Mass Distraction: Equating Mental Illness With 'Evil'

James L. Knoll IV, MD


February 14, 2013

In This Article


"Reason is not driven from her seat,
but Distraction sits down upon it along with her,
holds her trembling upon it
and frightens her from her propriety."
--Lord-Chancellor Erskine, Speech in Defense of Hadfield, 1800[1]

Having spent most of their lives taking multiple-choice tests, physicians will recognize the role of the distractor. Distractors are the incorrect answers that seem plausible, but are nevertheless not the correct answer. More plausible distractors result in a more difficult question.

In the wake of tragic mass shootings, the country's dialogue has been filled with allegations that violent video games, guns, and autism are to blame for recent events. I will leave aside the issue of guns for now, and will most certainly leave alone the issue of video games, as this seems to me to be a rerun of the "Ozzy Osbourne causes suicide" distractor that has fooled us before.

Indeed, through hindsight, such distractions can seem rather amusing if not illuminating, and I'll mention here just 2: heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons (a role-playing game known as "D&D" to the dating impaired). In the 1980s, there was great concern about "Satanism" overtaking American youth, as well as heavy metal lyrics causing suicide. The height of the absurdity was when a number of over-the-hill rock musicians were subpoenaed to court and made to testify and defend their lyrical intentions.[2,3] In the same vein, there was grave concern that D&D would most certainly result in delivering youth promptly into the arms of Lucifer.

As it turned out, the middle-aged rock stars were not incarcerated and went on to star in their own reality TV shows. The dating-impaired youth went on to obtain lucrative employment in Silicon Valley and helped create World of Warcraft, so that the entire cycle could begin anew. Admittedly, today's video games have very impressive visual allure, as well as heavy metal background music. But in the final analysis, I cannot help but conclude that in some 50 or so years we will look back on the video game hypothesis with some amusement.

In the interest of identifying distractors, I would like to address 3 prominent ones which I believe are obscuring our ability to answer the questions before us. The distractors that concern me most as a psychiatrist are the following seemingly plausible, yet incorrect, answers to the questions of how to address the issues of mass murder and violence in our society:

  1. Mental illness is synonymous with violence, criminality, and "evil."

  2. "Cracking down" on people with mental illness with strict regulations will effectively prevent mass shootings.

  3. Gun laws focusing on mental illness will effectively prevent mass shootings.