As a mystery writer versed in the annals of crime, I am keenly aware of the human capacity for atrocities, like the mass shootings that have plagued America for more than two decades. Behind one mask or another, monsters have always walked among us.
For much of human history, however, the monsters most remembered came from upper classes, from wealth, power and privilege. Thus, 15th century Breton lord Gilles de Rais could fight alongside Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years’ War and emerge afterward as one of the most prolific child killers of all time. Wallachian ruler Vlad III became known as Vlad the Impaler and inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Monsters like Tiberius and Caligula employed other monsters, like the poisoner Locusta, to secure their power.
Though they predate the work of Hervey Cleckley, whose 1941 book “The Mask of Sanity” popularized understanding of antisocial personality disorders, contemporary accounts of those mentioned above suggest the lack of empathy typical of those once called psychopaths is not new to our species. In fact, some experts believe 1% to 3% of any population might qualify for the now outdated label.
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But everything evolves – institutions, customs, governments, organizations, technology, weapons and democracy. As the social status and importance of the individual rises, so grows the possibility that more monsters will manifest.
The hatred of women that propels some of today’s mass murderers pushed Jack the Ripper to murder five London prostitutes in 1888 and Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo to murder 13 women in the 1960s. Would a weapon of mass destruction – like an AR-15 – and social media have changed the nature of each man’s attacks on the opposite sex? Worse, would a livestreaming Ripper or Strangler have inspired abundant copycats to seek a name for themselves?
The racism that inspired the recent shooting of African Americans at a Tops market in my old neighborhood is a modern iteration of the venom behind lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. While lynching traditionally has been limited to the immediate geography of those who would engage in it, the evolution of both communications technology and travel technology has broadened the killing range considerably.
Even deadlier than the school shootings of recent years is the 1927 bombing of the Bath, Mich., Consolidated School – 44 dead and 58 injured – by School Board Member Andrew Kehoe, disgruntled over a tax hike and his failure to win re-election. Would Kehoe’s rage stop today at a rural school or would he try to destroy a city block or an entire neighborhood with materials he got on the internet?
As weapons of war evolve into ever deadlier configurations, social media erodes debate into a gelatinous mass of self-sustaining grievances, and conservatives attack educational practices designed to increase empathy, making more firearms available to the small number of monsters in our midst is a mistake we cannot afford to make.
Gary Earl Ross’ latest Gideon Rimes mystery, “Nickel City Naked Lady,” was released in May.
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