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On Massacres, "Slaughterfest," and the Goldwater Rule

On Massacres, "Slaughterfest," and the Goldwater Rule

A new patient in a state of high agita pleads – “Doctor, you must help me! I’m tormented by a nameless fear!!”
“Please don’t worry, sir,” replies the psychiatrist soothingly. “We have a name for everything.”

The perpetrator of the recent shootings in Isla Vista, California, had been diagnosed with just about everything from the DSM, the ICD, and the FBI – Asperger syndrome, paranoid schizophrenia, narcissistic personality disorder, rampant sociopathy. . .. These wildly disparate assessments have been rendered by mental health professionals with qualifications ranging from credible to risible.

Those mental health professionals who made their pronouncements via the media all have one thing in common – they seriously violated the so-called “Goldwater rule.”

In 1964, a majority of psychiatrists (just how many isn’t certain) in a straw poll declared that Barry Goldwater was psychologically unfit for presidential office. Of course he was eminently sane. Psychiatrists of a liberal persuasion just abhorred his politics.

The utterly inappropriate statement about the wretched condition of Goldwater’s psyche, coming on the heels of other questionable opinions about public figures,  prompted the American Psychiatric Association’s Ethics Committee to establish guidelines about statements to the media about the mental status of the famous, the infamous, or Joe the Plumber. Essentially one was supposed to give an assessment or diagnosis regarding someone in the public eye only if a professional relationship existed, and then only with informed consent.

The Goldwater directive obtains today. It is a “rule” only in the vernacular sense, not an edict mandating punishment for its infraction. It wasn’t meant to apply to analytic study of past personalities (eg, Eric Erickson’s magisterial studies of Luther and Gandhi), or profiling  murderers on the loose. It carries moral rather than legal valence, implicitly restraining speculation about anyone in the limelight – a government official, celebrity, or perpetrator of a heinous crime.

Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals followed the Goldwater guidelines over the next 4 decades with rare exceptions—those usually found in “Boy Eats Other Foot” supermarket tabloids.

Unfortunately, ad hominem diagnoses have now become the rule. The escalation of public mayhem – at the Aurora multiplex, the Sandy Hook school, the Fort Hood PTSD center – has been paralleled by a garbage tide of unseemly jabber by therapists in the media. The Isla Vista massacre has provoked a notable plethora of such chatter, arguably sparked by the shooter’s interminable manifestos on Youtube and Facebook, as well as revelations about longstanding psychological problems.

By now, media coverage of these rampages comprises a grisly—and vastly profitable—reality show.

I’ll call it a Slaughterfest.

The typical Slaughterfest mingles searing pathos with saccharine bathos—between commercials. It commences with harrowing on-scene coverage of the catastrophe, accompanied by lurid descriptions by survivors, cops, and bystanders. This is followed over several days by interviews with the victims’ (less often, the perpetrator’s) relatives and acquaintances; shots of photographs, bouquets, and placards deposited at the murder site; funeral services in which a clergyman (or clergywoman) offers what comfort can be given to the stunned bereaved, and tries to wrestle whatever sense which can be made about the tragedy’s inherent senselessness. Tearful witness is duly borne to the victims’ virtues and—if young enough—their potential, lost forever.


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