Demonic Males

What if Barack Obama — once a troubled young man, by his own admission — came to see the violence problems vexing the end of his administration, as male problems?

One week after Christopher Harper Mercer killed nine people and himself at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, we’re working toward a different viewpoint on the crisis.

And it is a crisis: a recent CRS report found that between 1999 and 2013 in America, there have been 314 mass shootings that have claimed more than 1,500 lives. As for the killer, there’s a type: 98% of them were committed by men — the average age is 28. And as violent crime drops, this kind of killing is on the rise according to research done at Harvard:


When we think about mass killings, we think of Dylann Roof’s massacre in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic killing spree in Santa Barbara. James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theater, and Adam Lanza killed 26 in an elementary school. We call them ‘loners’ living on the internet, amateur extremists. Sometimes they’re mentally ill, sometimes they’re enabled by a promiscuous gun culture akin to idolatry. (Meanwhile, there are Chicago neighborhoods with homicide rates higher than those in Honduras, the murder capital of the world.)

But what if we claimed them as sons, of our families, our country, our sex (for 49% of us), and of our species? That’s where our guest Andrew Solomon, the writer and psychologist, begins in his book, Far From The Tree. He has embedded with several of the families of mass shooters — first with Tom and Sue Klebold, then with Peter Lanza, father to the Newtown killer:

Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia, points out that many young men are asocial and unhappy, spend too much time online, become video-game addicts—but cause no harm. The few dangerous ones are impossible to identify. “Even if we knew who they were or were likely to be, whether they’d actually accept treatment is an open question. Among the hardest people to engage in treatment are young males who may be angry, suspicious, and socially isolated. Coming to a therapist’s office for an hour a week just to pour their heart out doesn’t seem like a particularly attractive opportunity, in general.”

Solomon writes up the element of mystery in the personal decision to commit violence, and still acknowledges the trends. You can hear a longer version of our conversation with him here:

The mass shooting is a distinctly American phenomenon, so much so that The Onion has made a dark, running joke of it. But the male pattern applies elsewhere: Åsne Seierstad once told us the story of Norway’s resident mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, a 33-year-old Warcraft obsessive who became the deadliest of them all one day in 2011.

Meanwhile, the average of the 9/11 hijackers was 26, Latin America is overrun by young men in gangs, and ISIS has welcomed 30,000 new recruits — mostly angry young men drawn down from Europe, Asia, and the countries of the Persian Gulf.

The primatologist Richard Wrangham will take us back to our origins, to the moment in evolutionary history when what he calls “demonic males” emerged in our hominid ancestors. We still see troops of male chimps launch bloody territorial ambushes. What should we see in that other world?

So with Solomon, Wrangham, doctor-anthropologist Melvin Konner and sociologist Michael Kimmel, we’ll ask whether the roots of our violence lie in our genes, our guns, or our guys — and what we can do to pacify the unfair sex.

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  • King Trollo

    “(Meanwhile, there are Chicago neighborhoods with homicide rates higher than those in Honduras, the murder capital of the world.)”

    this is ridiculous, but sensationalism sells. chicago again? whats wrong with this picrure?

    the neighborhood you refer to is little more than one square mile in size.

    the murder rate in honduras is already 11 times higher than chicago (funny how that part is missing), what do you think their neighborhood-level areas are like?

  • Shava Nerad

    We are not talking about demonic males, I think.

    This is a problem that is *just * American.

    School shootings are not typically frequent in the rest of the world

    In the US they have been prevalent compared to the rest of the world — not just since Columbine.

    However, in recent years they’ve been accelerating

    Part of this may be the overmedication of the young American male with stimulants. Not only with speed for ADD, but inappropriately diagnosing young men with ADD and medicating them with speed when they may have schizoaffective syndromes — which take the exact opposite neurochemical therapies. So putting a kid on Adderall when they need less dopamine in their system can lead to aggravating psychotic breaks.

    Yet we put these boys on these scheduled drugs and don’t monitor them, because it’s “just” ADHD.

    People with ADHD don’t shoot up classrooms — but people who don’t get support, and are just rubber stamped as ADD and set loose with scheduled medications and no counseling? That’s a pandemic problem in our culture.

  • casey1986

    If these atrocities were being committed by black males, they would not be humanized the way these angry, violent white males are being humanized. They would be called animals and predators, which is exactly how we should be describing these young while males who commit these atrocities.

  • vivek

    I’m impressed that NPR managed to find three of the good ones to put on the radio. How did you manage to transcend your base male nature, lads? Money and education and gainful employment? A sense that your life has some meaning? Please, enlighten me more as to how terrible all men are (except for you, of course).

    Here’s a hint: demonizing young males contributes to mass shootings.

  • Richard Gonci

    Thank you so much for producing a worthy (actually, the only worthy)
    reflection on our ongoing spate of mass-shootings I have encountered in any and
    all media. Your hour was mercifully free of the bromides that make even little
    old placid me want to shoot somebody!

  • PaulD

    It’s interesting that the guests admit that their are biological differences that give women an advantage for what they perceive the future to be. The implication there would be that there are biological differences that gave men an advantage in the past. They talk about this in a context of war, conquering and violence.

    Coupled with those bad things is exploration and innovation. War and competition has beget some of our greatest inventions and forced us to explore. Do we lose that in the future also?

    • Cambridge Forecast


      There are many intriguing books on human “animality” including Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” and various Frans de Walls primatology classics of recent years (ie your inner ape genre). Harvard’s E. O Wilson compares us to ants and termites in our

      I have a “funny” take on these analyses that stems from the contradictory messages from two 1966 books I
      read at the time. The books were:

      1. Konrad Lorenz’s classic on
      man-animal “ethology” (imprinted behavior)

      2. Peter Berger’s (Boston
      university sociologist) “The Social Construction of Reality” which argues that
      the “we” of all analyses comes before or alongside the “me” and therefore analyses
      are all very bound up with the moods and ephermeral nature of the “Zeitgeist”
      which takes away from their “eternal validity.”

      One wonders therefore, in a Peter Berger way, how the 1966 book that came out at the same time as his, the Lorenz book, might see a kernel of something but not the whole:

      On Aggression (German: Das sogenannte Böse zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression) is a 1963 book by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz; it was translated into English in 1966.[1] As he writes in the prologue, “the subject of this book is aggression,
      that is to say the fighting instinct in beast and man which is directed against
      members of the same species.” (Page 3)

      According to Lorenz, animals, particularly males, are
      biologically programmed to fight over resources.
      This behavior must be considered part of natural
      selection, as aggression leading to death or serious injury may
      eventually lead to extinction unless it has such a role.

      However, Lorenz does not state that
      aggressive behaviors are in any way more powerful, prevalent, or intense than
      more peaceful behaviors such as mating rituals. Rather, he negates the categorization of
      aggression as “contrary” to “positive” instincts like love, depicting it as
      a founding basis of other instincts and its role in animal communication.

      Additionally, Lorenz addresses behavior in
      humans, including discussion of a “hydraulic”
      model of emotional or instinctive pressures and their release, shared by Freud,
      and the abnormality of intraspecies violence and
      killing. His ‘hydraulic’ model, of aggression as a force that builds
      relentlessly without cause unless released, remains less popular than a model
      in which aggression is a response to frustrated desires and aim.”


      This 1966 “tour of the horizon,” via Konrad Lorenz and Peter Borger, might stimulate your thinking about violent young males.

      Lastly: think of the descriptions of Nazi “killer apes” like Odilo Globocnik of Vienna
      who is described in the standard refernce book on “The Hird Reich” as a site of tremendous “innate violence” which drew him to the Nazis in the first place. We wonder: is this a Konrad Lorenz “on aggression” phenomenon or a sociological one? Is such “innate violence” biogenetic or a malignant personality ”style”? Both? Neither?

      Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    Intriguing ROS discussion as per usual.

    I immediately think of three movies this talk brought to mind:

    1. “Badlands” with Martin Sheen playing young “killing machine”. (1973?)

    2. “Natural Born killers” (Woody Harrelson)
    (I have not seen the movie but know of it)

    3. “Compulsion” (Meyer Levin book, 1924 rich kids in Chicago get into Nietzschean (!) thrill killing.)

    (Might one drag in “A Clockwork orange” to capture this “running amok”?)


    As much as I might often instinctively dislike potential “psycho-babble”, one plausible “flashlight” on this youthful murderousness is provided by Erich Fromm ie “malignant narcissism”:

    “Social psychologist Erich Fromm first coined the term “malignant narcissism” in 1964, describing it as a “severe mental sickness” representing “the quintessence of evil”. He
    characterized the condition as “the most severe pathology and the root of
    the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity”.[4] Edith Weigert (1967) saw
    malignant narcissism as a “regressive escape from frustration by distortion and denial of reality”; while Herbert Rosenfeld (1971) described it as “a disturbing form of narcissistic
    personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive
    aspects of the self become idealized”.

    Developing their ideas further, the psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg pointed out that the antisocial
    personality was fundamentally narcissistic and without morality. Malignant
    narcissism includes a sadistic element, creating, in essence, a sadistic psychopath.
    In this essay, “malignant narcissism” and psychopathy are employed
    interchangeably. Kernberg first proposed malignant narcissism as a psychiatric
    diagnosis in 1984, but so far it has not been accepted in any of the medical
    manuals, such as the ICD-10 or the DSM-5.

    Kernberg described malignant narcissism as a syndrome
    characterized by a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial features, paranoid traits, and egosyntonic aggression.
    Other symptoms may include an absence of conscience,
    a psychological need for power, and a sense of importance (grandiosity).
    Pollock wrote: “The malignant narcissist is presented as pathologically
    grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation with characteristic
    demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism”.


    Kierkegaard (1813-1855) dives down deeper than the psychologizers or anthropologists. He posits somewhere in his writings a kind of despair he calls “hysteria of the spirit.”

    In “hysteria of the spirit”, a person has an argument not only with his status in the neighborhood, high school, or streetcorner society, his family or himself, but with life and existence itself.
    If this persists over too many seasons, the demonic in “demonic males” may emerge.

    Richard Melson

  • So many problems with what was said – Solomon lost me with his Embedded-ness:
    But hey, it’s a radio show Bob ! You can’t call the guests out on every
    little thing or major controversies such as the Dart and Ardrey killer ape theory has never been proven in early hominids.

    I’m gonna have to “go anecdotal” on this show re: demonic males.

    Most of the yoked, tatted, bald headed poseurs I work with beautifying
    million-dollar homes are sent to prison for drug offenses. For about a year, I worked with one that served time for violence.

    His tats identified him as a Juggalo (
    ) and a devil worshiper.
    Pretty scary, huh?

    He was a genuinely nice guy. He referred to all his friends as brothers
    and sisters and would do anything to help someone else. Very articulate and well read, but having read all the ‘wrong’ things. Upper middleclass background – Dad insurance, Mom worked for IBM.

    I said to him: without organized religion you wouldn’t have a devil to
    worship. He was good with that, which left me with the fact that people
    identify with all kinds of things. (Ask yourself: who has killed more people,
    the devil worshipers or the God worshippers?)

    I couldn’t get anywhere with social construct stuff so I assailed his drunkenness. He said he liked to drink (who doesn’t!). He said it stopped his mind from racing. Then he said ”But I’m not hearing voices!”

    So I looked up pre-schizophrenic behavior.

    Maybe 40 years ago, I read an article in Psychology Today that claimed schizophrenic behavior was the antidote for a segmented, fragmented, compartmentalized modern life – then there is Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind….

    I can’t finish listening to the show because this subject is mostly a
    figment of the media’s imagination.

    The most pervasive trait of human existence is the will and ability cooperate. Good luck trying to reconcile the individual with society.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    “He was a demon.”

    The ROS discussion might be grafted onto the previous ROS Hannah Arendt one.

    Her phrase about Eichmann, “the banality of evil” has reverberated through the decades. The following view of
    Eichmann by his Jewish slave-assistant Rabbi Murmelstein is the obverse, converse and reverse:

    “No character that you see onscreen this year will match the impact that is made by Benjamin Murmelstein.
    “The Last of the Unjust,” a new documentary, runs three hours and forty
    minutes, much of which is spent in his company, and very good company it is. We
    first see his head from behind, with its solid rolls of flesh. He turns to
    reveal a face of undimmed liveliness—seventy years old, and thickly spectacled,
    yet verging on the combative, and never too far from a smile. His voice tumbles
    over itself, so much does he have to impart, and any question sent in his
    direction is fired straight back, with barely a pause for thought. It is hard
    to imagine that doubts perplex his sleep. At a glance, you would guess he was a
    burgomaster: prosperous, well nourished, and well pleased with the
    world—retired from the bakery trade, perhaps, with a nice pile of dough.

    This is not the case. Murmelstein was a Viennese rabbi, born in 1905. After the Anschluss, in
    1938, he was involved in the emigration of Austrian Jews, more than a hundred
    and twenty thousand of whom escaped the country. In the course of his duties,
    Murmelstein had to answer to Adolf Eichmann, and among the satisfactions of the
    film is the scalding verbal portrait that he draws of Eichmann, whose rabidity
    was equalled by his bent for corruption. Short shrift is given to Hannah Arendt
    and her celebrated coining, in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” of “the banality of
    evil.” The man was far from banal, as Murmelstein explains: “He was a demon.”


    Richard Melson