After the mass shooting at a primary school in Connecticut killed 20 children and six staff, everyone, from the victims' family members to the general public, has the same question: Why?
Why did the gunman go on such a horrific rampage? Why did he murder innocent little kids? Why did it happen in such a supposedly safe town? And why did God allow it to happen?
These are all natural questions. Yet they might also be the most fruitless questions when there is random brutality. It isn't really possible to fathom, the real motivation for the crime is probably locked forever in the dead gunman's brain, and the answers we can come up with, if any, might be wrong and misleading.
As the details of the tragedy emerge, a lot of the focus has already been put on the psychological condition of the killer, 20-year-old Adam Lanza. He was a loner, smart but socially awkward, and, according to some reports, diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. The picture may be only partially formed but it is familiar.
For example, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and himself in the Virginia Tech massacre, had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, while James Holmes, the gunman who shot death 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, had sought help with mental illness, and one of the two killers in the Columbine High School massacre that claimed 15 lives including their own, had been taking anti-depressants.
A killer's mental illness might seem to be a convenient thing to blame. Normal people wouldn't commit mad acts like these, will they? But if mental illness triggered these killings, the "why" question may never get an answer because normal logic would suggest that anything from family problems to bullying may have triggered the shooting. Yet for a truly crazy person, this may all be irrelevant.
What makes it trickier are the murky and sometimes controversial boundaries of mental illness. In the US, psychologists and psychiatrists have long followed specific criteria to screen for mental illness. But the mercurial and mysterious human mind isn't always that easy to categorize.
In his 2011 book, The Psychopath Test, British writer and journalist Jon Ronson shed light on the thin and blurring lines between sanity and insanity. Before the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of psychiatric diagnosis in the US was published in 1980, experts questioned hundreds and thousands of regular Americans and found half of them had some sort of disorder based on the criteria in the manual.
Meanwhile, Wall Street and the political field may have a higher percentage of psychopaths than the rest of the population. After all, some psychopaths can take on many of the characteristics of leadership.
Creative geniuses are often a little odd. Was Steve Jobs normal? He certainly wasn't always nice. What about the great mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash, the subject of the book and movie A Beautiful Mind?
Ronson pointed out in the finale of the book: "And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things."
Clearly he doesn't mean mass shootings.
Many symptoms of Aspergers were mainly considered as signs of quirkiness until it was added in the DSM in 1994. Now over-diagnosis has become a concern. Many factors have contributed to this problem, the rising awareness, the availability of special education resources, and also, the desire to explain why your kid is a little different.
"We have a strong urge to find labels for disturbing behaviors; naming things gives us an (often false) feeling that we control them," said Allen Frances, professor emeritus at the Department of Psychology at Duke University who also chaired the fifth edition DSM task force, in an op-ed piece for the New York Post earlier this year.
Human beings naturally want to find reason in our lives as it can help us avoid mistakes and allow us to grow. But this can only be so when we accept first that not everything in the world is easily explained. Without this awareness, reasoning can be a risky game that makes us either miss the dangerous signs in perfectly normal people or unfairly scrutinize those who are just a little different from the rest of us.
It doesn't mean no lessons can be learned from the tragedy. Stricter gun control laws and enforcement, tightening security at schools, and emergency drills for students, teachers and people working at other packed public places like hospitals and theaters can all help avoid or reduce the extent of future tragedies.
But it must be noted that these are the answers to the "how" rather than the "why" questions.
The author is a New York-based journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org