While still questions remain to the motives of Mohammed Merah, these questions will most likely be largely be ignored, since he is dead anyway. The case is closed. The pain remains.
But can one really speak of motives, as if the man could have gained anything by what he did. The question seems not to be the motives but the drive. One blogger, Amir Mizroch who attempts to answer this question of the drive on the psychological level, claims for example: “he was a deeply mentally disturbed, volatile and angry young man who was extremely violent …. He was rejected from the army twice. In 2010, he applied to join the French Foreign Legion but failed on his first day. This must have humiliated him deeply and added to his anger and need to prove his manhood.”
There are a lot of adjectives in there that I find require quotes from trained psychologists who knew Mohammed Merah before his murders. However, going on the basis of what was said, I would like to look at a different case before returning to this one. A similar case in which the drive is greater than the motive: that of Robert Bales, the US Army sergeant who has been charged with the murder of 17 Afghan villagers. Bales is still alive. So he still has a reputation to save, as does the US army. Something Mohammed Merah would not have even if he were alive.
The murders Bales committed in Afghanistan are no less tragic and no more excusable than those of Merah. What we see in the case of Bales, however, is a more professional and differentiated look at the drives attributable to the killings. For, again, he had no motive. Possible reasons cited (in particular by his lawyer) include that he was/may have been drunk, that he was bypassed for promotion, that he had financial troubles, and that he was suffering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). This latter reason has become the one which might save him from execution. Being against the death penalty, I hope that it or something else does. That does not mean that culpability should be lifted from him.
Similarities and Differences Between the Cases
What the Merah and Bales cases have in common is the callousness with which they killed their child victims. Bales in that he killed indiscriminately and burned the bodies, Merah for how he reportedly held one victim by the hair whilst he changed weapons. In terms of brutality, both men are comparable.
There are also differences between the two cases. Although both arguably pre-meditated, there is a different degree of planning involved in 1) phoning people to buy their car, then shooting them when they arrive and 2) freaking out and shooting everything in sight. Though I have no idea how American Justice differentiates degrees of pre-meditation. The main point of difference however is the positive attention being given to the psychology of the American soldier (TBI), whilst the psychology of Merah is largely explained with fanatism and unspecified, stigmatising mental illness.
Doubt and Reasonable Doubt
There seems to be some doubt as when exactly Bales’s TBI occurred. The American senate has asked for details. According to Reuters, the TBI occurred 2010, “after being in a vehicle that rolled over in Iraq”. The explanation seems out of touch with other research on TBI, which normally assumes blast damage. If Bales’s vehicle had turned over as a result of a blast (of which there was no mention) then soundwaves or a profound shaking of the head back and forward, damaging the frontal lobe (associated with executive control functions), would be imaginable (see diagram). The possibility cannot be ruled out, but does that constitute reasonable doubt?
Bales’s problems with executive function could however lie further back, according to armytimes.com when he was involved in a hit-and-run accident around 2008, and ran bleeding and wearing military clothes into the woods, indicating some instability previous to the 2010 vehicle incident, or perhaps earlier still, as would reports that he assaulted a girlfriend in 2002 seem to suggest. He was required to undergo anger management treatment in order to have the case dismissed.
Personality and Psychology
In the realm of personality, to get back to Amir Mizroch’s blog, both killers showed keen interest in the armed forces. Merah’s army applications were rejected. Bales were not. Amir Mizroch argues that this threatened Merah’s feeling of manliness. So if this be the case, what was it in Bales’s case that threatened his manhood, causing him to commit not only these disgraceful crimes, but also caused him to assault his girlfriend. I mean if we are to think in those kind of psychological terms, then we must try to make them as universal as possible.
Again according to the Army Times: “Bales joined the Army […] after studying business […] [he] handled investments before the market downturn pushed him out of the business.” Might this be a starting point? Personal failure in the economy? Who can know, but who can know in the case of Mohammed Merah. We have no way of knowing whether during the time he spent in a child penitentiary or at some other point in his life (during his training in Afghanistan/Pakistan, or some car or motorcycle accident) he also suffered traumatic brain injury. That may, if true serve as an explanation for the terrible things he did. But it cannot serve as an apology. And if not for Merah, then not for Sgt. Robert Bales.
I can well imagine that soldiers suffer from serious traunatic brain injury as a result of blasts and that this can have effects on the psyche. But I do not think American brains are any different from other human brains on this planet. If the medical resources available to American/European soldiers are to create apologetics for individual cases of murder we are well on the way to increasing the gap between the US and the THEM, if privileged soldiers who have access to cognitive scientific methods are regarded as non-culpable for their actions, whilst those who do not have access to such facilities (such as afghan or Taliban soldiers) are regarded simply as sick killers.
Maybe one day research will help us to understand the brain adequately, so that we will be able to see in advance such dangers arise. Until then, culpability is culpability.
The article that provoked me to write this: http://www.salon.com/2012/03/19/discussing_the_motives_of_the_afghan_shooter/
Interesting article about with similar concerns in the New York times http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/22/our-killers-are-mad-their-killers-are-bad/