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The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide


The numbers are vanishingly small.  Murder-suicide accounts for just 2% of suicides, themselves numbering around 14 per 100,000.  Still, every death is a tragedy, and because it’s a tragedy it deserves study and understanding.  In The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide, Thomas Joiner puts forth the idea that the order is wrong.  Not the order of the actions but the order of the thoughts.  He posits that a person first decides on suicide then decides – based on a perverted sense of virtue – that another or others should die.

The virtues that Joiner proposes as the drivers are mercy, justice, duty, and glory.  People, he proposes, pervert these virtues to match their frame of the world in a way that ends in murder.  Simply, if I should die (by suicide), they should die as well (by murder).


The tragedy at Columbine High School unfortunately opens the chapter of school shootings, even though it was always intended to be a tragedy of bombs, which malfunctioned.  (See No Easy Answers for a different perspective on the tragedy.)  The stories coming out of Columbine were varied.  Some argued that the boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were bullied.  Joiner argues that they were not particularly singled out, and that their motive was glory.

They had decided on suicide but thought it would be great to go out in a “blaze of glory,” like Timothy McVeigh.  McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 – including some from the on-site preschool.  (See The Oklahoma City bombing.)  There were more people than that in their school.  Perhaps they could “break his record” and go down in history.

Luckily, due to the bomb failures they didn’t kill more than McVeigh.  They did, however, become synonymous with school shootings and will remain in the history books for a very long time.  This is much to the chagrin of their parents, who continue to try to understand how their precious babies could become killers.

It is at the very least plausible that they had first decided to die and then decided to turn it into a moment of glory, absolutely.  It lends the first bit of credence to the idea that perhaps murder-suicides happen when one believes they have nothing left to live for – and then they realize that societal norms no longer need to apply to them.  After all, what is someone going to do, kill them?

Demographics and Statistics

Interestingly, demographics of perpetrators of murder-suicide more closely resemble suicide victims than murderers.  (I use suicide victims, because while they are a perpetrator, they’re also a victim of suicide.)  Also, murder-suicide tends to follow the weekly cyclic pattern of suicide – peaking on Monday/Tuesday rather than of murder, which peaks around Saturday/Sunday.


Joiner criticizes the coupling of murder-suicide based on the timeframe.  In essence, the argument breaks down to the reality that any chosen timeframe would be arbitrary.  He is, of course, correct.  It would be arbitrary.  The line between a day, two, or ten is based on what seems to be reasonable.  It’s no different than the suggestion to see a primary care doctor every 12 months.  There’s no research to say whether 11 months or 13 months would be a better answer.  A reasonable starting point was proposed, and we’ve stuck with it.

The arguments extend into intent at the time of the murder.  Did the person intend suicide at the point of the murder, or did suicide become the answer on the basis of foiled plans?  It’s an important – but difficult to identify – distinction.  To get to suicide, we must infer intent – but here we have to infer the timing of that intent, and that feels doubly hard.


Joiner also emphasizes the difficulty with which someone kills another of their own species.  Hitler and the Nazis accomplished this by changing the perception of Jews to being sub-human.  If they’re not human, then the built-in prohibition to killing your own species didn’t apply.  (See Moral Disengagement and The Lucifer Effect for more.)

In wars, it’s well-known that opposite sides frequently engaged at close range without losses, because neither side would direct sufficient effort to killing an opponent.  Unfortunately, this often breaks down when one person kills someone on the opposite side, and the powers of protection and vengeance take hold and cause them to return fire.

It explains how a man could climb out above the trenches, holding up his trousers with one hand and carrying a message in the other, and make it without being shot – perhaps without even being shot at.  If someone comes to protect their way of life from “others” like fascists, having a very human problem like keeping their trousers up breaks the illusion that they’re something different from us.

Shoots and Kills the Officer

It’s like the news story, “Man Bites Dog.”  It’s the opposite of what you expect.  There are few situations where it’s clearer that an officer is authorized to use lethal force than when the person they’re speaking to is pointing a firearm at them.  There is a clear, intentional threat.  They’re within their rights to pull the trigger of their gun and injure or kill the person threatening them.  However, Joiner points out that there are several law enforcement officer deaths each year that are the result of such a standoff.  The officer issues the order to put down the gun, the person doesn’t, and ultimately shoots and often kills the officer.  What is difficult about these situations is why didn’t the officer shoot?

Joiner’s argument seems to be that they’re unable to take another’s life – even when their own is in mortal danger.  It’s a plausible explanation.

The more interesting societal question, for me, is that we’re dealing with excessive police violence against citizens – and, with these as examples, it appears the opposite is true as well.

Desire and Ability

It’s quite possible to desire something and to be unable to get it.  It’s easy to imagine a desire for a sports car or a large house and not be able to afford it.  Joiner uses the same approach to explain why people who want to die by suicide might not be able to accomplish it at a given moment.  In these cases, their desire becomes latent until a situation where the desire remains and means become available.

Here, it’s important to recognize that, overwhelmingly, the research suggests that few people will switch suicidal means once they’ve decided.  If they decide to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, not only will they not switch to hanging as a method, they’ll likely not find another bridge.  (That’s why it’s so great that we finally have anti-suicide barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge.)

This gap may hold back many who’ve decided on a means that is not readily available.

The Disagreements

I started reading The Perversion of Virtue to gain further insight after disagreeing with Joiner’s book, The Varieties of Suicidal Experience.  I find I still disagree with him about 100% of suicide victims having mental illness.  I still disagree that every suicide leaves detectable signs.  “Impulsive” from the perspective of having never thought about suicide before an attempt isn’t a reasonable standard when up to one-third of people have had suicidal thoughts in their lives.

Still, there’s something to the state of mind that people can get into.  (See Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind and Capture.)  It could very well be that murder-suicide is suicide followed by The Perversion of Virtue.