Asperger’s, pedophiles, and questionable motivations

A dart to the Daily Beast, for its ill-informed speculation on Adam Lanza's psyche

Midway through the third page of the state’s attorney report on the Sandy Hook shootings, released last week, the authors ask a big question: “Why did the shooter murder twenty-seven people, including children?”

Despite the quest for answers, the report’s authors clarify up-front that the 48-page document does not elucidate the shooter’s motivation for killing 20 children and six teachers on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Unfortunately, that question may never be answered conclusively, despite the collection of extensive background information on the shooter through a multitude of interviews and other sources. The evidence clearly shows that the shooter planned his actions, including the taking of his own life, but there is no clear indication why he did so, or why he targeted Sandy Hook Elementary School.

This explicit transparency is perhaps why coverage of the report has, for the most part, succeeded in avoiding the pitfalls of the initial coverage of Sandy Hook. Last December, many publications speculated about Adam Lanza’s mental health—labeling him autistic and bipolar before finally settling on Asperger’s—and how it might have contributed to his violent actions. After Sandy Hook, the Associated Press style guide added an entry warning journalists of conflating violence with mental illness—though in the latest iteration of the DSM, Aspergers is no longer included as a disorder. The report specifies that attributing the massacre to untreated mental illness, Asperger’s or poor healthcare is unfounded. “What contribution [Asperger’s] made to the shootings, if any, is unknown,” reads the report, “as those mental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior.”

Most publications lead their coverage of the new report with the lack of conclusion of why Lanza killed. The Associated Press titled its report, “Conn. gunman’s motive still a mystery,” while CNN published “Sandy Hook shooter took motive to the grave.” Instead of analyzing the report, Slate gave an itemized list of quotes, which add up to a disembodied inventory of things we know about Lanza. While the spreadsheet of violent crimes Lanza maintained, his dislike of doornobs, and plastic trash bags he kept over his bedroom windows are creepy, they do not amount to answers. Plenty of people have odd habits and do not murder small children.

The Daily Beast published a notable exception to this parade of ethical news coverage, in a piece written Michael Daly Daley, special correspondent for the magazine tabloid. The article does what the other coverage delicately side-stepped. Titled “The Real Sandy Hook Motive,” Daley Daly concerns himself with a small piece of evidence— a few pieces of literature on pedophilia and advocating for pedophile rights found among Lanza’s belongings. (The report is vague on the content of the items, simply specifying that they are not “child porn.”)

Rather than delicately broaching the subject of Lanza’s motives, Daly jumps right in with his first line: “So maybe 20-year-old Adam Lanza was a kind of pedophile whose idea of having sex with kids was to shoot them.” There’s obviously a few wildly large assumptions here, the first being that Lanza’s possession of pro-pedophile literature makes him a pedophile—it actually requires a sustained orientation towards children for a long period of time—and that Lanza’s choice of young victims has anything to do with the documents that cluttered his room.

But Daly continues his speculation, calling a video of children being shot, found among his things, as “Lanza’s equivalent of kiddie porn.” When Daly recounts Lanza’s actions on December 14, he inserts himself into Lanza’s mind: “Lanza was proceeding to do what he really wanted, to kill children, when the rifle jammed.” It’s not as if the press and police haven’t struggled to understand why Lanza chose such young, helpless victims. Early reports speculating Lanza, who attended Sandy Hook elementary, had been bullied at the school have been shown inconclusive in the final report; acquaintances of Lanza disagree on what his school experience was like.

Despite its gross distortions of the report’s meaning, Daly’s piece has topped the Daily Beast’s “Read This” list for several days—something that’s especially dangerous considering how uncomfortable we are discussing pedophilia to begin with. People who identify as pedophiles—a term that only describes having sexual feelings for children, not acting on them—but haven’t acted on their urges already struggle to find treatment and support, so that they don’t offend. Therapy for pedophiles who want to stop their behavior is in the earliest stages of development, in part, because society is so uncomfortable with pedophile’s desires. A piece that suggests that Lanza might have been acting out his pedophilic urges by shooting children is not just inaccurate, it’s dangerous.

“One thing is for sure,” Daly ends the piece. “The motive must have had something to do with the age of most of the victims.” The problem, however, is that nothing of Lanza’s motivations on December 14 are sure and despite the comfort we might find in understanding them no real answers are coming anytime soon.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , , , ,