Why Adam Lanza did it, and why he didn’t

A team of forensic psychologists is currently stationed in Connecticut looking for the motivation behind Adam Lanza’s tragic massacre of 20 children last week.

Morgan Freeman is right to suggest that the focus be placed not only on gun law, but also investment in mental health. With one key caveat – that we actually seek to understand the behaviour, rather than simply applying the label. Thus far, Lanza’s behaviour has been explained by Asperger’s, Autism, even Schizophrenia. These explanations seem to comfort the general public, while undoubtedly infuriating those who carry the social burden of these labels their entire lives, yet successfully manage not to kill anyone.

As was the case with Anders Breivik and Seung-hui Cho, Adam’s ‘mental illness’ is a convenient go-to rationale to tick a box and put in a box what is in fact a deeply complicated crime. ‘Why did he do it?’, people ask. The answers are either ‘Too many guns in America’ or ‘He had Aspergers’. Whilst I disagree with the NRA’s assertion that ‘guns don’t kill people’ and agree with Eddie Izzard’s ‘but the gun helps’, the deeper psychological explanation for these atrocities is often overlooked.

Consider, in this case, the dynamic between Adam Lanza, his education and his mother. Lanza has been described as a ‘tech geek’ who clung to a laptop in a briefcase rather than the traditional ruck-sack. He was ‘camera-shy’ and ‘didn’t make an effort to interact with anybody’. His mother ‘pushed him really hard to be smarter and work harder in school’, even extricating him from the US educational system to school him privately at home. All of this in a house where guns were both on show and actively used.

What all the reports seem to forget is that Adam killed his mother first, and then used the same weapons kept in his home to kill 20 school children. The reductionist and sensationalist explanations offered in the press are nothing but a cheap cop out. Mental illness alone did not cause this crime, nor did guns. However the contamination of these factors with Lanza’s educational, social and family dynamic offers greater insight. Here is a young man who became used to being told he was an outcast, that he wasn’t good enough for school (nor it for him) and that exclusion to study at home was best. He was labelled as ‘personality disordered’ by his brother and a ‘weirdo’ by his schoolmates. Without this ostracism, I don’t believe mental illness and/or access to guns would have led to murder. But put these elements together and you have a case first for an inexorable descent into unhappiness, then anger (relieved, at least for a time, through violent video games and temper tantrums), and finally hate.

There is no condoning of such appalling acts. Such vile deeds are indeed vile, and any search for understanding will always be superseded by outrage. This is natural. But our anger will not be vindicated by focusing on guns alone, nor our anguish assuaged by focusing on mental illness. If President Obama wants to stop such atrocities from occurring again, America must examine the systems and environments in which such crimes take place. Schools everywhere must examine their ability to encourage, as well as chastise students. In Adam Lanza’s case, the red pen was linked to the red mist.

These inquiries will be hard and time-consuming. They will require patience and curiosity as well as outrage and condemnation. They will not give the easy answers offered by the press in search of the latest cash-cow. But they might, just maybe, reduce the incidence of such tragic and heartbreaking events.