Sadistic Cruelty

The terrorist mind is marked by three characteristic features:

  • The absence of empathy
  • The absence of shared social morality
  • The desire to cause great suffering

Each of these features reveals important components of pathological hatred and the terrorist mind. 

How does empathy develop and how does it become so severely damaged?

How does social morality develop, and how does it become evacuated?

How does gratification in causing suffering develop?

This last question is the psychological origins of sadism, the psychology of evil.

Research has identified the origins of evil as the Dark Triad personality of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellian manipulation (Book & Viser, & Volk, 2015).  But evil is more than that.  Evil is the gratification created by causing the suffering of others, evil takes pleasure in creating immense suffering.

Professional psychology acknowledges the pathology of sadism, but there is limited research into its origins and it remains poorly understood.  Sadistic personality disorder was referenced in the DSM-3R, but was removed from later versions of the DSM diagnostic system. As far as I can tell, Theodore Millon is the only major theorist who addresses the dark cruelty of the sadistic personality.

The time has come for professional psychology to capture the dark cruelty of sadism.

Unlocking the terrorist mind requires unlocking the pathology of sadism.  The Manchester and Boston marathon bombers who packed their explosives with nails and screws to increase the carnage find sadistic gratification in causing immense suffering.  The Las Vegas shooter who creates a killing platform on the 32nd floor of Las Vegas hotel room to kill random people attending a concert is motivated from a sadistic pleasure in causing immense suffering in others.

The Texas church shooter who walked through the church aisle killing innocents, including children, took a sadistic gratification in causing immense Ward family Texassuffering.  Mindless, senseless cruelty. 

How does a mind become sadistic, how does a mind take pleasure in the suffering of others?  Answering this question unlocks the terrorist mind of pathological hatred and pathological Crystal Texasviolence.

Many of the current terrorist “experts” assert that the terrorist is not created by psychological pathology because these “experts” cannot identify any known form of psychopathology.  They are wrong.Holcombe children Texas

The sadistic gratification of causing immense suffering in others is pathological.  Walking down the aisle of a church shooting people, shooting women, killing children is pathological.  Loading nails and screws into a bomb to cause greater mutilation and carnage to the victims is pathological. Of course the terrorist mind is caused by psychopathology.

It is completely insane for terrorism “experts” to assert that the terrorist mind is not pathological.  They simply don’t know where to look.

Look to how empathy is formed, and how empathy becomes damaged.

Look to how social morality develops, and becomes evacuated.

Look to the origins of sadism.  Taking pleasure the suffering of others.

Unlocking the origins of sadism, however, is a dark journey into an extremely Untitleddisorienting pathology.  The normal mind cannot comprehend the mind that takes pleasure in the immense suffering in others.  How can suffering in others be pleasurable?  We will be traveling that road and unlocking the mind of evil.

The first thing to understand about evil, is that it never sees itself as evil.  The Nazis believed it was the Jews who were evil, who where the threat.  Evil never sees itself as evil, it sees the victims as evil and “deserving” to suffer. 

Lloyd deMause (deMause: The History of Child Abuse) has a wonderful phrase for this, the victim becomes the “poison container”  who holds the projected dark malevolence of the perpetrator.  The perpetrator’s self-perception is of being a noble, good, and righteous person, it is the victim who is evil.  The self-perception of the Islamic terrorist is of being a holy warrior of Allah.  The self-perception of the White supremacist is of being the noble defender of Aryan purity.  The self-perception of the Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Texas church shooters is of being an avenging angel of justice.

From Kernberg: “The normal tension between actual self on the one hand, and ideal self and ideal object on the other, is eliminated by the building up of an inflated self concept within which the actual self and the ideal self and ideal object are confused.  At the same time, the remnants of the unacceptable self images are repressed and projected onto external objects which are devalued.” (Kernberg, 1977, p. 217)

The terrorist mind sees itself as noble and good, its dark and malevolent poison is projected into the victim.  Through the suffering of the victim, their own projected dark malevolence is being psychologically purged from the perpetrator.

This explains part of the motivation, but it does not explain how pleasure is achieved from creating suffering in others.  The normal mind recoils in horror and disgust at the suffering of others.  The terrorist mind takes pleasure in it.  Why?

In the mind of the perpetrator, the victim becomes the “poison container” for the projected dark malevolence of the terrorist’s mind, the victim “deserves” to suffer.  In creating the victim’s suffering, the terrorist mind sees itself as noble and righteous.  But there’s more.  There is the satisfaction and pleasure taken in the suffering of the victim.

The key to unlocking the origins of sadistic pleasure in creating suffering of others is in the confluence of power and domination, deep shame and the dark cruelty of vengeance.  To Slide2understand the terrorist mind, we must take the journey down this dark path into sadistic pleasure in the suffering of others.

Words will not be able to fully convey the dark cruelty of the sadistic mind, a mind that takes pleasure in creating suffering.  We must enter the mind of horror to discover and unlock the damage at the core.

The terrorist mind is created by a set of damaged information structures in the attachment system – in the love-and-bonding system of the brain.  These damaged information structures were created in childhood, through the childhood transmission of complex trauma.  But not just any trauma, a specific type of trauma.  The trauma that creates sadistic cruelty – that creates pleasure from causing suffering in others.

This trauma has certain themes present in its creation; power and domination, the degradation of shame, that creates in the love-and-bonding system of the brain a vengeful anger that is born in a cold absence of empathy.  This is the path to the terrorist mind.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

Book, A., Visser, B.A., and Volk, A.A. (2015). Unpacking ‘‘evil’’: Claiming the core of the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences 73 (2015) 29–38.

The Las Vegas Shooter: The Absence of Moral Foundations

Normal people do not take 23 guns to a Las Vegas hotel room to randomly kill innocent people attending a concert.  Normal people don’t do that.

Why don’t normal people do that?  Because it is morally repellent.  A person who does that does not live in the same moral universe as the rest of us do. 

The terrorist mind must overcome normal-range morality of right and wrong.  It accomplishes this termination of normal-range morality by developing empty and twisted justifications that excuse the violence as somehow being a “righteous” act of deserved retribution.

In his research on morality, Johathan Haidt identifies six foundations of morality:







The act of the Las Vegas shooter violated all foundations of morality.


The moral foundation of caring emerges from the love and bonding system of the brain, attachment and empathy.  We feel the pain and suffering of others.  Our empathy and love prevents us from causing harm and motivates us to provide care and comfort to suffering.

This moral foundation is shut down by turning the other person into an object.  When the other person is an object rather than a person, our empathy and care systems don’t activate.  We don’t consider the “suffering” of a chair or a table.  Objects don’t activate the love and empathy systems of the brain (attachment and intersubjectivity systems).

The love-and-bonding system of the Las Vegas shooter was deeply damaged (the attachment and intersubjective systems; emotional bonding and empathy).  The victims weren’t people, they were objects, like chairs and tables.  The attachment and empathy systems of the Las Vegas shooter were silent, and the caring moral foundation was silent.


The fairness moral foundation responds to justice.  It is sensitive to proportionality in the rewards and punishments received in social relationships.  The fairness moral foundation evaluates whether the rewards and punishments received are proportional to the person’s contribution and role.

However, dysfunctions to the love-and-bonding systems of the brain (attachment and intersubjectivity) will turn off the moral justice foundation.  Justice is an irrelevant construct when applied to a chair or table. 

In response to the damaged attachment and empathy networks of the Las Vegas shooter, the justice moral foundation was also turned off.  The victims weren’t people, they were objects.


The moral foundation of loyalty binds our actions to the goals of the social group.  From the loyalty moral foundation, the needs of the group take precedence over personal comfort and gratification.  Our actions become motivated toward the common good of the social group.

But objects don’t activate our loyalty obligations.  We are not loyal to a chair or a table.  We are only loyal to our social group, not to an object.  The damaged love-and-bonding networks of the Las Vegas shooter’s brain turned off the loyalty moral foundation as well.


The moral foundation of authority is closely linked to power, and in the isolation of a narcissistically organized brain the two constructs of authority and power are synonymous.  In a socially bonded brain, authority emerges both from power and also from an agreed social contract in which authority is conferred by consent of the social group.  In the socially isolated narcissistically organized brain, however, the social contract granting authority is not recognized.  To the socially isolated narcissistic brain, only the power component of authority is recognized.

For 64 years the Las Vegas shooter functioned well enough within the shared morality of authority.  Prior to the shooting on October 1, 2017 the Las Vegas shooter did not break the law, although it’s interesting to note that his father was a bank robber on the FBI’s most wanted list.  According to reports, prior to the father’s arrest in 1960 for bank robbery (the father was first arrested in 1946 for multiple counts of auto theft), the father of the Las Vegas shooter was described as a “family man, operating a filling station while raising four boys” (NBC News).  The Las Vegas shooter was born in 1953, meaning that he spent the first seven years of life with his father prior to his father’s arrest in 1960.

Yet despite the father’s apparent difficulty abiding within the authority moral foundation, the Las Vegas shooter had no criminal background.

Yet on October 1, 2017 the Las Vegas shooter violated the moral boundaries of authority and assumed the power to arbitrarily take the lives of innocent people.  For the Las Vegas shooter, the moral foundation of authority was about power, he complied with laws because of society’s power to punish.  On October 1, 2017 the Las Vegas shooter rejected the moral foundation of authority and adopted the narcissistic grandiosity of his own self-perceived power.  The moral foundation of authority no longer prevented his violence, he was outside of our shared social morality, he became narcissistically inflated into his own self-perceived power and he no longer recognized the legitimacy of outside authority, he felt himself to be exempt from the rules and laws that governed other people.

From Beck: “Unlike the antisocial personality, they [the narcissist] do not have a cynical view of rules that govern human conduct; they simply consider themselves exempt from them.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 44)

From Beck: “Another conditional assumption of power is the belief of exemption from normal rules and laws, even the laws of science and nature.” (Beck, 2004, p. 251-252)


The moral foundation of sanctity recognizes the sacredness of certain ideas and concepts.  The ideas and concepts can have a religious foundation or can be secular values.  The moral foundation of sanctity becomes extremely distorted in the terrorist mind, providing exceedingly important clues into the psychological damage creating the pathological hated and pathological violence of the terrorist mind. 

Following the path into the terrorist mind created by the damage evidenced to the sanctity moral foundation will lead us to critically important insights into the meme-structures – the information structures – at the source of the pathological anger and pathological violence created by the terrorist mind, but I will defer this exploration to a future date. 

Violations of the other moral foundations for caring, and justice, and loyalty, and authority, and liberty will activate our moral judgement of the act as being inherently wrong.   Violation of the sanctity foundation, however, leads to our moral judgement of the act as being “evil.”  The act of the Las Vegas shooter wasn’t just morally wrong, it was evil.

There is a fundamental sanctity to life.  Taking a life is serious and requires moral justification.  Randomly killing innocent people violates the sanctity moral foundation.  Randomly killing innocent people is evil.  When we enter the world of the terrorist mind we transcend normal morality of right and wrong and enter the world of evil.


The moral foundation of liberty opposes domination by the oppressor.  The moral foundation of liberty inspired the American revolution, and the activation of the liberty moral foundation continues to inspire many national and ethnic liberation movements around the globe.  It can be challenging to disentangle the pathological violence of the terrorist mind from the violence of a “liberation” movement in response to oppression.  The violence inspired by the liberty moral foundation often combines with the justice moral foundation, and these two moral foundations can activate overtones of the sanctity moral foundation – a “righteousness” of purpose in fighting a “just war” of “liberation” from the oppressor.

No such moral cause inspired the Las Vegas shooter.  He was not “oppressed,” he was not fighting for his liberty from domination by the oppressor.  Instead, he violated the moral foundation of liberty for the innocent people who were simply attending a concert, their fundamental right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

The Origins of Shared Morality

Shared morality binds the social group, building its cohesiveness.

From Haidt: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (Haidt, 2012)

From Durkheim: “What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to … regulate his actions by something other than … his own egoism.” (Durkheim 1984/1893, p. 331; as cited by Haidt)

From Stern: “Cohesion within human groups is greatly enhanced by moral suasion.  I will argue that intersubjectivity is the basic condition for morality.  The “moral emotions” (shame, guilt, embarrassment) arise from being able to see yourself in the eyes of another” (Stern, 2004, p. 104)

From Stern: “In brief, intersubjectivity contributes to group survival.  It promotes group formation and coherence.  It permits more efficient, rapid, flexible, and coordinated group functioning.  And it provides the basis for morality to act in maintaining group cohesion and language to act in group communication.” (Stern, 2004, p. 105)

The enhanced group cohesion created by a shared morality increases survival.

From Haidt: “But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups.  As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists.” (Haidt, 2012)

From Haidt: “Whenever a way is found to suppress free riding so that individual units can cooperate, work as a team, and divide labor, selection at the lower level becomes less important, selection at the higher level becomes more powerful, and that higher-level selection favors the most cohesive superorganism.” (Haidt, 2012)

The terrorist mind violates all of the foundations of shared social morality.  Damage to the empathy system (the intersubjective system; referred to as the “hive mind” by Haidt) creates an isolated, narcissistically organized mind.  The empathy system (intersubjectivity) develops through the use-dependent “scaffolding” it receives when the child is shown empathy by parents during childhood (The Mind of the Las Vegas Shooter: Empathy Deficit).  The absence of parental empathy during childhood creates an isolated brain in the child that has core deficits in its ability to feel empathy for others.

The damage to the empathy system of the terrorist mind is created by a failure of parental empathy during childhood.  The child’s inner emotional and psychological experience was irrelevant to the parent (an absence of shared intersubjectivity), the child was an object rather than a valued psychological person.  The isolated mind created in the absence of parental empathy remains forever apart from the shared social field of humanity, alone and alienated, an object incapable of swimming in the shared social mind of the intersubjective group. 

When the person is an object, everyone becomes an object.

The damage to the attachment system (the love-and-bonding system of the brain) and empathy system (intersubjectivity systems) turns off the moral foundations for caring, justice, and loyalty by making other people objects; chairs and tables rather than human beings.

In the isolated narcissistically organized mind of the Las Vegas shooter, the moral foundation of authority was only power, not the social contract of recognized authority.  Only power is recognized, not laws, not rights, not authority.  In the mind of the Las Vegas shooter, the moral foundation of authority is only power.

Based on the increase in his gun purchases over the last year (33 gun purchases in the year prior to the shooting), it appears that the narcissistic grandiosity of the Las Vegas shooter activated sometime in 2016/2017 to inflate his self-perception of power and entitlement sufficiently to remove the authority-power inhibition on his acts.  He likely made a decision in 2016 to end the psychological emptiness of his life, and his decision on how to end his life was to gratify his narcissistic grandiosity of wanting to be “special” (to fill the deep emptiness within his attachment system).

The guns were an expression of his power, and in his narcissistically organized brain of social isolation he felt entitled to impose his power onto others because they were merely objects – objects just like he was an object.

Without the moral restraints imposed by caring, loyalty, justice, authority, sanctity, or respect for the freedom of others, the Las Vegas shooter felt he was entitled by his self-perceived narcissistic grandiosity to impose the domination of his power onto the objects attending the concert; tables and chairs – objects – devoid of humanity.

But why?  Even if he was absent the constraints of shared social morality, why did he want to kill? 

Because he wanted to inflict immense suffering on others.  This is the third feature of the terrorist mind; 1) damage to empathy, 2) a vacancy of shared social morality, and 3) a desire to inflict immense suffering on others.

The absence of empathy is associated with the capacity for human cruelty, and the absence of empathy is described by Baron-Cohen (2011) as the origins of evil. 

The profound deficits to shared moral foundations, particularly the sanctity foundation, displayed by his act triggers our moral judgement of his actions as evil.

But it is in the psychological gratification he sought in creating immense suffering in others that the core of understanding evil is found.  

Understanding the core of evil will be the next level we’ll uncover.  Why did he want to create immense suffering in others?   Once we uncover the core of evil, we’ll bring all three symptom features together into understanding the terrorist mind and the pathological violence of the Las Vegas shooter.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

Beck, A.T., Freeman, A., Davis, D.D., & Associates (2004). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders. (2nd edition). New York: Guilford.

Durkheim, E. (1984/1893). The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Free Press.

Haidt, J. (2012).  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. NY: Random House.

Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

The Mind of the Las Vegas Shooter: Empathy Deficit

What was the motivation for a 64-year-old White male to turn his room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel into a killing platform, with premeditated and purposeful intent to kill random innocent people attending a concert?  What motivated him to purposely cause such horror, grieving, and loss? There seems nothing to explain his motivation.  He had no “cause.”  He had no extremist ideology.  He left no delusional manifesto.  He seemed so normal… up until the killing of innocents.

It seemingly makes no sense.

I am a clinical psychologist.  Understanding the human mind and human motivation is what I do.  I understand why he did what he did, because I understand the way the human mind works, and the features of his actions reveal their cause.

I will attempt to reconstruct the shooter’s motivation based on the act.  There are only a limited number of psychological factors that can create that action.  Normal-range humans do not do what he did.  The abnormality of his actions provide the key clues into the motivational origins for the killing.

Like Alice having fallen down the rabbit hole of unfathomable insanity, we find ourselves in front of three locked doors.  On the table in the center of the room are three keys, one for each door.  One-by-one I will unlock each door and we will view the damaged mind within.  Once all three doors are opened, and once we have viewed the psychological damage behind each of these doors, I will weave together the psychological motivation for the senseless killing.  Then I will open a small bottle on the table that reads, “Drink me.”  This is the psychological trigger for the event.  Why now?  Why after 64 years of a seemingly normal life, did the shooter decide to kill and die, now.

There are three key features to the shooter’s action, the characteristic features of the terrorist mind of pathological violence:

1.)  A profound absence of normal-range empathy.

The developmental origins of empathy are understood by professional psychology, we understand how empathy networks develop, and we understand the causes for damage to the empathy networks.  There are a limited set of factors that will create such profoundly absent empathy.  The absence of empathy creates the capacity for human cruelty.

2.)  The absence of shared social morality.

Normal people do not turn their room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel into a killing platform to randomly kill innocent people.  Normal people understand that this is morally repugnant and horrific.  The actions of the Las Vegas shooter are morally repulsive, emotionally and psychologically repulsive.  There are a limited set of factors that can overcome our normal-range moral repulsion for such an abhorrent act of senseless violence.

3.)  A desire to inflict immense suffering.

This third door is the most important door to unlock.  Behind this door we will find the source-origin for the savage brutality.  Normal people desire bonding.  Normal people want to be loved.  Normal people have compassion for others.  Normal people do not seek to inflict immense suffering on others.  Normal people do not obtain psychological gratification from the suffering of others.  Behind this door we will find the dark malignancy of evil.  What damage to the normal operation of brain systems is needed to create psychological satisfaction from causing immense suffering in others?  Unlocking this feature is key to unlocking the motivation of evil.

Absence of Empathy

In the developmental wiring of brain networks the guiding principle is, “We build what we use.”  This is called “use-dependent” development.  Every time we use a brain cell or brain network, structural and chemical changes take place that make it more likely that this brain cell or brain network will fire in the future. 

If we want to learn to play the piano, all we have to do is use the brain networks responsible for playing the piano over-and-over again, practice playing the piano, and soon we will be able to play the piano.  This is the use-dependent development of the brain networks for playing the piano.

The same is true for all brain networks.  If we want to become timid and afraid, then all we must do is continually focus our attention on frightening imagery and thoughts and we will become timid and frightened.  We build what we use.  If we want to learn a foreign language, we simply repeat the language, using it over-and-over, and we will build the brain networks used in the foreign language.  Use-dependent development; we build what we use.

Empathy is a set of social networks that allow us to feel what the other person feels as if we were having the experience ourselves.  The empathy networks of the brain are bi-directional social networks that bind us psychologically to the social group.  Being shown empathy in childhood builds our capacity to have empathy for others as adults.  Showing empathy for others build’s their capacity for empathy.

The foundational wiring of the empathy networks develop early in childhood through their use-dependent development by the parent who responds empathically to the child’s inner experience (rather than outward behavior).  When the parent responds with empathic attunement to the child’s inner experience, this builds through use-dependent neural processes the child’s own social-empathic capacity for others.  Use-dependent development; we build what we use.

Empathy networks are a bi-directional social brain system.  The child’s empathy networks are built when they are used by the parent who shows empathy for the child’s inner experience.

The profound absence of empathy evidenced in the actions of the Las Vegas shooter indicates that the shooter was not psychologically connected to the social community of shared humanity.  The absence of empathy is linked to the capacity for human cruelty.  The absence of empathy indicates that the shooter had a foundational deficit in the development of the empathy networks of the brain, meaning that as a child he was not shown empathy for his inner psychological experience so he did not develop the social-psychological capacity for empathy with the experience of others. 

He was psychologically alone to a degree that most of us cannot comprehend.  This psychological isolation from the shared social field meant that other people were objects for him.  He wanted us to be people, he wanted to be part of our shared social field, but his social-empathy networks were damaged.  He couldn’t live in us.

Through the empathy networks of the brain (called “intersubjectivity” in the developmental research literature) we create a shared psychological state.  This shared psychological state is called an “intersubjective field” in the research literature and has been extensively studied because of its central role in language acquisition and emotional regulation (the Harvard researcher Edward Tronick calls it a “dyadic state of consciousness”).

From Tronic:  “When mutual regulation is particularly successful, that is when the age-appropriate forms of meaning (e.g., affects, relational intentions, representations; see Tronick 2002c, d) from one individual’s state of consciousness are coordinated with the meanings of another’s state of consciousness — I have hypothesized that a dyadic state of consciousness emerges.” (Tronick, 2003, p. 475)

The preeminent child development researcher Daniel Stern describes it as a “mutual interpenetration of minds.”

From Stern: “The present moments that interest us most are those that arise when two people make a special kind of mental contact – namely, an intersubjective contact.  This involves the mutual interpenetration of minds that permits us to say, “I know that you know that I know” or “I feel that you feel that I feel” (Stern, 2004, p. 75)

This brain system for the “mutual interpenetration of minds” has a neurological foundation in a set of brain cells called mirror neurons (NOVA: Mirror Neurons).

From Stern: “Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others.  Our intentions are modified or born in a shifting dialogue with the felt intentions of others.  Our feelings are shaped by the intentions, thoughts, and feelings of others.  And our thoughts are cocreated in dialogue, even when it is only with ourselves.  In short, our mental life is cocreated.  This continuous cocreative dialogue with other minds is what I am calling the intersubjective matrix.” (Stern, 2004, p. 76)

The Las Vegas shooter was severely damaged in the development of this shared-psychological-state brain system for intersubjectivity (the capacity for empathy).  He lived in an isolated brain.  Psychologically he was deeply and profoundly alone, at a level most of us cannot comprehend because we live in a normal-range brain, with a normal-range capacity for shared empathy.  In his father, this deficit in empathy (intersubjectivity) was described as “psychopathic” in his FBI wanted poster.  This would be an accurate descriptive label for the neurologically-based (with developmental origins) absence of empathy (intersubjectivity).

Was the shooter psychopathic?  Labels are not useful.  He had a profound deficit in the capacity for shared social empathy (intersubjectivity).  This will create a set of symptom features often identified as “psychopathic” – but it’s a circular definition.  The absence of empathy is psychopathic, and the psychopath is identified by an absence of empathy.  Labels do not lead to understanding the cause.

The rest of us naturally live embedded in the motivational intentions of other people.  We swim in the sea of shared psychological experience and are so fully immersed in our shared “mutual interpenetration of minds” that we are not even aware of our shared social-psychological state because it is so natural to our experience. 

The 1960s philosopher Marshall McLuhan is attributed to have said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish,” highlighting that we don’t see that which surrounds us.  Like the fish who don’t see the water that surrounds them, we don’t see the social water in which we swim, we don’t see the “mutual interpenetration of minds” that forms the very fabric of our psychological experience – until we see the fish out of water.

The Las Vegas shooter is the fish out of the social water of our collective shared psychological experience.

Our shared psychological experience connects us to the social group.  The absence of this psychological connection is experienced as immensely painful psychological loneliness, a psychological abyss of profound and deep emptiness called “alienation.”  But the person experiencing this psychological alienation doesn’t understand the origins of their suffering because they don’t know what it is to be part of the shared social mind.  They just know something hurts deep to their core.

All they know is that something is immensely painful, it feels deeply and profoundly empty inside at their core of experience, and this pain has something to do with others.  Their suffering creates a vague motivation toward bonding to others, but they have an impenetrable psychological wall that prevents their bonding, that prevents the normal-range psychological intimacy of a shared social mind. 

We cannot comprehend the suffering and loneliness of this isolated mind because we all swim in the sea of a shared psychological state.  Even in our loneliest hours, we nevertheless have a socially connected brain as we sit at the coffee house, as we interact with co-workers, as we attend public events.  In the profoundly isolated mind of the Las Vegas shooter, these social surrounds never led to a shared state of social being, of social belonging.

In the parlance of the attachment system, they have an “avoidant” attachment of low-protest, low-demand, and profound psychological isolation.

To be psychologically alone is immensely painful.  Our “intersubjective” shared connections to the social field provides our lives with meaning, within both a social and personal identity context.  To be deprived of intersubjective social integration is to live a meaningless existence, acting without connection, without joy, without the vitality of shared belonging.

From Stern:  “A second felt need for intersubjective orientation is to define, maintain, or reestablish self identity and self cohesion – to make contact with ourselves.  We need the eyes of others to make contact with ourselves.  We need the eyes of others to form and hold ourselves together.  Without some continual input from an intersubjective matrix, human identity dissolves or veers off in odd ways.”  (Stern, 2004, p. 107)

The symptom feature most consistent with this profound empathy deficit in the Las Vegas shooter is his obsessive focus on video Poker.  Gambling was his limited way of activating at least marginal feelings of being alive within the profound abyss of his emptiness of inner being.  But for him, gambling remained a solitary activity interacting with a machine – one “machine” with another – devoid of life – devoid of soul.  Empty.  A routine of emptiness.  He was surrounded by the sounds of social activity, but he remained isolated in a shared psychological state with an empty soulless machine – for hours on end.

He was drawn to the social – he went to casinos to gamble – but he did not play at the tables where he would be interacting with others in a shared psychological field.  He chose to interact, to establish the intersubjective field of social intimacy, with a lifeless machine.  Why?  Because that’s the best his damaged intersubjectivity networks – his shared empathy networks – could achieve.  His damaged intersubjectivity networks could not establish a “mutual interpenetration of minds” with other people.  We were too complex for his rudimentary and damaged empathy networks to absorb and psychologically model.  We were as much objects to him as the video Poker machine.  His psychological penetration into a lifeless and soulless machine was the best his damaged empathy networks – his damaged intersubjectivity system – could achieve.

He would go the casinos and play video Poker all night long – a deeply lonely life of minimal psychological existence.

He was married twice and divorced twice.  Failed relationships.  Failed intimacy.  He had a girlfriend, a former cocktail hostess (perhaps attracted to his financial support for her).  From his perspective, their relationship was unlikely to be what we would generally consider to be a psychologically loving and intimate relationship, because if there had been love and psychological intimacy with his girlfriend this would have prevented his actions.  When he sent her to the Philippines to be with her family as he enacted his brutality, she thought he was breaking up with her.  She was insecure in their relationship.  She was likely little more to him than the video Poker machine, a means of warding off his deep psychological loneliness and alienation.

For years he maintained the appearance of normalcy.  He could mimic normalcy by engaging reasonably in social actions, but he could not engage in the “mutual interpenetration of minds” that the rest of us all know as the normal ground of our psychological experience – a broad social nesting in the human community.  We belong.  He didn’t.  His social actions were a pretense, an empty facade.  His neighbors in the retirement community described him as socially surly and reclusive, having put privacy barriers on the windows of his home.

Deep in the core of his psychological being he yearned for social connection, he yearned to belong to the human community, but this belonging was forever denied him because of the damage to the empathy system (intersubjective system) of the brain.  He yearned for us, and he simultaneously hated us because we were bonded in a shared social community that he could never join.  He was forever the small child standing alone outside on the icy cold winter’s sidewalk, peering through the window into the warm social gathering of friends and social bonding of the festive holiday party.  Forever denied to him.  Yearning to belong, but an impossibility.  Jealous of our bonding.

There is an adage in clinical psychology, a general rule-of-thumb that can sometimes be useful in understanding the inner experience of others, “People make us feel the way they feel.”  It is the most primitive form of achieving empathy:

“Now you know what I feel, because I’ve made you feel it too.”

The frightened person adopts a threatening stance of powerful intimidation to transfer this person’s own fear into us.  We now understand their fear because we feel it – we are afraid.  The person who is deeply sad and hurt will say and do things to make us sad and to hurt us.  Now we know how they feel.  We feel their pain, not as the more advanced shared experience of empathy, but in its primal raw form.  We feel sad and hurt, just like they do.

By killing us, the shooter communicated to us how profoundly and deeply hurt and alone he was.  We were objects because he was, existentially, an object.  Like the video Poker machine of his psychological intimacy.  He lashed out at humanity, random and impersonal, causing immense pain and suffering, taking away our loved ones, leaving us as alone as he was, suffering.  Now we know how he feels – his act was a primitive cry for empathic joining to a human community from which he was forever excluded because of his deeply damaged brain networks for empathy and intersubjectivity.

His victims and the suffering of their families were objects.  Welcome to his world as an object, excluded by his absence of empathy from belonging to the human community.  His only intimacy was with a video Poker machine.  Two objects in a shared psychological state of emptiness.

This is the first door.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

Racism & the Terrorist Mind of Pathological Hatred

As recently as the mid-20th Century the terrorist violence of lynching black Americans in the Deep South was common and accepted.  Untitled

The pathological hatred of racism is the product of the same absence of normal-range human empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and gratification from creating immense suffering as creates the motivation for bombing of the Boston Marathon, for the shooting in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, and for the pathology in Las Vegas.  The terrorist mind.  Pathological anger, pathological hatred, pathological violence.

Untitled 3Racism is a disturbance in psychological functioning.  Racism is not normal.  Racism represents pathological hatred, a psychological violence that can reach the levels of physical brutality and extreme physical violence. 

The terrorist mind is an absence of normal-range human empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and gratification from causing immense suffering.

Pathological sadness is formally recognized as a psychiatric disorder (DSM-5: Major Depressive Disorder).  Pathological anxiety is formally recognized as a psychiatric disorder (DSM-5: Panic Disorder; Phobia; Generalized Anxiety Disorder).  Even pathological happiness is recognized as a psychiatric disorder (DSM-5: Mania).  Pathological anger, however, remains an unrecognized form of psychiatric pathology. 

Racism is not normal.  Racism is pathological hatred.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when civil rights workers went to the Deep South Untitled 5of the United States to challenge the systemic terrorism of racist pathological hatred and violence, the terrorist threat to them of beatings, firebombings, and killing was ever-present. 

On September 15, 1963, four beautiful children, full of life’s promise, were at their church in Birmingham, Alabama.  They died as a result of a terrorist bombing and fire at the church.

Untitled 6From Wikipedia:  “The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was an act of white supremacist terrorism which occurred at the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the steps located on the east side of the church…  Described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” the explosion at the church killed four girls and injured 22 others.”

Pathological hatred.  Pathological violence.  The terrorist mind.  An absence of normal-range empathy, the absence of shared social morality, a sadistic gratification from causing suffering. 

The legal system has recognized pathological hatred, and the violence it spawns, as representing a “hate crime.”  However, the pathological hatred and pathological violence of racism is not considered a psychiatric disorder.  It should be.

Professional psychology needs to reassess its approach to pathological anger, pathological hatred, and pathological violence. 

From the U.S. Department of Justice:  “Since 1968, when Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law, the first federal hate crimes statute, the Department of Justice has been enforcing federal hate crimes laws… In 2009, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding the federal definition of hate crimes, enhancing the legal toolkit available to prosecutors, and increasing the ability of federal law enforcement to support our state and local partners.”

DSM-5:  Nothing but crickets.

The pathological hatred of racism is not normal.  Racism, and the pathological violence it spawns, is a symptom of psychopathology.  Image result for black lynching 2016

The damaged information structures in the brain’s attachment networks that create pathological hatred and pathological violence distort identity structures.  The identity networks for self-esteem become hyper-activated into a pathological group identity of ethnic identification; as White (KKK), as Basque (ETA), as Catholic (IRA), as Muslim (ISIS), as our nationality (war), as “our group” – and the other, the outsider, becomes an object, less than human. 

Identity structures are particularly vulnerable during the young adult period of early stabilization.  Young men who are lost in the emerging identity challenges of young adulthood are particularly vulnerable to the identity disturbances created by the damaged information structures of the pathology. 

Image result for charlottesville
Charlottesville – 2017

Women are also vulnerable to the identity disturbances of pathological hated, but they appear less so.  This apparent gender difference may be related to an increased complexity in the information structures of female attachment networks, possibly due to the differing gender-related demands of early childhood parenting which were involved in the evolution of the attachment system across species and human development.  

The terrorist mind of pathological hatred is not normal. 

Racism is psychopathology.  Pathological anger, pathological hatred, and pathological violence – psychological violence and physical violence.

Professional psychology needs to reevaluate its approach to the psychologically and physically violent psychopathology of racism, antisemitism, misogyny, and homophobia.

Pathological anger, pathological hatred, pathological violence.  The absence of normal-range empathy, the absence of shared social morality, gratification from causing immense suffering.

The terrorist mind:  Nice, Manchester, Paris, 911, Las Vegas, Birmingham.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

Typology of Pathological Violence

Before doing a deeper dive into the pathology of the terrorist mind, I need to establish a structural ground by identifying the differing variant strains of the pathology. 

There is a specific set of damaged information structures that creates the pathology of the terrorist mind (pathological hatred and pathological violence), but the pathogen expresses itself in variant forms based on the extent and nature of damage to additional surrounding information structures. 

So while there is a core set of damaged information structures that remains consistent across all variants strains of pathological violence, it is whether or not specific surrounding information structures remain functionally intact or are also damaged that expresses as the different variants of pathological hatred and pathological violence.

I want to identify the variant strains, and then I will begin to unpack each in turn.

The pathological violence of the terrorist mind is created by a specific set of damaged  information structures in the attachment networks of the brain.

The attachment networks of the brain (along with a related relationship system for a shared state of psychological connection, called “intersubjectivity”; Nova-Mirror Neurons), are the brain networks responsible for governing all aspects of love and social bonding throughout the lifespan, including the processing of sadness, grief, and loss.

The damaged information structures in the attachment networks of the terrorist mind are revealed in a set of three characteristic features of pathological violence:

The absence of normal-range empathy;

The absence of shared social morality;

The desire to create immense suffering in others.

However, there are variants of how these damaged information structures creating the core symptom features are expressed.  The variant strains of pathological violence are manifested in the causal attribution that the terrorist mind makes to justify the pathological violence.  It is these variants of the underlying pathology that are creating confusion in terrorism “experts” who are unable to identify the cohering linkage among the various forms of the pathogen.

As far as I can tell right now, there appear to be two primary variants of the terrorist mind, with each primary category having additional subtypes.

The “Warrior” Terrorist Mind

The first variant type is the “Warrior” terrorist mind that sees itself as a soldier fighting for a cause.  The three subtypes of the “Warrior” terrorist mind are:

The Freedom Fighter/Dictator:  The justification for violence offered by the “Freedom Fighter” variant of the terrorist mind is that the person is fighting to establish a national or ethnic homeland.  Examples of this category would be the Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka, the Basque ETA, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

When the “Freedom Fighter” variant is successful in achieving control of a political state, it can transmute into a “Dictator” variant of oppression and violence turned against the people.  Examples of the transmutation of the “Freedom Fighter” variant into the “Dictator” variant would be Mao and the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Nazis Third Reich, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. 

I am currently of divided mind as to whether to sub-classify the “Dictator” state-sponsored terrorist violence as a form of the “Freedom Fighter” terrorist mind who has gained control of the state, or whether to classify it in its own distinct category.  I’m leaning toward the latter, but I could go either way at this time.

The state-sponsored violence of the “Dictator” form of the pathogen can create the complementary “Freedom-Fighter” response in the population.  The violence of the “Freedom Fighters” then leads to increased oppression from the “Dictator” pathogen, which then leads to a cycle of increasing violence.  When the pathological violence of the terrorist mind has gained political control of a state, it can be difficult to disentangle the role of state-sponsored violence of the “Dictator” form of the pathogen from the self-defense violence it creates in response.

This is the most complicated variant of the pathogen because of the circular causality to the pathological violence and societal acceptance of the “war” justification for pathological violence.

The Holy Warrior of God:  This form of the pathogen sees itself as a righteous Crusader or jihadist fighting a religious “holy war” on behalf of God.  Examples in this category would the Christian Crusaders of the 12th and 13th Centuries and the current Islamic jihadists of Al Qaeda and Isis.

This is an extraordinarily malignant and very primitive and primal-exposed form of the pathogen.  While other variants of the pathology may be amenable to intervention, when this form of the pathogen activates it likely requires the complete removal of the pathogen from the social population through the death (or lifetime imprisonment) of the host organism to prevent the pathogen’s ability to manifest and spread its pathological “viral code.”

This version of the pathogenic structures in the attachment networks creates the strongest delusional system and contains the most primitive structures of hostile-aggressive sadistic violence.  This variant of the pathogen enjoys (is gratified by) the suffering of others.  This version of the pathogen is on a line from the burning alive of women as “witches” in the 16th to 18th centuries and the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition

The violence index expressed in the desire to cause immense suffering is extremely high in this variant of the pathogen, which is suggestive of a possible origin for the pathogenic structures of the “Holy Warrior of God” variant in incest and sexual abuse moving through generations.  Since the “Holy Warrior of God” pathology tends to be expressed by males, it is possible that the incest/sexual abuse entered with the childhood sexual abuse of the mother, and the high-violent information structures in the attachment networks are moving through generational transmission in the sensitive mother-son relationship.  Based on the high-violence quotient of the “Holy Warrior of God” variant and its surrounding features, my estimate is that it was the mother of the jihadist who was sexually abused as a child (incest).  This may account for the current expression of the “Holy Warrior of God” variant primarily from the patriarchal misogynistic Muslim culture.

Let me be clear, Islam is not inherently a misogynistic religion.  Muhammad was a supporter of women’s rights in his actions and pronouncements (PBS Muhammad Legacy of a Prophet).  However, the current violent jihadist version of Islam is emerging from within a sub-cultural perversion of Muhammad’s teachings and the Qur’an, and this sub-cultural expression of Islam is profoundly oppressive of women.  This prominently misogynistic sub-culture is highly suggestive of significant mother-son (father-daughter) pathology in psychological development. 

My point is not to engage in a religious discussion, it is to raise the possibility of Islam’s oppressive patriarchal sexual-gender attitudes creating a climate for incest and sexual abuse of the daughters/mothers within Islamic culture which then serves as the psychological origin for the immensely primitive and violent nature of the “Holy Warrior of God” pathogenic structures.

The Revolutionary:  This variant adopts a supposedly altruistic motive of fighting a revolutionary struggle on behalf of oppressed people.  In the 20th Century, this has typically been expressed in the form of Marxist-leftist revolutionary ideals.  Examples of this variant would be Italy’s Red Brigade, Germany’s Baader-Meinhoff group, Shining path in Peru, and FARC in Columbia.

The “Revolutionary” is likely one of the least malignant variants of the pathogen.  This variant represents an infectious-spread (a resonant-response) of the pathogen in the brain of the “Revolutionary” mind to the perception of social injustice manifesting from pathogenic structures within the broader society.  Their empathy for the victimization of the “oppressed” (the injustice) activates the latent pathogen of pathological violence in the attachment networks of the “Revolutionary.”  As the pathogen is increasingly cleared from broader society, this variant is likely to become less prevalent.

Identity-Based Pathological Hatred

The second broad category is a more individualistic variant of the pathogen.  While all variants strongly distort identity networks of the brain (the attachment system is foundationally critical in the development of self-identity), the “Warrior” terrorist mind tends toward society-based justifications as a “warrior” fighting for a societal cause, whereas the “Identity-Based” terrorist mind offers more individually-based justifications.

Even though these justifications are more individually-based rather than societal attributions, the “Identity-Based” variant can still exhibit the characteristic feature of the pathogen generally of its tendency to form a group-mind state, representing a collective aggregation of the pathogenic structures and its social infection across minds.

The “Identity-Based” variants of pathological violence are often not classified as “terrorism” but instead appear as “mass shootings” that have an individual-psychological foundation rather than a political motivation.  However, these individual variants share the same core features of the absence of empathy, absence of shared morality, and intent to cause immense suffering that are indicative of the same damaged information structures in the attachment networks of the brain.  Prime examples of this expression of the pathogen are Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Las Vegas.

Whereas the classification of  the variant strains of the “Warrior” terrorist mind are based on the outward justification offered by the pathogen for the violence, the classification of the variant strains of “Identity-Based” pathological violence are defined through their causal origins.

Degradation-Dignity:  The psychological importance of human dignity is a central and foundational psychological need.  When dignity is damaged, pathological hatred directed against a targeted group can act to restore and stabilize the damaged dignity structures.  Self-shame and exposed degradation are associated components of this variant.  Lower socioeconomic White supremacists are an example of this form of pathological violence, where targeting other ethic-racial groups for degradation and violence restores and stabilizes the damaged dignity structures created in this pathogen.

The Alienated Soul:  Pathological violence emerging from this variant strain of the pathogen develops through profoundly damaged social-bonding networks that create an extremely painful emptiness of core-being.  The immense suffering of the “Alienated Soul” leads to the intense pathological anger and pathological hatred the person displays for socially bonded humanity.  The Sandy Hook shooter and the Las Vegas shooter are likely variants of the “Alienated Soul” variant of the pathogen.

Cleanliness-Purity Variant:  This variant of pathological violence has strong disgust and self-shame overtones.  In this regard it is associated with the “Degradation-Dignity” variant, as evidenced in the desire of the racist to maintain “racial purity.”  The “Cleanliness-Purity” variant carries stronger visceral disgust themes and a greater visceral hatred (reflecting self-loathing turned to the targeted group), and the “Cleanliness-Purity” variant has an exceedingly high propensity for excessively brutal violence, whereas the “Degradation-Dignity” variant carries less visceral disgust and stronger themes of power and domination. 

The 1940s Nazi mind of antisemitism that arose in Germany represents an example of this variant of the pathogen.  This 1940s Nazi antisemitism also evidences the “Degradation-Dignity” themes in the humiliation of the World War I defeat, so these two variants may represent the same core structures, and I may wind up combining the “Degradation-Dignity” and “Cleanliness-Purity” strains.  But for the time being they seem to have sufficiently differing expressions as to warrant separate classification.

The extremely high brutal-violence index of the “Cleanliness-Purity” variant also suggests that it may be strongly related to the extremely high brutal-violence index of the “Holy Warrior of God” variant.  As I delve deeper into both the “Cleanliness-Purity” and the “Holy Warrior of God” variants I am fully expecting to identify the same core sequence of damaged information structures linking these variants.  I already suspect which information structures are the likely links, I just need to work out the exact path.

A few key damaged information structures in the “Cleanliness-Purity” variant appear to divert the pathogen’s outward expression into more obsessive-compulsive domains, whereas a different set of key features in the associated damaged information structures of the “Holy Warrior of God” variant appear to divert the pathogen into stronger delusional pathology.  I just haven’t had time yet to identify the exact path of these key differences.

My Current Focus

My strongest current focus is on unlocking the deep pathology of the “Holy Warrior of God” variant, as this represents the greatest threat of actively brutal violence.  The Manchester bombing, Nice, and Paris attacks all stem from this extremely malignant variant. 

My second current focus is on identifying the triggers-to-violence for the “Alienated Soul” variant.  Many brains carry social-alienation vulnerabilities, yet only a few brains with social-alienation trigger into violence.  Identifying the triggering information structures is critical for disabling the activation into violence for this variant strain of pathological violence.

For my own clarity I am working up a coding system for the various strains of pathological violence, similar to the coding system I’m working on to categorize the various forms of parent-child conflict in families.  The Terrorist Mind coding system would identify the Primary Category and Secondary Contributing Category, along with a set of Modifiers:

001:  The Warrior Terrorist Pathology

W-01:  Freedom Fighter
W-02:  Holy Warrior of God
W-03:  Revolutionary

002: Identity-Based Terrorist Pathology

I-01:  Degradation-Dignity
I-02:  Alienated Soul
I-03:  Cleanliness-Purity

003: ??? Dictator/State-Sponsored Terrorist Pathology


M-01-x:  Oppression Index: Response to Surrounding Oppression

1 = No oppression
3 = Social oppression
5 = Violent oppression
7 = Genocidal oppression

M-02:  Charismatic leader
M-03:  Loyal follower
M:04:  Societal validation
M-05:  Limited sub-cultural validation
M-06:  “Lone-wolf” individual action

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

The Viral Code of Pathological Violence

 There is a saying attributed to the 1960’s philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”  We don’t see that which surrounds us. 

We all live in a brain.  The brain has a set of networks called the attachment system that governs all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss.  If the brain is compared to a computer, then the attachment system represents the love-and-bonding software program of the brain.

Since we all live in a brain, and since all brains have the love-and-bonding “software program” of the attachment system, we become accustomed to the operation of our own particular attachment motivations as a fish becomes accustomed to the water in which it swims.  Just as the fish doesn’t see the water, we don’t see the operation of our attachment networks.  Our attachment system and its motivations are too familiar to us, our attachment system simply forms the ground of our social experience – an invisible influence because it surrounds us everywhere we turn.

In interpreting the actions of others, we typically use our own experience to make sense of the experience of others as we try to understand their motivations.  We apply our own motivations and expectations for love and social bonding to others, assuming they have broadly similar motivations.  Typically, this application of our own love-and-bonding system to the motivations of others creates a relatively accurate understanding for the social motivations of other people, and the actions of other people generally tend to make sense to us.  This allows us to then coordinate our social motivations and actions to their social motivations and actions.

We live in a social sea of our attachment networks (and a related second social system that creates a shared psychological connection; called “intersubjectivity”).  We generally aren’t aware of how our attachment system is guiding and directing our social choices, interpretations, and responses.  We swim in the water of our social relationships without recognizing the various currents and flows of the water that organize and guide our social actions and our social bonding behavior.

But when the attachment system is significantly dysfunctional in someone else, we then glimpse the water through the fish that’s out of water; in the social incapacity of a child with autism, in the unfathomable cruelty of a sociopathic criminal, in the isolative social behavior of the schizoid personality, or in the chaotic relationship behavior of the borderline personality.

The characteristic biases that are created by our own and by other’s attachment networks we call “personality” characteristics.  Generally, we allow for a broad swath of “personality” tendencies in other people’s attachment system expression as being normal-range, and we flex our own attachment networks and social motivations to allow us to understand the other person’s social motivations and social behavior.  Someone who has a socially engaged and gregarious “personality” can still also understand the motivations of others who may have more socially withdrawn and reserved “personalities.”  We typically allow for a broad range of normal as we swim in the invisible shared water of the our brain’s social bonding networks, accepting our social motivations without fully understanding their complex origins in the attachment networks of our brain.

But we can catch a glimpse of the invisible influence of the brain’s attachment networks when the attachment system of someone else is severely dysfunctional.  Their social motivations become incomprehensible to us, their love-and-bonding behavior may be avoidant or chaotic, their grieving surrounding perceived loss may become distorted in ways that are unrecognizable to us as sadness surrounding loss, and their social behavior becomes significantly dysfunctional. 

Incomprehensible.  Why did they do that?  Their social behavior makes no sense to us.  When we try to apply our own normal-range attachment networks to understanding their social actions (a process called empathy), trying to make sense of what motivated their social actions, we can’t, it is impossible for us to understand what motivated their actions… their actions don’t make sense to us. 

We are like fish who are swimming in an invisible social water that surrounds us.  They are like a fish out of water, the autistic child, the sociopath, the borderline personality.  It is impossible for us to understand their motivations.

But not if we understand the attachment system, its developmental origins, its functioning, and the characteristic causes for its dysfunctioning.  Once we understand the functioning of a deviant attachment network, then the deviant social behavior it creates becomes comprehensible.

Without an understanding for the brain’s social-regulatory system for love and social bonding, the cruelty of the terrorist mind is incomprehensible to us.  We cannot comprehend the motivation for flying planes into the World Trade Center, for placing a bomb at the Boston Marathon, for creating a killing platform on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel.  What could motivate someone to do something so horrific?   It is incomprehensible.

However, it is only incomprehensible when compared to our normal-range attachment systems, the water of social bonding that so completely envelops us that we don’t even see its operation.  But the actions of the terrorist mind are not incomprehensible.  A brain produced these actions of horrific violence.  We need to understand the brain.  We need to understand the social bonding system of the brain in order to understand the profound dysfunction to the social bonding networks that leads to the insanity of pathological violence.

Our entry point into comprehension is through the symptom features of the pathology:

A complete absence of empathy;

The absence of shared social morality;

The desire to inflict immense suffering in others.

These characteristic features are all produced within the brain’s social networks of the terrorist mind.  These actions that seem so incomprehensible to us are all fully understandable once we understand how the attachment networks of the brain operate.  We cannot understand the terrorist mind by comparing it to our normal-range socially organized mind.  We must first see the water to understand what went wrong in the mind of pathological violence.

Viral Source Code in a Software Program

Think of the brain as an information processing system, like a computer.  The neurological networks are analogous to the computer’s “hardware.”  The brain then runs various “software programs” on its neurological hardware, “software programs” for sensory perception, for language, for social bonding, for motor control, for reasoning.

The attachment system is the brain’s software program for love-and-bonding, like a word processing program running on a computer.  Just like the operation of the software programs used by computers are based on their computer code, the brain’s software program for love and social bonding (the attachment system) has analogous “computer code” that guides the person’s social interpretations, social responses, and social behavior.  

Just like the word processing software on a computer has computer code governing the functioning of the software, the brain’s software program for love and social bonding contains “computer code” governing our social bonding behavior.

Differing coding instructions contained within a software program will create the software program’s differing characteristic responses to information.  Using the same computer hardware, an accounting software package uses its software code to process information in a different way from the way the word processing software on the computer processes its information. 

So too, the brain’s “software program” for social bonding uses its distinctive “computer code” to process information on the brain’s neurological hardware differently than the brain’s software programs for visual-spacial perception, language, reasoning, etc.  Same computer, different software packages doing different characteristic things.

Within the love-and-bonding software of the brain, the attachment networks, differing “software code” in our attachment networks will create differing social responses – our different personality characteristic and our differing characteristic approaches to social behavior.  Damaged computer code within a software program will cause the program to become dysfunctional, and severely damaged computer code in a software program may lead the entire software program to crash.

The terrorist mind contains severely damaged “software code” in the brain’s social bonding software.  It’s analogous to a computer virus that infects the love-and-bonding system of the brain.  The damaged “software code” within the attachment networks of the brain crashes the social bonding system, resulting in the symptom features of pathological anger, pathological hatred, and pathological violence.  All of this pathology results from severely damaged “software code” in the love-and-bonding system of the brain.

The horror of 911.  The Boston marathon bombing.  Sandy Hook.  The Pulse nightclub shooting.  The truck attack in Nice.  The Paris shootings.  The Christmas attack in Berlin.  The summer camp shooting in Norway.  The Mumbai terror attacks.  The violence in Barcelona.  The subway bombing in St. Petersburg.  The attacks in London.  The Manchester bombing.  Las Vegas.

The actions of the terrorist mind are incomprehensible to us. 

But they are not incomprehensible if one knows where to look in the “computer code” of the brain’s love-and-bonding software.  The formation of the terrorist mind is an attachment-related pathology; it is a pathology emerging from damaged information structures (“software code”) in the love and social bonding system of the brain.

The pathological violence of the terrorist mind is created by a characteristic set of damaged “software code” in the love-and-bonding system of the brain.  The entry into understanding what seems to be incomprehensible is through the core symptoms of the pathology; the complete absence of normal-range empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the person’s desire to create immense suffering in others.

The current approach to understanding terrorism is inadequate because the terrorism “experts” are not looking in the right places.  They are not looking to the deviant “software code” of the attachment networks.  Do we need to interview the terrorist to read the damaged “software code”?  No.  We can decipher the damaged code by the effects it has on the person’s behavior; the complete absence of normal-range empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the person’s desire to create immense suffering in others.  When we understand the coding structure of the attachment system, this set of characteristic symptoms identifies exactly the damaged “software code” within the coding structure of the attachment system.

The anti-terrorism “experts” are not looking in the right place.  They are not experts in the coding structure of the attachment system so they don’t know where to look to find the pathology.  In 2004, the Committee on the Psychological Roots of Terrorism for the Madrid Summit on Terrorism, Security and Democracy reached the incorrect conclusion that “explanations at the level of individual psychology are insufficient in trying to understand why people become involved in terrorism.  The concepts of abnormality or psychopathology are not useful in understanding terrorism.”

Nonsense.  They are simply not looking in the proper place.

Pathological violence is created by a set of damaged information structures (“software code”) in the attachment networks of the brain.  It is analogous to a “computer virus” in the “code structure” of the brain’s software program for social bonding; the attachment networks of the brain.

Through my work with attachment-related pathology I understand the coding structure of the attachment system.  The characteristic symptom features of pathological violence identify the damaged information structures (the deviant “software code”) in the attachment networks of the terrorist mind.

Just as a computer virus will be downloaded from computer to computer, so too the “viral code” within the attachment networks that creates pathological violence spreads through damaged attachment networks in brains that are made vulnerable by subtle but characteristic forms of attachment-related trauma.

Unlocking the Pathology

Empathy Symptoms:  How are empathy networks disabled in the social bonding system of the brain?  I know how.  I see the pathogenic structures in the attachment networks that are creating the terrorist mind. 

To my professional colleagues:  Understand how the empathy networks are disabled and you will gain critical insight into the formation and functioning of the terrorist mind.  First, understand how normal-range empathy develops in the attachment-related and intersubjectivity networks of the brain.  This will then open the door to understanding how the empathy system becomes disabled by the attachment-related trauma pathology in the terrorist mind.

To repair a car problem we must first understand the normal functioning of the car’s engine.  The car’s symptoms will then direct us to the source of the problem. 

To fix a problem in empathy we must first understand how the normal-range empathy system develops and functions.  The features of the pathology will then direct us to the source of the problem.

Moral Symptoms:  How do the shared social morality networks in the brain of the terrorist mind become disabled?  Again, first understand the formation and operation of the brain’s shared morality system (the intersubjectivity system).

From Daniel Stern:  “The intersubjective system can be considered separate from and complementary to the attachment motivational system.” (Stern, 2004, p. 100)

From Daniel Stern:  “Cohesion within human groups is greatly enhanced by moral suasion.  I will argue that intersubjectivity is the basic condition for morality.  The “moral emotions” (shame, guilt, embarrassment) arise from being able to see yourself in the eyes of another.” (Stern, 2004, p. 104)

From Daniel Stern:  “In brief, intersubjectivity contributes to group survival.  It promotes group formation and coherence.  It permits more efficient, rapid, flexible, and coordinated group functioning.  And it provides the basis for morality to act in maintaining group cohesion and language to act in group communication.” (Stern, 2004, p. 105)

Inflict Suffering:  Where does a desire to inflict immense suffering come from?  That is a critical door to understanding the terrorist mind.  Here we find variants of the pathology. 

The symptom feature of a desire to cause suffering is incredibly valuable in unlocking the deviant “software code” creating the terrorist mind. 

The desire to inflict suffering is caused by a specific set of damaged information structures in the attachment networks of the brain.  Damage to this specific set of information structures (“software code structures”) could potentially have several causal sources, but these potential causal sources are limited.  There are only a few ways of creating such severe damage to these specific information structures in the attachment system. 

These differing causal origins lead to several variant strains of the terrorist mind, such as the grandiose variant evidenced in someone like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the group-mind variant evidenced in 911 and the Paris shooting, and the isolative loner variant evidenced in the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Manchester bombing, and the Las Vegas shooting (I also strongly suspect that there is a gender variant manifestation to the pathology as well).  These variant strains of pathological violence reflect associated “software structures” created by the several differing causal origins creating the desire to inflict suffering, but the core set of damaged information structures is the same.

The desire to create suffering typically manifests along with a perception of “victimization,” which then feeds the development of “moral righteousness” in the terrorist mind.  This represents an important constellation of symptom features created by damage to a specific set of information structures in the attachment system, a specific “viral code” in the attachment networks of the brain.

The core “viral code” creating the terrorist mind is the same across variants, creating the characteristic symptom pattern of the complete absence of normal-range empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the desire to cause immense suffering.  The differing variants of the “terrorist mind” are created by the associated damaged information structures surrounding this core “viral code” contained in the attachment networks of the brain.

Associated Pathology Features

Motivational Systems:  The attachment system is a primary motivational system of the brain.  The viral code of the terrorist mind therefore has access to the motivational networks of the brain.  The pathology captures the person’s motivational directives and diverts the person’s motivation into the expression of pathological violence.

Identity Systems:  The attachment networks of the brain have extensive neurological linkages into the identity structures of the brain, and indeed the primary information structures in the attachment system form the ground foundation for identity.  The damaged “software code” structures in the attachment networks that create the pathological violence of the terrorist mind strongly engage and then distort the person’s identity structures, and motivate the person toward a shared deviant identity with the pathology of other brains sharing the same viral code.  The strong involvement of the brain’s identity structures is a prominent associated feature of pathological hatred and pathological violence that emerges from the attachment-related viral code structure.

Group Mind:  In some cases, the viral code amplifies itself through the intersubjective system by forming a shared social field (the terrorist group), while in other cases the viral code isolates the person in social alienation (the loner).  These variant expressions are dependent on a whether a key set of information structures in the attachment networks governing social bonding motivations are damaged or remain active.

Triggering:  Identifying the triggers for activating the pathology is what I’m currently unraveling.  This is critical to stopping the pathology.  There are a lot of brains that carry the attachment-trauma code for pathological hatred and anger, yet these brains do not trigger into the pathological violence of the terrorist mind.  Why does the viral code trigger into pathological violence in some brains and not in others?  That’s what I’m currently working to unlock.

The Las Vegas shooter remained relatively normal-range for 64 years.  I know why he did what he did, I know the pathogenic “source code” for the pathology, but I don’t yet know why the pathogen in the attachment networks didn’t trigger in the prior 64 years and then would trigger now.

Ultimately, once The Childress Institute is up and running, and once we’ve solved the attachment-related pathology of “parental alienation” in high-conflict divorce (AB-PA), then I’ll hopefully be able to work with governmental agencies, either in the U.S. or internationally, to be able to directly interview terrorist prisoners who are in custody to locate the triggering psychological “source code” for activating pathological violence. Identifying the triggering source code for pathological violence is challenging. 

In my prior career experience when I worked on a Department of Justice/FEMA project on the psychological assessment of juvenile firesetting behavior, I looked into the research literature on risk assessment.  The risk assessment ability of professional psychology is extraordinarily poor.  The prediction of violent behavior is essentially impossible.  We can identify a variety of risk factors, but many people have these risk factors and yet they don’t trigger into violence.  The best predictor is past behavior, but by that time it’s too late.

To identify the triggering psychological “source code” for pathological violence I need information that is not available from the interviews with terrorists that I’ve researched so far, because the terrorism “experts” reporting on the terrorist mind don’t know what to look for in acquiring information.  I need to be in the same room with the terrorist mind that has already activated to potentially acquire the information I need to identify the triggering source code for the pathogenic violence. 

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. (emphasis added)

When the World is Insane

The words we use to characterize and describe events guide our thinking and perception of these events.

The construct of “terrorism” has emerged in prominence during the latter part of the 20th Century and is used to identify a category of violence against civilians that has the goal of advancing a political agenda.  The acts of violence are unpredictable and savage, creating traumatic fear in the victims – the terror.

Understanding the mind of the terrorist typically focuses on the political agenda of the perpetrator, their extremism, and their radicalization.  Efforts to identify underlying psychological characteristics shared by terrorists have been unsuccessful.

Within this construct of “terrorism,” the senseless violence in Las Vegas does not represent an act of terrorism since the killings were not with the goal of advancing a political agenda.

This distinction is false.  It represents a misunderstanding for the origins of pathological violence.  The “terrorist mind” that bombs a Manchester concert carries the same pathological information structures that create the profound absence of empathy, the complete absence of normal-range social morality, and the sadistic-perverse desire to create immense suffering in others, as does the “terrorist mind” of the the psychologically disturbed shooter on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel room killing concert goers below.

The distinction of political and non-political motivations for acts of savage violence reflects the ambivalence and lack of clarity in professional psychology regarding the psychological origins of pathological violence.  The key to unlocking a psychological understanding for pathological violence is through the central symptom features of the pathology, an absence of empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the goal of inflicting immense suffering.

The term “terrorism” is a misnomer for pathological violence.  The goal of pathological violence is not the creation of fear, it’s the creation of immense suffering.  The creation of fear is a secondary feature of the pathology in gratifying power motivations.  The primary goal of pathological violence is the creation of immense suffering in others. The core structure of the pathology is a profound absence of empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the sadistic-perverse goal of inflicting immense suffering.  These symptom characteristics are shared across all variants of pathological violence, from Las Vegas to Manchester, from Sandy Hook to Paris.

The pathology is not terrorism, it’s pathological anger, pathological hatred, and pathological violence.

Normalizing Pathology

As recently as the 20th Century saw the savage brutality of trench warfare and the government endorsed use of mustard gas in World War I, and in World War II the Germans dropped bombs on London while the British and Americans bombed German cities.  The goal of these civilian-targeted bombings of cities was to undermine the “morale” of the citizens for continued resistance by creating fear and terror.  Was bombing civilian populations to advance a political agenda (regime change in the various countries) during World War II terrorism? 

No.  It represents a form of socially endorsed savage violence we call “war.”

How are we to conceptualize the violence of the Japanese rape of Nanking and the Nazi holocaust? 

As “war crimes.”  We seemingly have rules for the allowable degree of savage brutality we can inflict on each other.  For the Allies to kill 25,000 German civilians in the bombing of Dresden is called “war.”  That is allowable violence, allowable death, and allowable destruction within the rules of allowable violence in “war.”

Psychologically, we are maturing across the centuries.  The violence of “war” that was once historically acceptable has become “illegal” (a “war crime”).  When Joshua defeated Jericho, the soldiers slaughtered every man, woman, and child within the conquered city.  In Joshua’s time, that was acceptable violence of “war.”  Today, the wholesale slaughter of an entire city of men, women, and children would be considered a “war crime.”

 As we emerge into increasing psychological health, even the sanctioned violence of “war” itself is being substantially questioned, and there is emerging an increased concern for limiting civilian casualties created by the violence of “war.”

Yet our societal history from the earliest of times is so entirely imbued with the normalization of severely pathological violence of “war” that the profession of psychology that has developed only within the 20th Century fails to recognize the psychopathology of pathological violence.  The approach of professional psychology to pathological violence is shaped by justifying the pathological violence of war as somehow normal.

That it is somehow justified for the Germans, British, French, Americans, Russians, Japanese, Chinese…, to all maim and kill each other in savage acts of violence is an insane idea. The savage violence we call “war” is insane.  It is societal-pathological violence, as opposed to the individualized socio-culturally influenced pathological violence of the “terrorist mind.”

The problem faced by professional psychology is that the insanity of pathological violence has been considered normal and fully acceptable since the beginnings of recorded history.  As we transition into psychological health, however, our acceptance and normalization of pathological violence is being challenged.

The violence of World War I, World War II, and war in general is still not recognized as pathological.  It is considered normal-range and acceptable violence.  It’s not, and to understand the pathological violence of the terrorist mind requires that professional psychology reorient to its normalization of inter-humanity violence generally.

Normal-range healthy humans do not kill each other.  Killing other people is not “normal” – it is pathological. 

Pathology – Pathology – Pathology

Killing other humans in war is a symptom of socio-pathology.  World War I was insane, and World War II that followed twenty years later was once again a societal-insanity.

Killing and maiming other humans through acts of “terrorism” to achieve a political goal is likewise a symptom of pathology, whether or not a justification is offered as it being a “war” of liberation.  It is the shared socio-individual insanity of pathological violence.

Killing others in mass murder, whether done in criminal secrecy or in a public murder-suicide event, is a symptom of pathology.  The core symptom features of a profound absence of empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and gratification from inflicting suffering are the same.

Placing a bomb outside a concert in Manchester is pathological violence.  Shooting concert goers from a sniper’s nest of an elevated hotel room in Las Vegas is pathological violence.   The killing in Syria, in Africa, and in Asia is pathological violence.

What professional psychology must fully recognize and acknowledge is that killing other people is always a sign of pathology.  Always.  The profound absence of empathy required to intentionally maim and kill another human being is not healthy; it is not normal.

Within our genetic diversity we are all a family, with a shared genetic origin in Africa and then across generations of complex family lineage and shared humanity.  These are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our fathers and mothers.  We come from the same human source of family, and with our current levels of global travel and global genetic integration we are merging back into the same human family.  Nowhere is this more fully epitomized than in the genetic diversity that forms Americans, we are a world-people from across global origins.

The peoples of France, Japan, England, Germany, Peru, Korea, Egypt, Nigeria, China, Spain, Italy… are not “enemies” – are never “enemies” – they are family of differing hues, voices, cultures, and beliefs, they are shared humanity with us.  Whether they are formally designated as “citizens” of the United States or as “citizens” of another jurisdiction, we are shared humanity.

Killing other people is always a symptom of pathology.  Historically, we have been severely pathological – insane.  The violence of World War I is insane.  The violence of the French revolution is insane.  The violence of the Armenian genocide is insane.

We are emerging into psychological health.

The 20th Century has seen the emergence of professional psychology, a field focused on supporting the development of our emotional and psychological health.

The 20th Century has witnessed the implementation of child abuse protection laws and increasing concern for healthy child development.

The 20th Century has developed an increasing aversion to the pathological violence of “war” leading to constructs such as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” and efforts to limit the death and injury for non-combatants caused by “war.”

When the Israeli Irgun engaged in “terrorist” acts against the British that caused civilian deaths, this violence was framed in the context of “war” – as freedom fighters using a-symmetric military tactics in their fight to end their oppression and achieve an independent homeland.

When the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine began campaigns of a-symmetric violence against Israel and the world, they too couched their violence in justifications of “war” – as freedom-fighters seeking to end their oppression and achieve an independent homeland.

The terrorist acts of the Provisional Irish Republican Army against the British were also framed in the context of a-symmetric “warfare” – as freedom fighters seeking an end to their oppression and liberation of their homeland from foreign rule.

Until professional psychology fully recognizes that the human slaughter of “war” is itself and by definition pathological, then professional psychology will remain unclear on the nature of the terrorist mind that creates the pathological violence.

Our tolerance and normalization of violent brutalization of each other as “war” biased the early perception of these “terrorist” expressions of pathological violence.  The immensely brutal violence of the French, Germans, British, Americans, Japanese, Russians, and so many others in World War I and World War II is not “normal.”  That humans worldwide should kill and slaughter each other with such excessively brutal violence is not “normal.”  And yet, such excessive human brutality was – and perhaps remains – normalized under the construct of “war.”

Are the violent acts of the terrorist simply a modern version of “war” – an acceptable form of violence for freedom fighters seeking self-rule.  Are the violent acts of the Jewish Irgun and the violent acts of Hamas and Hezbollah normalized within the construct of “war,” or are they outside the bounds of normalized violence?  Certainly, each side in “war” casts the other side as the villains.

When the world is insane, how does one recognize insanity?  When the savage violence of “war” is normalized as acceptable how then are we to interpret the violence of the Irgun, the PLO, and the IRA?   Is “terrorism” simply a-symmetrical warfare employed by the powerless and oppressed against their powerful oppressors?

What about al-Qaeda and Isis?  Has the violence by these groups of people exceeded the bounds of “acceptable” violence in the name of national liberation?  What about the violence of Syria’s civil war, has this exceeded the reasonableness for acceptable savage violence in acceptable civil wars?

Should we consider the violence of the Irgun, and the PLO, and the IRA to be the normal-range violence of “war,” justified as the a-symmetric warfare of national liberation?  Or should we consider it to be pathological violence – “terrorism” – that is outside the bounds of normal-range human “war” behavior?

When the world is insane, insanity becomes normalized.  From the perspective of professional psychology, the intentional killing of other human beings is not normal, it is not healthy, it is always a symptom of pathology.

A bomber in Manchester, shooters in Paris, a killer in Las Vegas, world wars, and the civil war in Syria are all symptoms of severe pathology.  The violence of bombing anyone is pathological.

Once professional psychology establishes the ground for conceptualizing pathological violence, then the pathogenic information structures in the brain that create pathological anger, pathological hatred, and pathological violence can be identified.

The violent maiming and slaughter of our fellows is not normal-range behavior.  Ever.  The wholesale nation-sanctioned brutalization of our collective brothers and sisters, our collective children, and our collective parents is not normal.  Ever.

The targeting of random people for violence is not normal.  Ever.  All of it is a pathological expression of anger that represents pathological violence.

Then, we can begin to unravel the pathology.  It is not “war,” it is not “terrorism,” it is not “murder,” it is all pathological violence.  The intentional killing of another human being is psychopathology – it is never normal.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857