Comment: When killings lead to questions and theories

Amid the manhunt for two Port Alberni teens alleged to be involved in at least three murders, there are many questions.

“How did we miss this” is the obvious question and it is a question which will trouble friends, relatives, teachers, anybody who was associated in any way with these boys.

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There will be disagreement among experts in child growth and development who will insist that early diagnosis of abnormal behaviour, especially in teenagers might have, should have tipped somebody off, somewhere, that trouble was brewing for these boys. Was evidence of depression, anxiety, behavioural disorders, dependence on a fantasy world ignored by the adults around them?

Did the boys shun social activity, skip school a lot, switch quickly between passivity and aggression, like to engage in extremely risky behaviour to the point of self-destruction and talk about it with other kids?

Was there any evidence or suspicion about the harming or sudden disappearance of family pets?

Those will be the normal questions, the predictable questions but asked too late about abnormal behaviour — and that gets to the core of what went wrong this time and every other time adolescent kids are involved in anything like horrific actions of which these boys are suspected.

Committing murder, if that’s what it was in the case of Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19, is not normal. Despite the efforts of movie makers, writers, biographers and after-the-fact psychologists to normalize brutal psychopathic behaviour, murdering someone is not normal.

There will be learned articles about that area of psychopathy which describes a distinct neuro-developmental sub-group of anti-social personality disorder (ASPD).

We will learn more than we really want to know about people afflicted by ASPD — that they are characterized by emotional instability, impulsivity and high levels of mood and anxiety disorders. They typically use aggression in a reactive way in response to a perceived threat or sense of frustration.

ASPD people are characterized by a lack of empathy and remorse, and tend to use aggression in a planned way to secure what they want whether it be status, money, admiration, enhanced self-concept or just a sense of superiority over others.

No amount of this kind of knowledge will alleviate our shock, bordering on denial, that this kind of thing can explode out of personalities that people thought were a bit odd in some ways (aren’t we all?) but nothing to worry about.

Such individuals are likely to exhibit “a marked lack of empathy as a hallmark characteristic of individuals with psychopathy,” says the lead author of the study, Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at University of Chicago.

Brain researchers will have their own theories about unusual activity in various areas of the brain compared to people who do not anti-social personality disorders or other forms of psychopathology especially as it applies to adolescent behaviours.

But none of that, none of all that after-the-fact wisdom, nothing observable, was any help in anticipating and preventing the actions of 17-year-old U.S. high school student David Biro, who stole a gun, broke into the home of a young couple he did not know, and shot them to death.

Nothing in anybody’s previous experience prevented Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who, without warning, killed 13 people and wounded 21 others for no reason anybody could understand.

Nobody saw it coming when Cody Legebokoff, one of the youngest “serial killers” in Canada’s recent history, was convicted in 2014 of murdering three women and one teen girl for no apparent reason.

Now we have more murders and a manhunt, and there will be the inevitable analysis of the unmitigated gratuitous violence which has become the core story line of many easily accessible movies or TV series such as Dexter, the story of a serial killer.

TV programmers kept running that series even though in 2009, 17-year-old Andrew Conley said the show inspired him to strangle his 10-year-old brother.

In Sweden, a 21-year-old woman known as “The Dexter Killer” killed her 49-year-old father by stabbing him in the heart and, upon questioning, compared herself to Dexter Morgan, whose picture she used as her phone ID.

British teenager Steven Miles, 17, who reported himself to be obsessed with Dexter, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on Oct. 2, 2014, for stabbing and dismembering his girlfriend.

But you can still find Dexter somewhere among the 150 channels.

None of this is easy to know about. None of this really explains why, at least at the time of writing, two “normal” teens from Port Alberni have been charged with second degree — unpremeditated — murder of a 64-year-old stranger.

We rightly fear what we don’t understand.

One thing we knew, as soon as Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod were considered suspects, was that the search would not have a good ending for anybody.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of Schools.

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