How could we not? A small group of church members gathered for a week-night Bible study and invited a stranger to join them who sat through much of the study before murdering nine of the group, including the church's pastor. We search for words to describe the act: evil, crazy, mad, insane, senseless, barbarous.
Our television shows have focused on the killings and a torrential flow of commentary in the aftermath. While this was taking place, I was attending a conference in Boston, an educational event for Jungian psychoanalysts. Over lunch with one of my colleagues, we listened to a TV show host who asked a mental health professional, "Was this killing an act of insanity or hatred?" My friend and I looked at each other with the same thought, how would we respond to that question if we were asked, knowing that we may well be confronted with it over the days to come. And, indeed, I have.
The question put to me was this, "How do you as a Jungian Analyst understand such a horrid act?" And I, like others, found myself sorting through a bramble of emotions and thoughts -- grief, anger, fear, admiration for the family members of those murdered saying that they forgave the killer, reflections on the unsettled racial tensions in our country, memories of my own experiences living through the Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement of the 1960's. I saw the faces of so many -- some no longer with us -- who struggled for justice. And I heard the old folk songs that held us together and calmed our anxieties of facing atrocities: "We Shall Overcome," "Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore," and "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."
So I come again to the question of the TV announcer: Was the grisly act one of insanity or hatred? To answer this, I begin by acknowledging at least two very important matters. The first is that I am not a forensic mental health professional. The second is that I have very little information on the killer, his background, or his mental state and capacity. But I do know the following things that I will list as factors to consider as we confront the question above, but also as we face the searing violence inflicted upon people, animals, and the earth itself. What follows is my list of considerations.
-- THE TRIUNE BRAIN. This is a phrase given to us by Dr. Paul MacLean (1913-2007) in his elegant description of the human brain in its long evolution over many centuries. While the description is overly simplistic and fails to account for the intricate complexities of the brain's structure, MacLean's model helps us to understand the brain as a substrate of the psychological-moral-spiritual integration of the human cognitive and emotional life. According to MacLean, as described in his book, The Triune Brain in Evolution (1990), the brain evolved from the brainstem (the "reptilian" brain) around 248-200 million years ago, to the limbic system (the "mammalian" brain) some 205-145 million years ago, and then to the present-day neocortex (the rational human brain), arriving some 55-24 million years ago. As you would expect, the reptilian brain accounts generally for our instinctive life and its fight or flight strategies. The mammalian brain brings with itself the warm-blooded capacity for nurturing, attachment, compassion, and empathy. And the last stage of our human brain, the neocortex makes possible the reality-testing and rational processes of our so-called executive function by which we learn to "modulate" the flow of data through our brain and autonomic nervous system that impacts our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. This capacity to "modulate" our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations is a measure of mental health and morality.
-- PREJUDICE. However, the act of "modulating" is dependent upon what our mind has been educated and trained to perceive as normal, trustworthy, and honorable. What if the mind of a person is prejudiced because of misinformation, superstition, ideology, dogma, family bias, etc. In other words, the social, psychological, religious, and political environment of an individual may be contaminated with prejudices of a very destructive nature. This means we have two levels operating in our brains that may be harmful. The first is the on-going operation of our reptilian brain that can lead us to act out our aggression, to fight because of limited resources or because we feel threatened in some way. But now we can add a second level, the level of prejudice, which is a learned behavior that leads us to mistrust, to see the other person or group as enemy, to feel justified in subduing or killing in a state of extreme xenophobia.
-- RACISM. Racism, then, is an institutionalized form of prejudice. It exists because of conscious and unconscious prejudices, made of misinformation, a lack of personal experience with individuals of the other race, and projections that come out of our own personal insecurities. The deep-seated, long-lasting prejudice of institutionalized racism may be very vitriolic and contain societal injunctions that justify acts of violence toward those "outside" the "in" group.
-- RATIONALIZATION. This is the act of finding and holding reasons to justify a prejudiced belief that cannot exist on its own because it has no rational foundation. The human mind is very capable of forming justifications for its misdeeds when these misdeeds are self-serving.
-- PSYCHOLOGICAL SHADOW. This is the part of ourselves that does not have the benefit of the light of day -- consciousness. Each of us, in the deep recesses of our mind or psyche, harbors thoughts, feelings, and prejudices we are not proud of and in some instances not even aware of. These "ugly" parts of ourselves are not easily admitted through the door of consciousness, so we project them through the cracks of our unconscious.
-- PROJECTION. A projection is the negative quality within ourselves that we do not acknowledge but which we then "see" in others, because we "project" it upon them just as a movie projector projects a picture upon a screen.
-- MORAL CODE. The moral code of an individual is shaped by all the forces that have influenced the individual's development and character. It functions like a compass for morality, pointing toward what is understood to be "right" and what one believes to be "wrong." But a dynamic operating at the center of a person's moral code is an archetypal determinant of an individual's life direction, one's highest value, that which is given ultimate authority, a belief, an ideology for which the individual may be willing to fight and die. Whether or not the individual thinks of himself or herself as religious, nonetheless, this dominant force acts with a compelling power that persuades a person to perform charitably toward others or, on the other hand, to see them as "enemy" and kill them. Here, then, we see how people become terrorists capable of performing monstrous acts. Seized by the numinous and controlling belief, propelled by innate aggression, projecting one's most heinous thoughts, influenced by socially ordained prejudices, individuals slip into the psychologically subterranean world of terrorism and become the outlaw who takes the law into their own hands. Murder, in their eyes, is thereby rationalized and justified. These individuals may exert a compelling influence upon others who have nothing to believe in and/or who are driven to desperate means through hunger and poverty. They fight under the umbrella of terrorism but differ from the true zealots who are seized by the power of their ideology and its numinous, archetypal core.
These considerations listed above may throw some light on the inner world of killings, such as we witnessed in Charleston last week. We are struck by the irrationality, the bizarre cruelty and the difficulty of placing such violence within any context for civilized behavior. And this is my point. When we look at the nature of the human brain, our prejudices, our racism, our rationalizations, our projections, and the shadow side of our moral life, the distinguishing characteristic of a mature, healthy human being is that the individual is capable of modulating thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This enables the experience of empathy, a way of striving to understand others who are different and to care for them. But this is what zealots cannot do, and in that failure they lose their humanity and take the humanity of others.
Now to answer the question. Was the killing an act of insanity or hatred? And my response is that it was neither. That most obscene act was an act of terrorism at the hands of a zealot whose ideology and inhumanity cast him into the darkness of death.