worth of a societal response is really necessary.

Second, the argument of the book is quite clear. Essentially all of the killers profiled showed evidence of paranoid schizophrenia. We’re not talking about normal people who went over the edge. We’re talking about crazy people who decided to manifest their version of crazy in a way that causes extreme casualties. But if you assume that these events are increasing, that means we either are seeing an increase in the number of crazy people or we’re seeing something in society that is making crazy people more prone to these events. Unfortunately, the authors don’t seem to justify either argument.

That said, I like the book for its deep investigation into the history of several of these high-profile killers. What they show, with intense research, is that every one of the profiled killers were showing evidence of severe mental schisms. And we’re not talking about depression, or anxiety. We’re talking about hardcore paranoid schizophrenia. Depressed people take their own lives. People who hear voices, or have other similar breaks with reality, are the ones who try to take a bunch of people with them.

The Good:

First and foremost, the book extensively focuses on mental health issues. It essentially states that not all paranoid schizophrenics will become mass shooters. In fact, only a small number will. But it looks into the history of several of these killers and severe mental instability is a pretty darn clear thread woven through their history.

Second, I do like the fact that they don’t fall on the trope of “the kid was autistic, therefore he’s an unfeeling monster” garbage. Yes, autistic people tend to have difficulty relating to others in a “normal” way. No, they don’t lack empathy or concern for others. Autistic people tend to be much less violent than in general. But every time you get into one of these mass killings, the speculation is that the killer is autistic. And in the case of Adam Lanza, it pretty well seems to line up. But the key is that while autistic people tend not to be violent, people who are both autistic and paranoid schizophrenics or have borderline personality disorder just might be violent. Clearly this is an important distinction to me.

Third, this is most certainly NOT an anti-gun book. Despite the fact that the authors are pretty well in favor of gun control, they’re cognizant of the fact that this is not central to the thesis of the book. They do indulge for about 2 pages in the waning portions of the text to suggest that maybe if getting a gun is harder than it is now, that you might see a decrease in these killings. Given the restraint they show throughout the rest of the book, I’ll indulge them 2 pages towards the end.

The Bad:

The “epidemic” claim is not well supported. They throw out a statistic on multiple-death shootings having gone up over the years, but I think to call these “mass” killings in the same vein as a Sandy Hook or Columbine is a stretch. As mentioned before, overall violent crime is in decline over the last several decades, so it’s hard to square this with an epidemic of mass murder. I think if you’re trying to prove an epidemic, the best answer is that with modern communication, we not only know more about these events, and sooner, than we did before, and that in some of the cases the perpetrators were–if not “copycats”–inspired by previous killers. This is made clear in the book, but still I find “epidemic” to be a stretch.

They do a good job of profiling certain killers. But there are many mass killers that are NOT covered here. A skeptical reader is left wondering why not. Now, it could be simple. The authors may simply not have had access to enough medical records or personal history of these other killers to draw a conclusion. It may have been that family and friends or family of the killers were just non-cooperative with the authors. Or, of course, it could be that the authors cherry-picked the ones who supported their premise and left those who did not out. It wasn’t addressed either way, and I think it should have been.

But where the book really fails is to draw a significant conclusion. They clearly have identified a problem and a diagnosis, but when it comes to serious mental disorders, it’s very easy to overreach between acting in the interests of public safety, and trampling the rights of the disabled. After all, a very small proportion even of the mentally ill are likely to go on shooting sprees. How far are we really willing to go to stop this? At best, raising awareness of the issue to identify potential “cries for help” might be the best option, as in a number of these cases, the killers really did need, and express their want of, help to get better.

In their close, the authors point to a number of possible factors leading to this rise. He’re we’re exposed to a litany of the usual suspects. Easy access to guns (and high capacity magazines) is one. Violent video games is another. Leaning left, as they do, they throw out a few more, such as economic issues, globalization, and free speech on the internet. All of these seem to be a bit of a stretch. Hell, they might even want to throw “overpopulation” in there, because more people equals more targets, right? The problem with each of these is that under the right conditions, one can find a study suggesting that these are contributory factors, but it’s never clear just how much of this issue will go away by “solving” any given one of these issues. Nor can we typically agree on the solutions.

Conclusion:

I’m sure this is not an easy book to write. It’s a deeply troubling issue, and one where it’s almost bound to be politicized. Every time one of these events happens, the left and right tend to immediately look for any signs that the killer numbers among the other party. And every time we libertarians see something like Jared Loughner, we immediately worry that someone will assume that all libertarians are going to “go postal” on the Post Office.

This book does a great job to highlight that crazy doesn’t choose a party. And that for the most part, while violent people may kill people, it’s the crazies who are responsible for mass murder. It really is a useful book purely on that point alone. We do have a mental health issue in this country (and other countries do as well), and this is something that should be addressed so that we can help the people at risk of perpetrating these acts.

But the byline of the book includes “and How We Can Stop It.” I think the book fails to deliver on that claim. Now, that isn’t necessarily the authors’ fault. I’m not sure there is an easily-packaged solution that they could put together for us. And much like terrorism, you can win 99 battles out of 100, but that 100th is going to dominate the news cycle. In a country of 300M people, and a world of 7B, the law of large numbers states that perhaps this is simply a problem the world must endure.

At best, they say that these battles are won on the margins, and that with some small changes, like reduced capacity magazines or better control over the sale of violent video games, we might save “some” lives, and that’s better than none. However, I think their politics cause them to minimize the cost to liberty of infringing on our rights to make these improvements at the margins.

In short, the book was a worthwhile read, especially since I see it at Amazon in hardcover for $2.43 right now. At the original print price, though, probably not worth it.

* Full disclosure: I received the book gratis from the publisher as a review copy.

  • Sarah Baker

    Great review.

    I knew I had read, more than once, that mass killings have actually been on the decline. I just googled exactly those words–“mass killings on the decline”–and got a number of hits confirming exactly that.

    Of course, ti always bears remembering the worse school massacre in US history happened in 1927 and did not involve a gun:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bath_School_bombings