Tag Archives: Telegraph

Aaron Alexis, PTSD, mass shootings, mental illness and video games: the real call of duty

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As more details emerge about Aaron Alexis, the gunman in yesterday’s Washington D.C. navy yard shooting that left 13 people — including Alexis — dead, many news outlets have been focusing on claims that he played violent video games “obsessively,” up to 16 hours a day. This is according to friends, who said he had a habit of playing Call of Duty for long hours. Some have connected this detail to claims that Adam Lanza and Anders Breivik also played Call of Duty at length.

But here’s the thing about the Call of Duty franchise: just eight of its games have sold 124 million units. While some of those sales were probably to the same people, it drives home the point that this is a best-selling game title. And when more than half of Americans play video games, that’s a whole lot of people playing Call of Duty. If it were going to lead players to commit mass shootings, we’d be seeing many more of them than we are.

(I was interviewed this morning on KGO Radio by Ronn Owens on this topic; follow this link to hear his program on Alexis’ interest in video games. I come in around the 19:50 mark.)

And here’s the thing about Alexis: it appears that he had been suffering from mental illness for more than a decade. His symptoms started shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in which he was a first responder. He was hearing voices as recently as six weeks ago. He “carried a .45 handgun tucked in his trousers with no holster ‘everywhere he went’ because he believed people would try to steal his belongings,” the Telegraph reported. I’m not a psychologist, but it’s clear there was much more going on with Alexis than his love of a good first-person shooter, and even when police were confronted with signs of his paranoia and delusions, they said “No further action was required.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that a man like Alexis, who was clearly trying to make a peaceful life in service of others, and who was also clearly suffering from some form of mental illness, couldn’t and didn’t get help. It’s heartbreaking to think that because he — like Lanza, Breivik, Holmes, Loughner, Harris, Klebold and so many others — slipped through the cracks somehow, 13 more are dead.

Jayne Gackenbach’s research suggests that soldiers and servicemen like Alexis who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder actually fare better when they play games like Call of Duty; such games reduce the number of nightmares they experience. Maybe the problem, at the end of the day, is that Alexis didn’t play enough video games; maybe he just couldn’t get the nightmares to stop, no matter what he tried.

I want to stress that while many suffer from mild to severe forms of mental illness, most of the time it doesn’t make people violent, either. But we need to know more about the nexus between psychological and neurological issues and the compulsion to commit mass violence. Culturally, it’s beyond time for us to destigmatize mental illness and amp up our mental-health resources so people like Alexis can get help before things get out of hand. Otherwise, these elaborate forms of suicide will continue unabated.

UK pony death: Satanists? No, hungry animals.

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Photo by Flickr user treehouse1977.

Shortly after a pony was killed in Dartmoor, England in July, journalists were quick to report that a Satanic cult was involved. The pony was found dead “with its tongue and eyes cut out, and its genitals and right ear sliced off at Yennadon Down, a remote, bushy area of the Devon National Park,” the Telegraph reported. “Experts,” including the area’s animal-protection officer, said Satanists were to blame.

However, after a police investigation, a more likely culprit has come to light: wild animals took bites from the pony, causing the wounds described in the Telegraph. Here’s what they said:

Devon and Cornwall police concluded earlier this week that the pony had died of natural causes. The much-discussed “mutilation” was not, in fact, mutilation at all, but instead the normal result of wild animals eating the pony’s organs and scattering its entrails.

“Initial media reports linked the death of the pony to satanic cults and ritualistic killing,” the police said in a statement. “The police have sought the advice of experts and have come to the view that the death of this pony was through natural causes. All the injuries can be attributed to those caused by other wild animals. This incident received significant media reporting, some of which was clearly sensationalist.”

If this sounds in any way familiar to you, that may be because it’s similar to what forensic experts found in the West Memphis Three case — more than a decade after three teens went to jail for their supposedly “Satanic ritual” killing of three young boys. Originally, experts claimed that the marks on the boys’ bodies were caused by a ritual knife; that turned out not to be the case. The teens, now in their 30s, were later released under an Alford plea.

July’s pony killing is not the first time rural England has been gripped with speculation about an equine death linked to so-called “occult” practices. Last January, a shadowy (and likely made-up) group was blamed for a horse’s death, mainly because it was killed on a supposedly Satanic holiday that turned out to have been fabricated by conservative Christians. In another instance, Satanists were blamed for a horse’s beheading last May. I will grant that in the latter case, the activity of wild animals seems less likely. But Satanic activity is just as unlikely, considering most most Satanists don’t practice animal sacrifice.

The larger problem, of course, is that hardly anyone knows that. There’s so much misinformation about Satanic and other occult practices — misinformation that seems plausible enough that people actually believe it — that folks have little reason to dig deeper before they start pointing fingers. As the Livescience article says:

One problem is that most ranchers and livestock officials have no idea what occurs in a real animal ritual sacrifice, so they can hardly make a valid comparison. Though animal sacrifice has been a part of many religions (including Christianity, Judaism and Islam), these days, the practice is mostly limited to Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santería, which has very specific procedures and rituals for the sacrifice (and typically sacrifice chickens or goats, not horses). … Of course, with something as mysterious and clandestine as suspected satanists, anything could be assumed to be the result of their sinister actions.

Satanists make a convenient and exciting scapegoat for such incidents. But these kinds of allegations can result in very real consequences for practicing Satanists, who are suspected, as a whole, of brutally slaughtering animals. That isn’t accurate and it isn’t fair.

Smart, nerdy kids and worried parents: three views on the influence of heavy metal


Slayer, doing what they do best. Photo by Flickr user Metal Chris.

Heavy metal has a ill-begotten reputation as music for dumb people. After all, the stereotype of the metal fan — at least in the 1980s — was the stoned, burned-out, dropout kid. Documentaries like heavy metal parking lot and that Geraldo Rivera special didn’t help.

But there have been studies — at least one — showing that some of the smartest students are among heavy metal’s biggest fans. According to the Telegraph, “Researchers found that, far from being a sign of delinquency and poor academic ability, many adolescent “metalheads” are extremely bright and often use the music to help them deal with the stresses and strains of being gifted social outsiders.”

“We are looking at a group with lower than average self-esteem that does not feel quite as well adjusted. They feel more stressed out and turn to heavy metal as a way of relieving that stress,” said the main researcher, Stuart Cadwallader.

When I shared this article among friends who like heavy metal some months ago, nobody was particularly surprised. Certainly the idea of the bright, nerdy metal fan was present in the San Francisco Bay Area when Brian Lew, AKA ümlaut, was a young photographer and friend to several struggling bands, including Metallica, Death Angel, Slayer and Exodus. His story about growing up with metal fits the Cadwallader study perfectly:

I never really tried to be a punk, because punks talk about real life, and how much it sucks. I didn’t want that. Metal gave me an escape. When a band like Venom would sing about sacrificing babies to Satan, I gravitated towards it—not because I wanted to sacrifice babies, but because it was a mythic fantasy thing that tapped into the epic things that fascinated my as a history geek, a science fiction geek, you name it. Iron Maiden sang about this stuff, and it gave me an identity, not an agenda.

Teens today who love heavy metal aren’t really all that different, nor are their reasons for loving the music. If parents chafe against the idea of kids listening to metal that carries a certain shock factor, such as Watain, then the best approach is simply to be curious. Ask questions, and keep an open mind to the answers. You never know — your interest may turn into something more, as happened with one father who recently wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune:

Metallica’s show proved quite a spectacle. A mostly steel-looking stage with lights that looked like hovering space creatures filled the arena floor. Near the end, we saw smoke coming from the sound mixing area. Seconds later, a roadie completely engulfed in flame dashed out from under the stage. I was ready to call my office with a real news story. Then the space-creature lights began exploding and falling everywhere. Soon, the stage was in shambles. …

I thought that one experience might be my last metal show. Was I ever wrong.

Do video games make teens aggressive, or do aggressive teens like aggressive games?


A new study finds that teens who play violent video games are more aggressive than those who don’t. Or does it? Photo by Flickr User soleface23.

A new longitudinal study of 1,492 teens at eight high schools in Canada looks at those who play violent video games regularly, and those who don’t, and asks them questions about their behavior. Here’s what Brock University researchers Teena Willoughby, Paul Adachi, and Marie Good say they found:

Sustained violent video game play was significantly related to steeper increases in adolescents’ trajectory of aggressive behavior over time. Moreover, greater violent video game play predicted higher levels of aggression over time, after controlling for previous levels of aggression, supporting the socialization hypothesis. In contrast, no support was found for the selection hypothesis. Nonviolent video game play also did not predict higher levels of aggressive behavior over time.

Right now, there’s no way to access the full study without paying for it, and the writeups in the Telegraph and Kotaku don’t shed a lot of light on the study’s details. Importantly, though, Kotaku did ask:

However, the study leaves open the distinction between correlation and causation. Publicly available materials leave unclear in which direction the link might actually go: do the games cause teenagers to act aggressively, or are teenagers with aggressive dispositions more likely also to play violent games?

(In that light, it’s important to note that the Telegraph’s headline, “Violent video games make teenagers more aggressive, study finds/Teenagers who play violent video games over a number of years become more aggressive towards other people as a result, a new study has found” is misleading.)

At any rate, I do wonder how this study went down, and that’s partly because I’m familiar with the work of Jonathan Freeman. In his book Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence, he points out that when study subjects are given permission to be more aggressive, they are more likely to be. (If you click through to that link, you can see some examples of what he’s talking about.)

Now, not all the kids in the Brock study were aggressive. The researchers found that only the teens playing violent video games became more aggressive; the ones playing nonviolent games weren’t aggressive. But here’s the thing: did the kids know what was being studied? Do they know, by now, that many people think violent video games make you violent? If so, wouldn’t that seem like a kind of permission, at least to a teenager? At the very least, maybe they are unconsciously living up to some kind of expectation.

It’s also a concern that kids are self-reporting their actions, without any objective measure to back up what they’re saying. Maybe those who play violent games are more comfortable with aggressive behavior, and with reporting it. Or maybe they think it’s cool, so they brag about little incidents, or exaggerate and say they were aggressive when they weren’t. Teens are trustworthy plenty of the time, but there could be enough in a study like this, who may not take it seriously, to skew the results.

Or, as Kotaku points out, it may simply be that kids who are more aggressive in general are also drawn to video games where aggression is okay. Which brings us to another question: How much more aggressive are aggressive kids who don’t play violent video games? That’s worth studying, too.

By the way, Backward Messages may be taking a little vacation over the next couple of weeks. I’ll post if I can, but things may not be back to normal until early November.

Horse killings: Satanic conspiracy or bad reporting?


Another horse mutilation in Cornwall — this one a beheading — has locals blaming Satanists. Again. Photo by flickr user Beer Coaster.

Someone in Cornwall doesn’t like horses. At least, that’s what their newspapers want you to believe.

In recent days, locals found a beheaded horse on Pentewan Beach, and a mutilated, pregnant mare dead in a field. They are, predictably, fingering Satanists for the attacks — and many reporters are listening.

A headline in the Telegraph proclaimed, “Satanic cult blamed for beheaded horse on beach: Fears are growing that a Satanic cult may be behind a spate of animal sacrifices.” Where did those fears come from? A local expert on Satanic practices? No. A fisherman:

A local fisherman told the Sun: “The head seemed to have been surgically removed in a sort of ritual. The way the artefacts were arranged made me shudder.”

No pesky details that would complicate the fear factor — just conjecture and enough scare words to get the imagination going.

In fact, that fisherman seemed to get around, talking to the Sun and the Daily Mail:

Speaking about the Cornwall horse killing, a fisherman told The Sun: ‘The way it was arranged makes me shudder. I believe whoever did this is sick and needs help.

‘It really seems like some sort of black magic ceremony has taken place.’

Reports of the attack on the pregnant mare, 19-year-old Penny, from This is Lincolnshire were thankfully much less sensationalistic, but that didn’t keep other major news outlets from lumping the attacks together — and using locals’ speculation to fuel tales of a Satanic conspiracy.

Let’s look at their evidence:
* They claim the horse slaughters were tied to the full “supermoon” May 6. The pregnant horse died May 3 or 4. The beheaded horse was found May 7. Neither happened on the full moon.
* The beheaded horse was found with a dead seagull and a cross. “Rest in Peace” was written in sand near the body. None of this is particularly Satanic.
* Three bulls had recently been “mutilated with blunt instruments” (how is that even possible?!) in St. Tudy, Cornwall.
* In January, another horse was slaughtered on a made-up “Satanic sacrifice day” that journalists didn’t bother verifying.

If indeed all these crimes were committed by the same person, that person would have to be incredibly dedicated. Pentewan Beach is 25 miles from St. Tudy and another 25 miles from Stithians, the site of the January killing. Stithians is more than 30 miles from St. Tudy. And Cornish roads aren’t like major motorways; traveling 25 miles can take an hour or more. Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, where the pregnant mare was killed, is more than 360 miles away from any of these places. The chances that they’re all linked are very, very small.

I give this link a workout, but in general, Satanists don’t sacrifice animals. However, the Romans and ancient Irish and Hindus did. I doubt any of these groups are offing horses in England, either, but pinning the crimes on them would at come closer to accuracy. Likewise, it’s amazing that, so many years after the Satanic Panic, the idea (and fear) of Satanic cults still exists, despite the lack of evidence.

It’s much more likely that bored teens in a few places are taking their frustrations out on animals — and locals should find out, because such acts are signs of antisocial personality disorder, or sociopathy. Someone who’s killing horses now may move on to killing humans later.

Mentally ill killer may be released from German prison; what’s Satan got to do with it?


Daniel and Manuela Ruda, pictured during their 2001 trial. Daniel could soon be released from prison. Photo by ddp’s Kirsten Neumann.

A mentally disturbed man could soon be released from German prison after serving 15 years for the bloody slaying of a friend.

The London Evening Standard reported that Daniel Ruda, 35, will go before a parole board in Germany next week. There, he will find out whether he will be released early for good behavior.

Ruda and his wife, Manuela, were sentenced to prison in early 2002 for the murder of Frank Hackert. The newlyweds allegedly stabbed Hackert a number of times before drinking his blood. Reporters, then and now, latched onto the fact that the Rudas claimed they were vampires. Some, including the Evening Standard’s Allan Hall, have continued to call the couple “Satanic.”

Why?

Well, according to the Telegraph, “they said the devil told them to” kill their friend.

Daniel Ruda, a car parts salesman, and Manuela, had admitted the killing, but said they were not responsible because they were acting on the devil’s orders. “Kill, sacrifice, bring souls,” was how they described the command.

The couple said they had chosen “Hacki”, as they called him, for sacrifice because he was “so funny and would be the perfect court jester for Satan”.

Throughout the trial, the Rudas showed off, appearing in outlandish costumes, flashing their devil-horn signals and threatening witnesses.

In general, people who believe the Devil is telling them to kill someone qualify as psychotic — not Satanic. Fortunately, the judge in this case recognized that, and assigned Daniel and Manuela to different psychiatric units. Since then, Daniel has apparently become the librarian of a prison near Dortmund, Germany. That’s not enough information to tell whether his condition has stabilized. Manuela remains in prison for her participation in the crime.

Unfortunately, the Ruda’s flamboyant behavior during the trial made them poster children for the anti-Satanists, who like to hold up photos (particularly this one of Manuela) of them as proof that Satanism leads to violence and homicide.

Satanism, like just about every other faith, does not endorse, condone, or encourage harming others — let alone killing them. You can argue that if the Rudas didn’t want to be held up as such an example, they shouldn’t have behaved the way they did — either during their crime or during their trial. But how much impulse control and personal responsibility can we expect from two people who are so clearly mentally unbalanced? And what of the press’ responsibility to report in a fair and accurate manner?

Furthering the “Satanic” rallying cry, as the Evening Standard did, does nothing to clarify whether Daniel Ruda is back to good health and safe for release. It also confuses a potentially frightened public into believing that Satanism is to blame for what happened — and that young people who find a home in this particular faith are vulnerable to (or likely to) carry out the same kinds of crimes. This is unfair to Satanists, to the public, and to the parents of teens exploring such faiths.

Do you think Daniel Ruda should be released from jail? What kinds of treatment do you think he should have received during his imprisonment, if any?