Tuesday, 29 March 2016

On That Monday Morning Monstrosity In Taipei

I was walking my dogs in the park this (Monday) morning whilst there were two groups of parents with their toddlers running about. I passed between the two groups with my dogs using the footpath, and all was well. Yet I was nervous and somewhat annoyed because I spotted several instances of a toddler wandering off from the group unsupervised whilst his mother fiddled about with a smart phone. The odds of one of these toddlers getting bitten are very low because (a) I have control over my dogs, and (b) most of the moms were keeping a close eye on their kids, but it would not have been impossible given that one or two moms were seemingly more interested in their Line messages than keeping an eye on their kids.

It wasn't until later this afternoon that someone related the news in Taipei to me.

I mean... fucking hell.

The indelible torment of emotions that mother and the rest of her family must be going through right now is something I don't want to imagine. There are limits to how far empathy can go because so few people experience anything like that.


There have been two additional reports posted up at Focus Taiwan following the breaking news item this afternoon. The first is a statement by Taipei police that the suspect had previously been treated at a psychiatric hospital. The second is a response the mother gave to the media.

A couple of points I want to make first before I consider the content of those two reports...

1) Whilst more or less plausible conjectures may be offered to try to explain monstrosities like this, these will necessarily be based on uncertain, inductive reasoning, and it is difficult to see how we will ever get real knowledge of why or how these monsters come to exist and why they choose, or how they are "caused" to commit these abominable crimes.

2) Nevertheless, there will be no shortage of such "explanations" put forward in both mainstream and social media environments. Sometimes, if not usually, this will be done for the purpose of blame attribution and occasionally this will even have explicit political targets (as for example, two years ago when our famed "Bearded Polymath" insinuated that Cheng Chieh's (鄭捷) killing spree on the Taipei MRT was caused by "neoliberal ideology" and Taiwan's culture of long working hours).

Now let's consider the two reports, beginning with the police statement about the suspect's previous psychiatric treatment...
"Records showed that the 33-year-old man had sought treatment at the Taipei City Hospital Songde Branch, a public psychiatric hospital, but he does not have a government-issued disability card, the police said."
So the first thing they did was to get his identity and then run it through their records of people with a history of attending psychiatric hospitals, which means the hospitals are giving the police the names of at least some of their patients. Now at first it seems sensible to keep the police informed, but wait a minute... if you think it is necessary to inform the police, then surely that's because the institution has reason to judge this patient to be a danger to himself and others - or why else would they inform the police? If that's the case, then we may well ask why this individual was at liberty to walk the streets of Taipei? What is the decision making process as to whether an individual should be detained against their will? Should this, and similar previous cases, be taken as evidence that that process must be revised?

The second thing to note is that tail comment about the suspect's lack of a "government-issued disability card". Is this mentioned due to the legal implications (whatever they may be) for the suspect's future defence in court? Or is it mentioned in order to begin the process of blame attribution? Are the police suggesting that this monstrous crime occurred because the suspect apparently fell through the cracks of Taiwan's mental health institutions? If so the obvious inference to draw is that at least one senior figure in Taipei's police department thinks the current set up is inadequate and needs to be reformed. Or is there some other reason why the police might mention this fact?

More from that first Focus Taiwan report...
"The hospital confirmed that the suspect had sought treatment there once in 2014, but added that it does not prove he has a mental illness. At the time, the man admitted to taking drugs, but a drug test came up negative, the hospital said... 
  ...The suspect, identified only by his surname Wang, has also been convicted for drug offenses and is currently unemployed, the police said."
That important caveat at the beginning is always interesting: someone may voluntarily seek treatment at an institution and yet not have a mental illness. Of course people who suffer bereavement or other kinds of painful grief may seek counselling or cognitive therapy or other kinds of help, but that doesn't mean they are suffering from mental illnesses like the bi-polar disorders. Yet at the same time, that does seem to highlight how fuzzy and "pseudoscientific" the whole area of clinical psychology really is. If somebody is checking themselves into a psychiatric hospital, then surely it stands to reason that there is something wrong with them. It may not be something easily diagnosed under the DSM IV, but something moved that person to voluntarily seek treatment at a psychiatric hospital. My abiding memory of having studied a module in clinical psychology for my undergraduate degree was that although there were various more or less plausible theories to explain "mental illness", none of them were any good because they didn't have predictive power. This is not to cast aspersions upon people who work in the field. It is a difficult field to work in. I doubt I'd be able to make a better fist of it than anyone else, but I think they must admit to a great deal of uncertainty about their subject. When it comes to these things we call "mental illnesses" our knowledge and understanding of them really isn't very good at all.

Of course, within that statement as you might expect there is also the obligatory drugs reference: the suspect admitted to taking drugs, but they had no idea what he was on previously, or what he might take in the future. This is an angle that cannot be ruled out yet due to the dissociative and possibly psychotic effects of certain types of chemical inputs. I trust that a series of drugs test is one of the first things the police ran on this guy when they arrested him this morning - and that they did it as soon as possible. That being said, I would not expect them to find anything due to the availability of new synthetic drugs like methylenedioxypyrovalerone for which tests may not be available yet, as may have been the case with the "Miami Zombie" in 2012 (though obviously you'd think they'd have a test for MDPV and similar compounds by now).

On to the second report...
"Taipei, March 28 (CNA) Struggling to hold back her tears, the heartbroken mother of a child slain in a random attack in Taipei on Monday said she never imagined society was so unsafe and urged the government to take action so that people like the suspect will no longer exist."
That she was willing to speak to the media so soon after the event (it must literally have been a few hours afterwards) strikes me as a bit odd, but then again she must have been going through emotional and cognitive extremes so who's to say what a "normal" response to this sort of thing is.

That quote contains two claims as to what she said. The first claim that she never imagined society was so unsafe may be a somewhat garbled translation or, perhaps more likely, a sentiment expressed in raw language as it was being experienced. It may seem harsh to take something like that at face value and criticize, and there is almost certainly a more charitable interpretation of that comment that can be made, and I wouldn't begrudge her that under the circumstances by any means, but... I have to say this: didn't she read the newspapers or watch the news on television over the last few years? Did the Cheng Chieh  (鄭捷) story two years ago just pass her by? Didn't she see last year's story about that poor school girl surnamed Liu in Taipei city last year who had her throat cut? It seems incredible to me for someone to say that they didn't realize "society was so unsafe". The monsters are real. How is it that there are still people who (apparently) do not realize this?

There is also that second comment attributed to her about the government waving a magic wand such that the monsters will simply go away and cease to exist. Again this is obviously just the ramblings of a woman overcome with grief at having been so suddenly bereaved in the most cruel and monstrous way, and it is genuinely pitiable. The willful substitution of god for government. I almost wish I could take it seriously.
"I saw the suspect slashing my daughter with a cleaver. I immediately grabbed him but I could not pull him away," she said, adding that she screamed for help and passersby and nearby residents rushed to subdue the suspect."
It's just maddening to read that. A situation like that calls for the immediate physical strength of a man and lightening quick overwhelming violence, not mere tugging and pulling. It's so easy to say and yet so utterly futile.
"I did not know society is so unsafe. I really hope that the government will do something so that mothers will be at ease taking care of their children, or be at ease working," she said."
The plea to be put "at ease", whilst understandable, is simply not a valid response. As much as you might try to avoid reality, you will always fail. There is no magic wand that can make the monsters "go away". They are a part of reality, and probably always have been and always will be and the only safeguard you have is constant vigilance and preparation - it may be a cliche, but it's true.
"Suspects in these kinds of random killings lose their minds temporarily, and no law can resolve this, the mother said, urging the government to address the problem at its roots."I hope that we can address family and education issues so that people like this will disappear from our society," the mother said."
That is a little more lucid - "no law can resolve this" - but then she apparently thinks that social engineering will work. I very much doubt that. It may even be that such attempts will inadvertently produce yet more such monsters.


I wrote several blog posts in regards to the Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) case nearly two years ago, and they still read quite well I think and two of them are relevant to this case.

As I have already said, we don't know for sure why these monstrous crimes are committed or how precisely they are "caused" since there appears to be no religion or ideology or other soul-catching device at work. We can call it "nihilism" but that doesn't explain as much as shift the question back a step or two: what exactly happens to these perpetrator's values to annihilate their moral sense (assuming they had one to begin with)?

My own conjecture is that psychotic nihilism is a dislocation of values caused by the friction of prescription and proscription. When your own selection of values is frustrated and ground out of you, there is nothing left but the abyss. Psychotic nihilism is the endgame that arises when a person loses control over their own lives. At that point, it's game over and the abyss has no limits to what monstrosities an individual may engage in. However, in the comments to my post of Sunday, May 25th, 2014, "blobOfNeurons" said this:
"Every spree-killer has different reasons for wanting to hurt others but the reason they end up choosing to kill random must be because they lack the means to cause destruction in any other way... 
Therefore I believe the oft-mentioned asociality of these people is, in fact, key to understanding their actions, just not for the reason most people think. Most people fixate on the possible connection between asociality and (lack of) empathy and/or mental illness, whereas I think it's clear that the asociality is a symptom of the inability to influence others. It's that lack of power which is the problem."
I thought at the time that that was quite insightful, and I still do. It makes sense. I'm not sure if there is a substantial difference between a "lack of power" and a "loss of control", and it seems like my view and his view are quite similar, but his is much clearer and more specific.

If either or both of these views are correct, then it is not clear how any government (or anyone at all) could "engineer" a solution. Everybody needs some control over their lives (i.e. an ability to choose among values and actually acquire them) and everybody needs acquaintances, friends, families and loved ones but these cannot be "provided" or "bought". Nor can you coerce people into genuinely caring for someone anymore than you can force people to believe something they already know to be false. It just doesn't work like that.

In any case, from a practical standpoint, we should immediately do the things we know work to keep us out of harm's way - like vigilance and situational awareness. Perhaps Taiwanese parents could read the literature on these subjects by professional firearms trainers in the U.S. Even without a firearm, much of the basic training should still be of value in managing the risks around you and your child in an urban environment.

We might not be able to make the monsters go away, but if we keep them at the back of our mind, then we might just be alert enough to be able to beat the living shit out of them in the defence of a child.

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