From the October, 2005 issue of Touchstone

Killing Disorders by Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Killing Disorders

Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress by Rachel M. MacNair

Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences Of Killing
Universe Press, 2005
(207 pages, $17.95, paperback)

reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Even though human nature so resists causing death or harm to others that those who do it often suffer severe psychological problems, social scientists who study post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) almost never focus on the perpetrator, except in cases of “abusive violence” or “atrocities.”

Rachel MacNair, an independent researcher and director of the Institute for Integrated Social Analysis, does so in this very timely and important study of what she has named “perpetration-induced traumatic stress.” (She observes that “the concept that perpetration is itself a form of suffering is not unusual in religious literature.”)


In the first chapter, she sifts through research done on combat veterans, which oddly enough rarely distinguishes those soldiers who killed intentionally from those who did not, and yet, as she demonstrates, the post-trauma symptoms of the former are worse than those of the latter. Indeed, “those who had killed in light combat had a higher mean score [of PTSD] than those who had not killed in heavy combat.”

The symptoms, years later, may include sudden rages, emotional numbing, insomnia, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and imagery, hyper-arousal, self-hatred, and substance abuse. Some of these reactions were once vaguely described as “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” and “soldier’s heart” until the symptoms were studied more closely.

One reason there has been no focus on veterans who suffered perpetration-induced traumatic stress is that there is a consensus that the veteran has no reason to suffer apart from having committed “atrocities.” Only the villainous are supposed to suffer the psychological consequences of killing.

Looking at the testimony of public executioners and police officers, MacNair finds that even though their killings are socially sanctioned, a number still suffer post-traumatic stress similar to that endured by combat veterans. She cites Fred Allen, who after assisting in 120 executions was haunted by intrusive imagery: “Just like taking slides in a film projector and having a button and just pushing a button and just watching over and over, him, him, him.” She also cites John Robert Radclive, a former Canadian executioner, who lamented: “Now at night when I lie down, I start up with a roar as victim after victim comes up before me.”

In a chapter on the Nazis, she recounts how gas chambers were devised to create a “distance between executioner and victim” because of the “major psychological difficulties” developed by the Einsatzkommandos, earlier murder squads whose members would often commit suicide, go mad, or sink into alcoholism. One of these members, who had not even seen his victims’ faces when he shot them, lamented that he was haunted by their necks.

Abortionist Trauma

MacNair then examines the symptoms of post-traumatic stress as reported by abortion practitioners—now a subject of “intense debate.”

A good number of abortion staffers have nightmares related to their work, which suggests that they unconsciously view abortion as “a destructive act.” Former abortionist Dr. McArthur Hill spoke of a recurrent dream in which he had just delivered a healthy baby and had to ask “a jury of faceless people” what to do with the child: “If they made a thumbs down indication, then I was to drop the baby into a bucket of water.”

The American Medical News has called abortion facilities “America’s most controversial battleground.” MacNair notes that if many who work in them suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, “the term ‘battleground’ may be more real, less of a metaphor than is thought.”

She touches briefly on euthanasia in another chapter, pointing out that a lot more research is needed in this area. She notes that Jack Kevorkian’s obsession with death in his artwork could be “a form of the intrusive imagery and the reenactment symptom” and cites a Dutch doctor who, when asked if he paid a price for his involvement with euthanasia, replied: “I don’t sleep for the week after.” One hopes she will be able to proceed quickly with this valuable research.

MacNair also discusses the treatment available for those who have killed or harmed others, treatment that can prevent further violence, especially domestic abuse. Moreover, she carefully outlines the research urgently needed in this field and concludes that perpetration-induced traumatic stress “suggests that the human mind, contrary to certain political ideologies, is not well suited for killing.” She finds this “heartening information.”

Indeed! One cannot help but recall that the first political terrorists were called assassins precisely because they had to be high on hashish in order to commit acts of premeditated violence so contrary to human nature.

This book, which has a lengthy bibliography at the end of each chapter that is useful for further research, first came out in hardback in 2002 and has been reissued in paperback. The author’s The Psychology of Peace: An Introduction appeared in 2003 .

Rachel MacNair’s website is Her “The Nightmare of Choice” appeared in the September 2003 issue of Touchstone and is available on the website.

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.

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