— By Steven Booth —
How do killers justify taking the life of another human being? How do they live with themselves knowing that they ended someone’s life? And do they experience regret which may rise to the level of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their acts? The answer seems to be that they use the tools of dehumanization and compartmentalization which allows them to experience a lack of empathy for their victims, whether through the approval of society or through a sense of self-righteousness.
Thou Shalt Not Kill. An alternate translation of the word “kill” in this context is “murder.” Those are two entirely separate concepts, although they do share the aspect of taking another human life.
Killing is an act; murder is an act against society. In history, it has always been socially acceptable to kill the enemy in a war. In fact, those who kill the most enemy combatants (who, not insignificantly, are dehumanized through propaganda and social conditioning) are considered heroes and protectors of society. How many times in history do we hear about an army going to the enemy city, sacking the town, raping the women, killing the men, looting the spoils, and returning home to the cheering of their people as they are welcomed as the conquering heroes? Killing that is socially sanctioned is lauded, and those who do the most killing are set up as examples of virtue (virtue, by the way, is a Latin term meaning “manliness”). The problem comes in when the killing is not socially sanctioned.
Murder is the taking of human life without social sanction. It is considered an evil act, and those who murder are punished to the extent that the society sees fit, from imprisonment to maiming to death. Murderers must hide their acts, whereas soldiers (i.e. sanctioned killers) wear their acts as a badge of honor. So where do serial killers fit into all this?
Serial killers (particularly psychopathic serial killers) kill to satisfy some internal need (sex, power, and control are a few of the main reasons, and combinations of them are common—it is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into the motivations of serial killers). If there is no enemy of society to kill, which would give the serial killer an opportunity to have his needs met in a socially acceptable way, then they must fill those needs in a way that is not sanctioned. In history, a soldier who killed dozens of enemy men and raped as many women (whether he killed the women afterwards is obscure) could go home to his wife and kids and be accepted back into society. But when that same man murders the men of his own tribe/town/culture and rapes as many women in the same society, he is a pariah. From the point of view of the serial killer, the victims are all cut from the same cloth. He is meeting his needs by killing and raping and other acts against their persons. Society only cares about whether the victims are US or THEM.
Which raises the question, do serial killers get PTSD from killing their victims? This is not to say that people who have developed PTSD from events like combat haven’t murdered. There is overwhelming evidence of this. A quick review of online literature doesn’t provide a lot of information about psychopathic serial killers developing PTSD from their murderous acts, but anecdotally, as someone who has studied serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Westley Allen Dodd, Arthur Gary Bishop, Keith Jesperson, and Ted Kaczynski, the answer appears to be that whether they had PTSD before launching their careers as murderers, they do not develop PTSD from the acts that satisfy their needs (sex, power, control, etc.).
I have worked with veterans in a non-clinical setting, many of whom have PTSD, and it is my observation that PTSD manifests itself in two ways, fear of the traumatic event recurring, and second guessing one’s own actions during the event, causing the sufferer of PTSD to relive the events and trying to find a better response to what essentially was outside of their control. For example, if there was some way the individual could have responded better to the traumatic events, or possibly prevented that event, then they could find peace with it. PTSD, in this view, is like regret on steroids, an overwhelming sense that the traumatic event could have been avoided or dealt with better to avoid the really horrible things that happened.
So, do psychopathic serial killers experience regret from their acts? The answer seems to be yes. Arthur Gary Bishop was a member of the LDS Church and was taught that sex was forbidden outside of marriage, and sex with young boys could not be sanctioned (with good reason). But Bishop had sexualized young boys, and it became such a powerful drive for him that he could not stop finding small boys to have sex with (rape, to be sure). According to serial killer researcher, Dr. Al Carlisle, who interviewed Bishop extensively and wrote “The Mind of the Devil,” which explores Bishop’s history and psychological issues, the choice that Bishop had to make was between “sex and suicide.” He couldn’t stop his drive to have sex with young boys, but he regretted the fact that he was going against God, church, and society, from whom he sought approval. Eventually, Bishop chose satisfying his sexual needs and abandoned his desire to have the approval and sanction of anyone else. His drive to fill his own needs, coupled with an almost complete lack of empathy (which is not to say, sympathy, which he did possess) led him to abandon God, church, and society and to go his own way.
Westley Allan Dodd, another serial killer and child rapist whom Dr. Carlisle studied and wrote about, regretted going to jail for child molestation. Society didn’t approve of his actions, and he was punished for them. But that didn’t deter him from wanting to continue raping small boys. It just drove him to hide his behavior more effectively (by killing his victims rather than allowing them to identify him as a molester and rapist). This is not to say he didn’t seek approval from a higher authority. Instead of God, church, or society, Dodd sought sanction from Satan. In an act that he may or may not have actually believed in himself, Dodd made a pact with the Devil himself, actually writing up a contract and signing it in blood. In gaining Satan’s approval, Dodd could justify his otherwise unacceptable acts and he could feel good about what he was doing. It allowed him to justify his behavior.
Justification and rationalization are very important parts of human psychology, particularly when others are telling the person they are behaving contrary to society. Ted Bundy justified his behavior by going into a dissociative state and fantasizing that his acts were acceptable. When in dissociation, he was in control of the world, and as the most powerful being in his world, he was justified in doing whatever he wanted. The fact that he happened to prefer to have an actual human being (his victim) participate in his violent fantasies to make them more enjoyable didn’t resonate with him. As a psychopathic serial killer, he also had no empathy, as well as very little regret for his actions, because he was justified in doing whatever he must to satisfy his sexual needs.
Returning to the question of PTSD, does the limited regret that psychopathic serial killers rise to the level of PTSD? In my view, the answer is no. PTSD is characterized by reexperiencing the traumatic events, avoidance/numbing, and increased baseline psychological arousal (http://www.criminalprofiling.com/ptsd-and-criminal-behavior/). While the murderer may reexperience the murder and experience increased arousal, there is no evidence of avoidance of the desire to kill or satisfy their needs in a violent manner. In fact, they seek the experience (though perhaps perversely, like someone with a fear of falling who seeks roller coasters) rather than avoiding it.
When someone is in a war situation, they may kill someone every day—sometimes in horrible ways—and because they have the psychological outlet of gaining the approval of their fellow soldiers, they may compartmentalize their behavior by dehumanizing the enemy (or their victims) to such an extent that killing is an acceptable act. Dr. Carlisle often spoke of a German doctor during World War II who did experiments on Jewish victims that went beyond torture just so he could learn more about human beings. Dr. Carlisle would speak about how he would go home every night, have dinner with his family, and sleep well, knowing that the next day he would go back to the work of torturing Jews, whom he had dehumanized and therefore were not worthy of his empathy. This is exactly the same kind of compartmentalization Ted Bundy went through as he attacked, raped, murdered, and dismembered his victims, though not necessarily in that order.
All this boils down to the idea that humans look for some sense of justification to explain away their horrible acts. Whether it’s God/Satan, church, society, or dehumanization, or even the justification of “What the fuck” or “I’m going to hell anyway,” humans will seek the approval of someone or something for their behavior, even if it’s only their own sense of self-righteousness. Ted Kaczynski, when he was about 24 years old, had a kind of psychotic break in which he decided that no one else mattered and he could do whatever he wanted, up to and including murder, just because he could. It was an act of dehumanizing the entire world, but it was still the justification of self-righteousness.
Whether through the approval of society/God or justification of self, the act of killing fails to rise to the level of murder and the trauma of killing another human fails to induce PTSD. In all cases, the killer’s empathy is assuaged, and the killing is compartmentalized into the realm of the acceptable.