December 7, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)


The author's defining characteristics of the psychopath are still as relevant today as they were over 50 years ago: the psychopath (today usually called an "anti-social personality") is much like a gourd there's an outside (the "mask of sanity"), but inside there's nothing there. No conscience, no guilt, no remorse. They're great actors, though. In their more disturbed forms they're the serial killers........Cleckley suspected these people were literally monsters, lacking whatever made them human.

Bob Wallace

Most people have a small impact on the amount of happiness or unhappiness in the world. A few people have a great impact. Some make the world a nicer place to be in and some increase the amount of misery many fold.

Some time ago, the TV news was full of Ted Kaczinski, the mad bomber, who injured a number of people with bombs sent through the mail. We were regaled, over and over again, with a clip of him being hauled away to jail. He was grubby, unkempt and looked insane. He fit our stereotype of a crazy person. Years later, we were treated to a similar picture of Timothy McVeigh, the man who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 150 people and injured many more. He, however, was neat and clean shaven. His prison suit was neat. When he spoke, he spoke clearly and softly. Despite this, McVeigh was much crazier, than Kaczinski. If it were possible to predict the behavior of McVeigh, society would be justified in locking him up for life; but it is not possible to predict such behavior. In fact, it is not possible to predict the future at all.

What made this man who he was? I looked to psychiatry for an answer. In 1941, Hervey Cleckley wrote The Mask of Sanity. He described what he called the psychopathic personality, which is now called "anti-social personality disorder." It is considered a classic. The book has been revised four times and is still in print. The worst of the people he refers to was Richard Speck who, in 1967 in Chicago, killed 8 student nurses. He wasn't in the same league as McVeigh. No one who wasn't the head of a government or an army was in his league. Cleckley's description of the psychopathic personality doesn't fit McVeigh at all. All of the people whom Cleckley describes were people whose behavior was self-destructive. Except for that one monumental act, McVeigh doesn't fit. If he hadn't flunked the physical to get him into the Green Berets, he might have been a very successful soldier and would probably have moved up in the ranks. He could have been another George Patton or Douglas MacArthur. He had already developed a general's ability to slough off a large number of deaths as "collateral damage."

Psychiatrists don't usually classify people like McVeigh, kamikaze pilots or suicide bombers as insane. A single delusion isn't enough. That is why I prefer the word "crazy." If everyone who had a delusion were considered insane, there wouldn't be enough room in mental hospitals to house them. Besides, you wouldn't be able to tell the doctors and attendants from the patients. Goethe said, "We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe." Mark Twain said something similar.

If I had to pick a personality type that McVeigh fits most, it would probably be someone who becomes a sports star. Someone with a single drive who does everything that he can to achieve stardom. McVeigh was obsessed with guns, explosives and war. Tiger Woods is obsessed with golf, Venus Williams with tennis.

So what is the difference? I would guess that it might have been what these people were obsessed with. If Tiger Woods hadn't become a grand champion, he might have settled into the comfortable life of a golf pro. McVeigh was concerned with the power of the government. Who isn't? What a rational person (That is the key word: rational) knows is that blowing up a federal building, or embassy isn't going to alter the power of government one bit. The suicide bomber or kamikaze pilot changes nothing, nor do those people who destroy property in protest. Doing what they do is the act of an angry child who breaks his toys. A better analogy might be a child who, to express his anger, jumps out of a six story window. All small children are irrational. The ability to reason grows with time. Anger in a rational adult does not usually lead to a temper tantrum. Some people never learn to associate their acts with the consequences of those acts. Their ability to reason from cause to effect is defective.

A key difference is that McVeigh's expertise was in guns and explosives, not golf or tennis.

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