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Opinion

May 30, 2014

Latest tragedy involves individual having death drives instead of life values

News recently focused on the latest incident of indiscriminate killing by a mentally ill person. Actually, every such act of violence has a mental illness dimension.

In the most recent killings by Elliot Rodger, his mental illness was obvious but only after the fact. In contemporary U.S. culture, we tend to ignore psychological factors and depend exclusively on police and gun laws to protect us. The police were called by worried parents after they saw their son’s online video.

Not surprisingly, the police missed the background mental illness. In fact, the young man’s violent aggressiveness was even missed by mental health workers who had examined him and tried to treat him.

This latest American tragedy shows that even though deep inner aggressiveness is a dimension of many serious mental illnesses, it can be difficult to recognize even for mental health workers. Thankfully, responsible public institutions like churches and libraries are “picking up the ball” by providing public educational programs about mental illness, and about the underlying aggression and hostility toward both self and others.

Mentally ill people suffer from inner conflict. This was more than obvious in Elliot Rodger. He wanted love and sex and public recognition. When these were denied him, inner aggression and violence took over. Elliot Rodger felt nothing but conflict between what he wanted and what others were willing to give him.

His adolescent and early adult human experience was one of conflict between himself and others, between his sexual drive and what women in society were willing to provide him. In this atmosphere of conflict, aggression and hostility took over and resulted in indiscriminate violence. Too bad that his surrounding U.S. culture did not provide access to people who could have reduced his hatred and hostility or alerted the public to the danger which he posed.

Human beings need to be taught to relate to others in helpful and protective ways. This important inner formation can be aided by religious practice and by some level of psychological education. Elliot Rodger was intelligent. His 141-page written explanation of his situation shows his intelligence. But this same document also shows the absence of either religious experience or psychological insight.

He was left with only his aggression, hatred and hostility. His innocent victims exemplify the price to be paid for this failure in our culture. The Elliot Rodger case shows that Freud’s psychology and therapy, which today have become marginal, still have a place and need recognition.

Freud’s sexuality-based theory does not explain all forms of mental illness, but it sure sheds needed light and therapeutic direction on the Elliot Rodger case. His sexual frustration was obvious in his videos, in his written manuscript and finally in his indiscriminate violence against innocent people. Education in Freudian psychology and some religious experience would have promoted restraint as well as more loving attitudes and ways of being.

Properly educated and religiously formed human beings do not kill. They love one another, love their animals, love their communities. They even love their enemies and do good to those who hate them. When this education and formation is absent, aggression and destruction can take over. Elliot Rodger is an example of this.

It would be an oversimplification to reduce our complex human existence to dual drives of love and hate. This philosophical model, however, does provide insight into the behavior of people like Elliot Rodger. It helps a society to recognize his behavior as pathological and supports efforts to modify such aggressive drives by teaching how to practice love and care.

These are core Christian values, but religion cannot be taught in our public institutions. These dual values, however, can be taught separate from religion. Psychological and ethical theory can be taught, as well as a dual drive theory, which places loving and caring over and against hostility and aggression. Such education would at least help students to recognize their negative impulses for what they are. Such education would modify hatred and hostility, perhaps keep them from being expressed in violence.

Elliot Rodger’s behavior was a clear example of what Freud called the death instinct. If only Elliot had learned to recognize his aggressive and destructive drives for what they are, and recognized their need for modification, perhaps his crude, violent expression of them could have been avoided. What he lacked was a way of evaluating his hostile aggressive drives; seeing them over and against loving and caring ways of being.

Elliot’s written document shows his intelligence. But it also shows that he did not recognize his aggressive hatred and hostility as evil. And he did not recognize their opposites, love and care, as good. Elliot lacked the moral education to recognize his inner drives as roots of evil which make him a danger in society. Elliot also lacked an understanding of the importance of developing loving and caring ways; life values rather than death drives.

James Drane, Ph.D., is the Russell Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

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