‘A Malay,” the 1911 Encylopædia Britannica calmly informed its readers, “will suddenly and without reason rush into the street armed with kris or other weapon, and slash and cut at everybody he meets until he is killed.” Or, the entry might have added, until he kills himself.
The Britannica’s rather dry description, although almost certainly the consequence of both early-20th-century British imperial understatement and the insipid nature of writing that was destined for Edwardian reference works, is notably lacking in moral judgment. This turns out to be appropriate, for the Malays shared its phlegmatic approach toward those who visited death and destruction upon their communities. The perpetrators of “amok,” it was believed, were as much the victims as those whom they killed or maimed. Having been entered by an evil tiger spirit named “hantu belian,” a host was powerless to resist, and would be mourned in death like any other. No stigma. No disgrace. No opprobrium. Just mourning, and the sincere prayer that it wouldn’t happen again any time soon.
British imperialists, too, greeted reports of amok with a quiet resignation. Although the average colonial administrator had scant regard for tall tales of evil tigers and spiritual possessions, he nonetheless considered the cultures in which the notion of amok was given credence — namely, those of India, Malaya, the Philippines, Laos, Papua New Guinea, and Puerto Rico — to be lacking in the superior virtues of Western civilization. Savages, the architects of empire posited, could be refined and polished, and their culture-bound pathologies removed over time. And while such conceits did not prevent “amok” from being classified as a bona-fide psychological disorder as early as 1849, the racial theories that abounded did exempt Europeans from thinking themselves susceptible.
There is something in the claim that British civilization helped to prevent mass killings, as the British tendency to put killers on trial may well have dampened enthusiasm for murderous sprees. One way or another, most who succumbed to amok wound up dead, prompting suggestions from modern observers that intrinsic to the practice was the desire to die. In cultures with draconian prohibitions on suicide attempts, such as British Malaya, in which Islam was rife, this makes a lot of sense. Walter William Skeat, the British anthropologist who made it his life’s work to study Malay culture in the Victorian period, claimed in 1906 that “the custom has now died out in the British possessions . . . the offenders probably objecting to being caught and tried in cold blood.”
But whatever diminution in frequency Skeat thought he had observed in Malaya, it is undeniable that the practice now exists in some form or another in almost all cultures, a fact that deals a harmful blow to the tired assumption that “running amok” was a culture-bound idiosyncrasy that was eradicable among savages by the benevolent influence of the more civilized races. As the psychiatrist Manuel St. Martin has written, the myth that backwardness is “the predominant factor in the pathogenesis” of inexplicable killing sprees has long been accepted without question, despite such rampages’ being “observed in virtually all Western and Eastern cultures.” Amok, St. Martin continues, has “no geographic isolation”; instead, it “occurs frequently in modern industrialized societies.” Friday’s abomination in Connecticut should serve as an unwelcome reminder of that fact.
It occurs in a similar way, too. When you’re trying to kill somebody, as Eddie Izzard likes to joke, “the gun helps.” But it is not as important as one might think. “The number of victims in modern episodes,” St. Martin writes, “is similar to the number in amok despite the fact that handguns and rifles are used in contrast to the Malay swords of two centuries ago.” A grisly illustration of what a man possessed (for want of a better word) can do: In 1998, a 46-year-old Los Angeles aerospace engineer killed five people with a champagne bottle — including two strong 20-something men — before jumping to his death from a freeway overpass.
Those of us unconvinced by the Malay explanation and suspicious of possession talk might ask, What causes such things? Captain Cook, in his 1772 account of his voyages, eschewed the evil-tiger doctrine in favor of a more straightforward theory: “To run amock is to get drunk with opium . . . to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage.”
The “Amock” to which Cook refers is found in Henry Stanley’s translation of Barbosa’s Description of the Coasts of East Africa in the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century: “There are some of them [the Javanese] who go out into the streets, and kill as many persons as they meet. These are called Amuco.”
The Amuco were a pretty unpleasant collection of mercenary warriors whose services were used in Java and Malaya. The Amuco held that the gods favored only those who either won the battle or went out trying in a blaze of glory. A cousin of this glory-or-death ideal — kanji — would, tragically, become well known to American soldiers in the Pacific during the Second World War. It appears that the term — which, like the similar “berserk,” originated in wartime — was imported to describe those who displayed this sort of behavior off the battlefield.
Cook’s opium theory is clearly too simplistic, but modern thinking would suggest that he was on the right track in thinking pharmacologically. The fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes a long entry for “amok,” drawing a distinction between two forms. The first form, “beramok,” relates to violence that results from depression and loss. The other, simply termed “amok,” describes psychotic rage brought on by the urge to get even with a group or with society. Neither of these scans well with the original Malay implication that its host had shown no prior inclinations toward the behavior, but they do provide some explanation beyond the simply irrational.
In his 1998 paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Manuel St. Martin urges that we consider amok a global problem that is “an extreme of violent behavior,” the tragic consequence of “mental disorder, personality pathology, and psychosocial stressors.” Prevention, St. Martin argues, is the “only method of avoiding the damage that it causes.” This would range from a better set of drug prescriptions for those who show early signs of fitting the bill, to “hospitalization” for those who exhibit “severe psychotic symptoms” or “homicidal or suicidal urges.”
That so many have reacted to Friday’s abomination by condemning whatever appears to them to be the chief problem of our time is understandable. Many have blamed guns; others video games, or movies, or music. The religious see a spiritual vacuum, and social conservatives a decline in culture, education, and family. Indeed, modernity itself appears to be the culprit of choice. But a quick look at man’s violent and unpredictable history should indicate that such certainty is premature. At the very least, those who are seeking to craft a failsafe way of hindering their fellow citizens from running amok might first demonstrate some humility, for they will soon come to realize that, while the tiger may not be evil, they have it by the tail.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.