Monday, 7 June 2010

Mass-Killing Most Foul

It started innocently enough. A friend posted on his Facebook status that the popular TV series '24' starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, was coming to an end, and that during the 8 series (each of which supposedly represents one day in Bauer's life) he had killed 266 people.

I have never seen the TV show, nor do I particularly have any interest in the premise. I think that Kiefer Sutherland is a solid, unremarkable actor. I didn't know whether my friend had literally watched every episode and kept a running total or simply read the number in TV Weekly, but either way, my maths brain kicked in and I made the following simple calculations.

266 people over an eight-day period equates to 33.25 killings per day, and because I'm guessing the show doesn't take a prolonged hiatus every time Bauer has to pee or takes a nap, this works out at approximately 1.38 bodybags per hour. I don't know if Bauer has an admin who deals with the paperwork on his behalf after these events, but if he does, the admin may just be the only person who has a higher-pressure job than Bauer himself. You can imagine that his relatives run America's most successful funeral business. Similarly, his senior officer has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. Every time Bauer requests a week's leave, the chief has to weigh up the time lost by the department against the average saving of 166 lives.

Why is this worth a blog entry? On the off-chance that this blog is read by anyone from outside the UK, in the last week we have seen our third mass-killing in the UK within 25 years.

Details of events are still in the process of being patched together, but certain facts seem to be agreed upon. A Cumbrian taxi-driver, Derrick Bird, turned a warm sunny day in Northern England into a veritable bloodbath, avenging slights by targeting a number of people including family members, local businessmen and a former boss before rampaging at random through a number of small towns with a shotgun and a sniper rifle. He killed 12 victims, injuring many more, and it seems likely that most of those killed fell within a very narrow timeframe.

It pains me to admit it, but I can't deny that I'm interested in incidents of this nature. Those of you who know me well will already be aware that I have an analytical brain obsessed with maths and probability. This manifests itself in questions like, how many victims? How many shots? the % likelihood of it happening again on any street, anywhere, tomorrow? It's ghoulish, but I can't help it. It's how my brain works.

In addition to the maths involved, the random element of the Cumbrian shootings held similarities with other events of this type, incuding the Hungerford massacre in 1987, and Dunblane a few years later. This is where the psychology of mass-killers comes in, and like it or not, it is a fascinating subject.

Unlike Michael Ryan, the gun-obsessed loner who opened fire with automatic weapons in Hungerford town centre 23 years previously, or Dunblane's Thomas Hamilton, the unemployed former scout leader with a seemingly unhealthy interest in young boys, Bird seems to have been a popular man with a regular job, hobbies, friends and a close family. However, the reasons for his spree may never be known, as in common with the other two, he killed himself in the immediate aftermath. All three perpetrators held guns legally, and much debate is still to be had over proposed restrictions on gun ownership within the UK in future.

Mass-killers are always men, and men typically prone to anxiety and depression. They exhibit difficulties in communicating with others, and an exaggerated interest in violence. They fit the profile of Stephen Pinker's cross-cultural reference point, the 'amok', a male who revenges his lack of status in a suicidal murder spree.

As a final note, there appears to be correlation between the way in which violent events have been reported and the likelihood of copycat events following. In short, the more coverage and attention that is given to mass killers, the more likely it is that copycat events will occur (this can be evidenced in the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, only a few weeks after Dunblane. The killer, Martin Bryant, upon being apprehended, reportedly asked if he had 'broken the record' for most people killed in a massacre at one time.)

I'll have a few more posts on psychology in the future, but for now, just in case any of you are attention-seeking impressionable types, I'm going to have an evening of mass TV-watching. If I look angry, it's just because 24's about to come on and I've left the remote slightly out of reach.

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