Two horrific events have dominated the media – the Austrian dungeon of horrors of the Austrian Josel Fritzel and the familicide in Waterford. What struck me about much of the media coverage was the consistent response of commentators not being able to understand how any human being could perpetrate such violations on spouse or children or adult daughter. This pessimism serves only to perpetrate the possibilities of such tragic events re-occurring. The suggestion that Josel Fritzel is ‘insane’ is not helpful because mental illness labels serve to distract from reality.
I know of no infant that emerges from the womb wanting to terrorise, violate, who has a gun in hand or a hypodermic needle to put self into oblivion or with a blade to cut self with! And do those learned individuals who are puzzled by man’s inhumanity to man in these recent heart-rending events, are they equally non-plussed by genocide, suicide, torture by Americans of suspected terrorists, suicide-bombings by anti-establishment groups, murder of family members, particularly daughters of fundamentalists? When we fear the annihilating actions of others, we become victims and are in danger of turning a blind eye to atrocities that are domestic, local, national and international. Given the mental paralysis to the recent response tragedies, the wise old saying ‘when good men do nothing, evil thrives’ seems fitting. The word ‘evil’ is the inverse of the word ‘live’ and it is my belief that when individuals do not live their own lives, there is great danger that the absence of their own living can result in either the taking of their own lives or the freedom or dignity or lives of another. Aristotle puts it so well: ‘A life unexamined is a life not lived.’ Have you observed also that the inverse of the word ‘lived’ is ‘devil?’
In my experience, no matter how appalling is the human action, there is always a reason and an intention to it. In understanding a human behaviour, the aim is not to excuse the behaviour; rather the purpose is to ‘get below it’, so that the person, persons or group or government can be helped and supported to take responsibility for the violations perpetrated. Taking responsibility is only possible when individuals are provided with the physical, intellectual, emotional and social safeties to examine their actions.
In my years as a therapist, I have encountered the most disturbing actions between people and by a person towards self. It certainly is the case that when an individual possesses a solid interiority, an inner stronghold, he or she neither threatens the person nor the behavioural expression of another. When individuals have experienced harsh and violent abandonments in childhood and these have not been therapeutically resolved, there is a great danger that they subconsciously perpetrate the very horrors they experienced on others or on themselves. Society abandons those children who exist in appalling circumstances of neglect and then has the audacity to show surprise when these children, as adults, threaten the welfare of others. We have not seriously adopted the truth in the old African saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ More accurately, it takes a world to raise a child, and it is the sad reality in Ireland that it is only now the rights of children are being seriously considered. What is also crucial is that the rights of adults to have the opportunities to resolve their terrible hurts from childhood be provided. Furthermore, when adults get into positions of power – become a parent or teacher or a manager or a politician or a policeman etc – and they are carrying unresolved emotional baggage from their places of deep hurt and vulnerability, they can wreak physical, emotional, intellectual, behavioural, social and spiritual havoc. The more power they have, the greater the threats to others or themselves or to both. The future of society lies with mature adults and the benefits children derive from these adults’ self-reliance.
It is not good enough to say that human atrocities are an inexplicable part of the human condition. On the contrary, as humans we have the immense intelligence and creativity to make sense and order out of what can often appear to be a senseless and orderless world. However, we need to be in a mature place ourselves to appreciate this. Most of all, political, educational, medical and social leaders need to be in a solid and mature place. Sometimes, it is difficult for the grass roots of the majority to penetrate the hard rock of the intransigence and social blindness of people in power places.
When looking to understand particular human tragedies, it is imperative to know that what lies behind any tragic event is unique and any generalising will cloud that important reality.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of several books on practical psychology, including The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.