What We Can Learn From Mass Murderers

Some would like to see the young man who killed four people on the MRT last week put to death as quickly as possible, but doing so would be a mistake

Flickr CC: Amy Wong

J. Michael Cole

“Nothing happened to me … I happened.” Thus spoke Hannibal Lecter is Thomas Harris’ masterly psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs. This was perhaps Hannibal the Cannibal at his most disingenuous, or at his weakest, as he refused to discuss what made him into the psychopath that he was. The seemingly inexplicable act by the 21-year-old Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) on the Taipei MRT last week, which left four people dead and 22 injured, raises the same question that Hannibal Lecter wanted to avoid answering: What made him happen?

Such inquiry is more than sheer intellectual curiosity. Identifying the factors that shape and motivate individuals like Cheng to commit random acts of violence is a necessary endeavor that can help us prevent future atrocities. That is why we should avoid yielding to vengeful impulses or political expediency and not seek a swift trial and execution for Cheng, however tempting doing so might be as society recoils from his actions.

This is not a question of whether the death penalty can succeed in deterring psychopaths from committing mass murder: It doesn’t, since mass murderers and serial killers do not weigh costs and benefits along rational lines (furthermore, some of them, like Cheng, seem to actually desire martyrdom, either because they are incapable of taking their own lives or for reasons of self-aggrandizement). Rather, the object here is the study of what makes atypical characters do what they do, the components of their nature and environment that prompted them to commit acts that ordinary people would regard as inconceivable. Only by studying and interviewing psychopaths — and to do this they must be alive — can we establish behavioral models that can help predict the actions of others, if not prevent future massacres. That is why investigators (like FBI agent Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs) often turn to psychopaths to help identify serial killers on the loose, because they, above all, are cognizant of the things that make them tick. In the absence of such sources, we can fall back on scientific models, which can only be established if we study killers like Cheng.

Society needs to understand why a young man who had a tendency to keep to himself did the unthinkable. What Cheng was not is a serial killer, a category of psychopaths who tend to very methodically choose their victims based on a series of criteria (e.g., gender, hair color, age, personality, and so on) and who derive gratification (sexual, spiritual) from doing perverse things to them. Cheng’s victims were random. And unlike serial killers, he did not seem to derive any pleasure from the act of killing them. He therefore falls in the category of mass murderers, which itself has a number of subcategories, including terrorism (killing for political or nihilistic purposes, e.g., al-Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo), familicide (attainment of power, e.g., the Nepalese royal family massacre), or genocide (the extermination of a race, again for predominantly political purposes, e.g., Rwanda).

Traits that Cheng and many mass murderers have in common with most serial killers include sociopathic behavior, an accompanying sense of being victimized by society, a strong narcissistic streak, and an inability to empathize. Most also tend to be male. In that regard, Cheng reminds us of Elliot Rodger, the young gunman who killed six people at the University of California at Santa Barbara on May 23, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the authors of the Columbine High School massacre. Most mass killers in the non-terrorist/genocidal/familicide category felt they needed to do “something big,” which is a phrase that Cheng is said to have repeated on several occasions. Their impulses were driven by an “us” versus “them” mentality and a narcissistic desire for recognition, to leave their mark in history.

Some of the factors that shape mass murderers and serial killers are undeniably to be found in the individuals’ biological makeup, their DNA or imbalances in their brain chemistry. This is the nature argument, Hannibal Lecter’s “I happened.” There is a high probability, however, that nascent psychopaths are also shaped by their environment, most predominantly the family (hence the oft-asked question, “What is your relationship with your mother?”). An abusive family environment, a nagging/promiscuous mother, or bullying in the schoolyard, among others, are recurrent red flags. This is the nurture side of the argument. In Cheng’s case, there is reason to believe that lack of family cohesion may have been a compounding factor in his behavior, but this has yet to be ascertained with certainty. As with almost everything else, nature and nurture probably both play a role in the transformation of otherwise normal individuals into psychopaths who act on their violent impulses.

Every society has them, but mass murderers and serial killers seem to be more prevalent — at least those who take action — in some parts of the world than others. Taiwan, for example, has had very few cases of serial killers, and (non-political) mass murderers are also rare. Understanding what drove Cheng to do what he did could help us shed light on why there have been few instances in this society, and whether shifting environmental factors (and if so, which) might lead to a greater incidence. The rarity of such events also explains why the Taiwanese public seems reluctant to ask those questions and why, unlike the U.S., Taiwan doesn’t seem to have any criminal profilers.

Cheng’s actions have traumatized the nation, and he certainly deserves to be punished for them. Whether he should be put to death is for society to decide, though this author is of the opinion that capital punishment doesn’t work, comports great risks (one clear example is the wrongful execution of soldier Chiang Kuo-ching [江國慶]), and perhaps even creates incentives for those who seek martyrdom to kill as many victims as possible so as to meet the criteria for state execution. Nevertheless, the troubled young man also offers us an extraordinary chance to learn from his actions. If we’re lucky, he may even yield information that could help identify similarly deranged individuals and prevent future atrocities. At the very least, the judicial process should not be accelerated out of desire for vengeance or so that the government can score a few political points by demonstrating that it is tough on crime. Or simply because society prefers to ignore the fact that monsters do walk in our midst.

J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

8 Responses to “What We Can Learn From Mass Murderers”

May 25, 2014 at 11:19 pm, Tom said:

Death penalty would actually be a favor for him, since “[h]e also told police he found it “distressful” to live, but because he had no courage to kill himself, he decided to carry out mass murder so he could receive the death penalty.” (SCMP)
Why not let him rot in jail indefinitely?


May 26, 2014 at 1:18 am, Koko said:

I think we can and should learn from this case to identify what the risk factors are to push an individual like Cheng to randomly kill people in Taipei. Research has shown that death penalty is costly, makes mistakes of killing the innocent people, and is not an effective deterrent for future crimes like mass killing. The debate should not be whether nature or nurture makes people develop psychopaths. Michael did point out the interaction between nature and nurture in human development, which is what current researchers try hard to understand. I think that Taiwanese government should not execute Cheng right away just because the general public shows anger at him. Instead, this is a very strong awakening call for Taiwanese society: There must be something wrong, ranging from individuals, families, schools, to further societal structures. We need to understand his development more to figure out where to intervene. What the Taiwanese government just did, increasing police forces on MRT, would not solve these complex problems.


May 26, 2014 at 5:52 am, Shaun David Corrigan said:

Actually, Cheng would be classified as a ‘spree killer’ – not a ‘mass murderer’ – and certainly not a ‘serial killer’ such as the fictional Hannibal Lecter ! The comparison between Harris and Klebold is therefore much more pertinent, but I would suggest letting the dust settle, and emotions cool before trying to analyse the events. It was and is a tragedy, let us leave it there for the moment.


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