It's painful to address the aftermath of the tragic killing of 26 innocent people in Newtown, Connecticut, horrifically including 20 children. The last thing anyone wants to do is talk about politics in general. But people are struggling to make sense of the unimaginable, so it might help prevent such atrocities in the future to examine one crucial underlying aspect of the affair: the apparent mental illness of the assailant.

The murderer, Adam Lanza, has been described as intelligent, aloof and oblivious to pain. As a recent The profile relates:

One of the first details to emerge about Adam Lanza came from his brother, 24-year-old Ryan, who was briefly misidentified as the shooter. Ryan told ABC News that his brother “is autistic, or has Asperger's syndrome and a 'personality disorder.'” Former classmates described him as nervous, reported The New York Times, “with a flat affect.” “This was a deeply disturbed kid,” a family insider said. Adam reportedly had a disorder that prevented him from feeling pain. Autism and Asperger's are associated with difficulties in communicating, forming relationships, and feeling empathy for others, but not with premeditated violence, says Dr. Gabriella Rosen Kellerman at The Atlantic. Some types of “personality disorder,” such as anti-social personality disorder, are associated with dangerous outbursts

This is not to generalize about those who may suffer from such psychiatric afflictions. But the complex of psychological issues presented thus far suggests difficulty with socialization and developing a conscience; fear of consequences and forming emotional attachments are crucial to this developmental process.

So why do rampage killers commit such horrible acts? There are a number of causes that can be ruled out, according to the largest scientific study ever performed on the subject, going back more than fifty years, as published by the New York Times:

They are not drunk or high on drugs. They are not racists or Satanists, or addicted to violent video games, movies or music. [...] They give lots of warning and even tell people explicitly what they plan to do. They carry semiautomatic weapons they have obtained easily and, in most cases, legally. They do not try to get away. In the end, half turn their guns on themselves or are shot dead by others. They not only want to kill, they also want to die.

The blogger Ace of Spades has written a magnificent post that braver souls should read, because it captures in stark terms the psychological dynamics at play in such mass murderers. It explains how the evil anti-hero is a fantasy that those who feel impotent and powerless cling to, and the media inevitably feed into this narrative, sometimes spurring copycat killers. It is truly sophisticated enough to warrant the attention not only of readers, but of journalists and psychologists.

Ultimately, only professionally trained psychiatrists can conclude any formal diagnosis that may suggest Adam Lanza was a threat to himself or others. A Connecticut law that was defeated in February would help psychiatrists and the courts decide if troubled individuals, like Adam Lanza was, should be required to adhere to Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT):

Although there is some variation, the way these laws work in other states is simple: AOT laws preempt older statutes that only allow the mentally ill to be forcibly institutionalized for treatment if they've done harm to themselves or others.  This is possible because AOT laws allow a state to institutionalize a mentally ill person for treatment if the state has reason to suspect such institutionalization will prevent the individual from doing harm to self or others.

As AWR Hawkins of explains:

In February 2012, Connecticut Senate Bill 452 (SB452) was put forward to remedy the fact that Connecticut was one of less than ten states in the U.S. to lack an “assisted outpatient treatment” (AOT) law.

But the bill was passed to Connecticut's Joint Committee on Judiciary in March, where it quietly faded away because of opposition by those who viewed it as “egregious” and “outrageously discriminatory.”

Whether or not an individual should control the types and amount of medication that goes into his body is an extremely delicate issue, because it goes to the heart of individual rights. But if someone exhibits behavior that shows he is a danger to himself or others, then a modicum of intervention may be warranted to notify law enforcement and psychiatric specialists .

That being said, no one should be locked up against his will unless he has violated a law. There is a difference between odd personality characteristics and potentially violent behavior. One of the best things we can do personally is to make an effort to be kind to others, especially those who may appear left out or lonely. After an involved conversation, one might find that the person should seek help.

Update: Scientific research and criticism of journalistic practices added.