In the days following the massacre in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater, many people are looking for ways to make sense of a tragedy that left 12 people dead, physically wounded 58, and emotionally wounded countless others. His background has been mined, the CNN footage of his court advisement has been combed over, and the only thing that many people can agree on is that the murderer, 24-year-old James Holmes, was either delusional - or a psychopath.
But that is not true. Not by the traditional definition, anyway, and certainly not before the massacre.
In the American Psychiatry Association's diagnostic manual, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, there is no actual term for psychopathy. What many people think of as a psychopath is classified in the book as "antisocial personality disorder." In order to be classified as having antisocial personality disorder, one must display at least three of the following characteristics:
"Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another."
Therein we have our problem with classifying the Colorado shooter as a psychopath. Prior to the shooting, the only mark he had on his record was a speeding ticket last year. There is no evidence of Holmes being "deceitful". He started stockpiling the ammunition needed for this foray months earlier, which certainly indicates an ability to plan ahead. While his neighbors classified him as odd, and a former supervisor described him as uncommunicative, Holmes was never described by anyone as aggressive before this incident last Friday.
Aside from poor performance at a 2006 internship, his good grades prior to the previous school year do not indicate that he was irresponsible. Even if one could argue that the speeding ticket is an indication of "reckless disregard of self or others," and that he had demonstrated a lack of remorse before this massacre, that would only give him two of the three criteria necessary to be classified as a psychopath.
The other criteria needed to satisfy the definition of antisocial personality disorder are that the individual is at least 18 years of age (check), "there is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15, [and] the occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of Schizophrenia or a manic episode."
Indeed, many in the psychiatric field say that it would be close to impossible to identify most psychopaths, and in fact, the majority does not actually commit crimes.
Psychologists find that Holmes did not even fit the typical profiles of mass murderers. The overwhelming majority of mass murderers kill people who they feel directly wronged them. Failing that, they shoot people who fit into a classification of people that they feel who wronged them, like women in place of feminists. The final category – and the one into which, on the surface, Holmes fits – are people who attack strangers. This group is paranoid, and feels that the world at large is responsible for their own failures. But paranoia is extremely difficult to detect, let alone diagnose.
It is only natural that people want to search for an answer to find the light of such a tragedy. The national conversation has steered toward the treatment of mental illness and gun control, and that is probably a good thing. But maybe we should also realize that, in some cases, like perhaps this one, there is nothing that could have clued us into the psychological ripples happening under the surface.
Update: A source that spoke exclusively with Fox News said that Holmes sent a detailed plan of the massacre to psychiatrists. However, as with any fluctuating story, there is a constant swirl of reports with facts that seem to contradict each other: just a few days, it was reported that Holmes' mother was unsurprised when she discovered his role in perpetrating these attacks, though that now has been shown to be taken out of context. As of yet, his motive remains unclear, and an antisocial personality disorder diagnosis before the attack would still have been elusive.