Witch Hunts and the ‘521 Massacre’

Political correctness and facile explanations prevent us from understanding the factors that lead individuals to engage in extreme acts of violence
Daniel Lin

The May 21 knife attack in the Taipei subway was a heavy blow to Taiwan, an incident whose impact was much greater than the loss of four lives. The MRT system is the pride of Taiwanese and the residents of Taipei more particularly. The impeccably clean environment and the system’s unequaled convenience for commuters have impressed millions of visitors from around the world. The fact that the attack occurred in the MRT has compounded the shock from the young man’s senseless attack.

As expected, the initial reaction by many people was to engage in witch-hunting. Most people seemed eager to get themselves off the hook and therefore started pointing fingers at others. The killer was a young man who was ostensibly frustrated by the many challenges he had faced in his life, and he had allegedly expressed his wish to kill others for many years. Mental illness therefore became the first target of the witch-hunt.

Mental health professionals have long advocated the need to remove the stigma of mentally ill patients. Hence the Taiwan Society of Psychiatrists release, immediately after the incident, of a statement warning the public of the risks of labeling and mislabeling individuals who could commit such crimes. Some commentaries even disputed the link between mental illness and severe crimes (e.g., murders).

However, the untold truth is that accumulative evidence suggests that severely mentally ill patients have a greater risk of engaging in violence. For example, according to a 2011 study conducted by Seena Fazel and his colleagues, patients with psychotic disorders seem to have a higher risk of repeat offending. Furthermore, there has been speculation about possible links between pervasive developmental disorders, such as autism, and violent crime, since at least 50% of children with autism engage in aggressive behavior.

However, due to mixed and contradictory findings, no all studies endorse such a view. Consequently, we need to exercise caution when we interpret these findings, and any attempt to directly attribute mass killings to mental illness may not be the best strategy. That being said, denying outright any link between mental illness and violent crime may also be self-defeating; political correctness often reflects biased opinions based on a lack of evidence, which tends to discourage scientific debate.

Another target of the witch-hunt was the purported influence of violent video games on Cheng Chieh (鄭捷). During the past few decades, video games have become important socializers among youth. Despite the speculation that violent video games may contribute to an escalated risk of aggressive behavior, several Facebook users seem to support the notion that violent video games have nothing to do with the phenomenon. However, a recent report published in the Psychological Bulletin (a highly influential publication in the field of psychological research) has reviewed several studies and concludes that violent video game users may have less empathy and a greater risk of engaging in violent behavior (Anderson et al., 2010). Again, the findings are not the final say, as heterogeneous findings are the norm rather than the exception.

Determining whether the author of the 521 Massacre was mentally ill will require a thorough forensic psychiatric evaluation as supported by a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence. However, before such evaluations can be carried out, many people have quickly chosen to dispute any link between mental illness and violent crime by stating that only a small proportion of criminals have mental disorders. For example, an article in Business Week (商業週刊) claims that scientific evidence does not support the link between schizophrenia (a disorder characterized by hallucinations and delusions) and violent crime, as only 3% of violent criminals are diagnosed with the disorder. The truth is, only 1% of the general population is affected by schizophrenia, which means that schizophrenic patients may have an almost three-fold risk of committing violent crimes compared to non-schizophrenic individuals. The “scientific” view of this article, whose intention was apparently to urge the public to discard the view that mentally ill patients can be a danger to society, turned out to be not very scientific.

The most widely accepted target of the ongoing witch-hunt has been society, which can be more vaguely defined as “the system.” When we blame everyone, or “the system,” we run the risk of missing the real source of the tragedy. Many people expressed the view that the murderer’s parents’ should also be held accountable for the tragedy due to their alleged “poor parenting skills,” despite the lack of any evidence of child negligence or abuse. (Cheng’s parents have nevertheless apologized to society and the families of the victims.)

Mass random killings are a form an extreme violence. Although we have yet to identify any strong predictors to explain such complex behavior, we can reasonably assume that it is driven by multiple biological, psychological, and social factors. Witch-hunts and the facile categorization they engender can discourage efforts to establish a systemic approach to identifying high-risk individuals. As we look into the mirror, we might see our own reflections of fear and may be tempted to get ourselves off the hook. However, we should not let political correctness or personal bias get in the way of exploring the combination of factors that can lead to violent crime. While we emphasize the importance of rebuilding our society with love, peace, and trust, what is also equally important is the need to rigorously establish risk-assessment and monitoring programs to (with fingers crossed) help prevent future tragedies.

Daniel Lin is a psychiatrist and faculty member at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in the U.S. He is also a freelance movie critic and long-term advocate for Taiwan independence.

One Response to “Witch Hunts and the ‘521 Massacre’”

May 29, 2014 at 2:29 pm, mike said:

One aspect of mass murder that is typically missing from the op-eds and commentary is base rates, i.e. the number of attempted but failed mass murders as distinct from those cases in which the assailant actually succeeds in killing numerous people. Of course there are obvious problems with collecting such data (e.g. how can an assailant be classified as a “mass-murderer” if he is stopped before killing anyone?). Yet data on how many such mass murders have been thwarted or partially thwarted might improve public confidence.

In this very case, Cheng was partially thwarted by the efforts of several train passengers and others once the train arrived at the station. Without their successful intervention, Cheng may have killed even more people.

But what of other cases? How many mass-murderers have likely been thwarted by the predictive power of psychiatrists? Since the author argues prospectively for a “systemic model” that will identify high risk individuals, one suspects the answer is either very few, or that it is very difficult to know.

For the time being, I suspect that a middle-aged man with a pointy umbrella has a better chance of stopping killers like Cheng than some “systemic, multi-factor model” in constant need of research funding.


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