Manson appreciation syndrome

Charles MansonHuman nature is perverse in many ways. Why are some otherwise reasonable people sexually attracted only to partners who are obviously total losers, over and over? But irrationality is not confined to the personal sphere. There is a dark side of the psyche that pulls some in the direction of destruction and death, that admires really massive evil.

For example, how do you explain the popularity of Adolf Hitler, who started the Second World War and was responsible for the death of as many as 72 million human beings. Why do people collect Nazi memorabilia and dress up in SS uniforms? One would think that evil is repellent, but apparently the opposite is the case for many.

Or take the fascination with mass murderers, or particularly violent ones:

[Charles] Manson’s influence has ranged wide, in pop culture and beyond, covering fashion, graphics, music,] movies, television, and the stage. In an afterword composed for the 1994 edition of the non-fiction Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi quoted a BBC employee’s assertion that a “neo-Manson cult” existing then in Europe was represented by, among other things, approximately 70 rock bands playing songs by Manson and “songs in support of him.” – Wikipedia

Perhaps there is an evolutionary explanation for this. Someone with no compunctions about murder and a certain degree of cleverness (note that neither Hitler nor Manson were simply brutes) is likely to succeed in a world close to Hobbes’ state of nature, and this renders him an advantageous ally.

This is part of the reason that terrorism works. Terrorism creates fear, which in turn generates both hostility and identification (the Stockholm syndrome). But there is also an element of admiration for the degree of brutality and indifference to suffering that characterizes terrorist acts.

Israel, unfortunately, has been a laboratory for the study of the effects of terrorism since before the founding of the state, and in Israel we see both extremes: extreme hostility and hatred of Arabs by some, and a pathological desire to appease on the part of others — probably more Stockholm syndrome than Manson appreciation, since the latter is mostly displayed by those who view it from a safe distance.

Here in the US, most people responded to 9/11 with fear, horror, and anger as one would expect. But especially in academic environments, there was also a strong current of, almost, approval. Ward Churchill famously blamed the victims:

As for those in the World Trade Center… Well, really, let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly… If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it. — Wikipedia, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens

Churchill’s point of view was by no means extraordinary, although possibly he went out of his way to provoke a reaction (and it didn’t help that he impersonated an Indian, falsified his military record, and committed multiple forms of academic misconduct).

Jihadists claim that there has been a wave of conversion to Islam in the world since 9/11 and the other major terrorist actions. I’ve been unable to substantiate or refute this, but if it is true we can suggest several possible reasons, starting with the most benign:

  • The increased consciousness and discussion of Islam, which leads ‘searchers’ to consider it.
  • The perception that “if they are serious enough to die — and to kill so many — there must be something to it.”
  • Finally, a perverse attraction to the massive amount of evil done in the name of Islam.

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