Aftermath of a Tragedy: Trying to Rationalize the Irrational

By Michael Baker

Over at The Big Think, Will Wilkinson wonders why we don’t see more people committing the types of atrocities that occurred in Aurora, Colorado last week.  He points out that as a society, America is unhappy and well-armed, so it’s surprising that we don’t see more random mass killings like this one.  My first inclination is to think that he’s got a point.  But after a bit of thought, I think he’s completely mischaracterized the nature of this killing.

Wilkinson is probably correct that a lot of people think about committing some kind of random act of violence at some point.  But how many of those people have the means?  How many are dedicated and focused enough to hatch this kind of plot and actually go through with it?  And more importantly, how many are willing to disregard the very real consequences of such an action?  I’m basically trying to artfully point out that there just aren’t that many complete nutjobs with both the means and the motivation to do something like this.

It’s normal for people to try to explain things that defy conventional understanding by rationalizing them.  When someone does something so extreme, people are inclined to question why it happened and seek a motive that we can all understand.  But sometimes you just have to accept that there are disturbed, irrational people in the world.  Thankfully there aren’t too many of them, and most are probably too scattered to put their violent inclinations to work so effectively.

So when I say that Wilkinson has mischaracterized the nature of this killing, all that I mean is that he’s analyzing it as something that can be understood as a rationally motivated act, when it’s overwhelmingly more likely that it’s the work of a madman, and can only be understood as such.  That’s an unsatisfying explanation, but what’s satisfying about this scenario?