Trying to Understand the Boston Marathon Bombing and Other Violent Crimes
Previously published on May 9, 2013
Tragic events like the Boston Marathon Bombing leave people to question why the perpetrators of these violent crimes choose to harm others. All choices have economic, emotional, and social consequences to the decision-maker and others. In fact, even the act of making a choice has costs as the decision-making process takes time and effort that takes away from other intellectual endeavors. A preoccupation with emotional or social issues can very much limit the ability of a person to focus on essential intellectual endeavors. When trying to understand individuals in crisis, such as those on the verge of committing a violent act, it is important to understand their state of mind by looking at what costs these individuals do not consider and what costs these individuals are willing to endure versus what others typically will not.
For example, someone who is in a critical stage of suicide, i.e. thoughts of suicide have been crystallized into worsening suicidal impulses after decades of suffering, struggle to make the choice to live on a daily basis. The decision to live is based on whether or not such an individual can live with the short-term consequences of a given choice or the day's events while decision-making becomes ever more dependent upon emotion, even when inappropriate. Unless a critically suicidal person can find a significant enough purpose to live for, such as having a child, an equivalent love of science, or meaningful job, he cannot progress beyond this degenerative state. Because of the short-term nature of these individuals' reactions to life events and ongoing stressors, these individuals may not be able to address their broader and long-term interests, even when they thoroughly understand those needs.
Suicidal victims eventually regress to a state where they no longer consider social costs, i.e. the impact of their death on others, and economic costs, i.e. personal interests like finances, as their focus is on the emotional costs associated with continuing to live. Similarly, an individual considering a first act of violence narrows his, or her, decision-making capacity to include only a few factors. Instead of recognizing the pain and suffering an act of violence will do to potential victims, or the legal fallout, a would-be attacker might consider the cost of disappointing peers.
For Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the cost of disappointing his brother (social/emotional cost) was likely more "expensive" than the cost of hurting others, being punished criminally, and distressing other family members, if these factors were even considered. For those who have been radicalized, such as Tamerlan Tsamaev, the choice to commit a violent act may depend upon a feeling that the rules of society do not address a critical set of his interests. These individuals feel neglected by our broader society, so the social cost of not acting violently for the approval of a small group of peers is far more costly than the cost of going to prison or being killed.
What makes acts like suicide or violent crimes so mystifying to healthy, well-assimilated individuals stems from the ancient Western philosophies that influence modern day thinking. Much of the world has been indoctrinated by Socrates' assertion that motivation is rooted in the fear of death. Shifted to modern, more accurate terms, motivation is based on an avoidance of discomfort. In ancient Japanese tradition, as an example detached from Western thinking, suicide was seen as an acceptable means of avoiding the discomfort of shame. In a similar fashion, emotionally damaged people use suicide as a means of avoiding emotional pain. In turn, violent criminals use violence to avoid the discomfort associated with having their interests neglected. In other words, they feel a need to "fight back" against what they perceive to be an attack on them by society.
If an individual's decision-making processes have been distorted by an emotional or social deficit, making an economic argument, for example, will have little effect on their actions. As an example, society offers prison time for a violent offense, which is an economic incentive not to commit a crime. Most people make the choice not to cause harm due to the consequences; however, certain violent offenders cannot. FBI and other interrogators have a successful track record with interrogating methods based in efforts to forge relationships with detainees. These methods can be successful, because interrogators recognize and attempt to exploit the emotional and social deficits of their subjects.
Like a suicidal individual, a person contemplating a violent crime, including an act of terrorism, may offer a few subtle hints in order to find an "out," as these people may want to maintain their options, or legitimatize their actions as the only path. For potential terrorists and other outcasts, violent groups, characters, and ideals can fulfill the needs that our broader society has neglected. Where an emotional or social deficit can motivate an act of terrorism or other violent offense, preemptive efforts might be taken to address such emotional and/or social deficits in order to avoid acts of violence.
If investigators, who flagged the young man, had an opportunity to steer Tamerlan Tsamaev's pursuit of his emotional and social deficits into more construction outlets during an interview, they might have been able to motivate him away from terrorism. In short, understanding the decision-making process of those in crisis can help our society both explain and prevent future tragedies.