Recent headlines proclaiming the orgy of death and suffering witnessed by passengers aboard a Greyhound bus traveling through Canada from Edmonton to Winnipeg, cannot have failed to shock all but the most callous among us. The tale unfolded of a young man hacked to death, his head cut from his shoulders. Finally, and most gruesomely, we heard how his attacker paraded up and down the bus, once other passengers had managed to disembark, holding the severed head aloft while eating parts of his victim.
Perhaps the questions on most lips was how and why anyone could bring themselves to commit an act surely best confined to a horror by Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King.
In fact, such gruesome crimes are not uncommon. I was reminded of this while reading Vineyard Views this week. Al Devito links to an article describing how a man in Greece cut off the head of his girlfriend and paraded it around the local town. Also in the news, the case of a missing British girl found murdered and dismembered in Brazil.
Three factors differentiate the bus murder from these others: 1) the crime was committed in full view of witnesses, 2) the victim was totally unknown to the assailant, and 3) the attacker ate parts of his victim. It is, in fact, only these factors that make the crime less than commonplace. Yet it is these very elements, particularly the first and third, that create the sense of horror and disbelief that drives to the core of our revulsion.
How could anyone debase themselves sufficient to perform such a heinous act? The only acceptable explanation is mental illness. But ‘mental illness’ is a convenient blanket covering a multitude of conditions. My own mother suffered a period of mental illness, though she could never have resorted to the crimes of Vince Weiguang Li, the perpetrator of the Canada bus slaying.
Maybe our difficulty in understanding what happened on that Greyhound bus has more to do with how we view ourselves, than any need to understand the motives of the killer.
Modern day society causes us to assess ourselves from the top down, rather than the bottom up. Instead of comprehending our actions based on where we’ve come from – our evolution – we are taught to be one stage lower than the gods. Constantly seeking the approval of a Creator, our minds have become detached from their distant ancestral base. Unfortunately, our brains have not.
Millions of years ago reptiles ruled the planet. It was a stark, unpleasant place. Reptiles had only the most basic of brain structures, but it was all they needed to survive in a ‘kill or be killed’ environment. Indeed, the prime motive for killing was food for survival.
The brain evolved over many millenia into what we have today. It did so, not by replacing what was already there, but through a process of addition, rather as a company might build its business upwards from a basement office into a multi-storey skyscraper.
Eons later, most employees aren’t even aware the basement exists. It’s now used to provide the rest of the building with its very basic services – still important, but much overlooked.
In fact, we visit this basement of our brain frequently, though rarely realizing we’ve been there. It’s responsible for the basic ingredients of our ‘flight or fight’ responses, though the ‘limbic’ or secondary section of the triune brain, first espoused by Paul D. MacLean in 1952, is also associated with this behavior. The human brain is such a complex organ that interaction between all three levels, the reptilian (or R-complex), paleomammalian and neomammalian, is continual.
The term ‘reptilian’ is sufficient to make us shudder. Most of us have an inbuilt revulsion to these cold-blooded, apparently emotionless, creatures. Any idea of a link between humanity and the reptilian is quickly rejected. Yet the link is both deep and strong. We all harbor reptilian tendencies within us. They are as much a part of our make-up as is the appreciation of art or fine music, but the achievement of their suppression has been one of the major challenges for human society through the ages. Unfortunately, like all things suppressed they occasionally burst out, as an airbag suddenly appears from nowhere when inflated by the impact of a car accident.
While I doubt anyone’s proved it yet, my belief is that extreme and sudden violence stems from the reptilian brain. We are all capable of it, yet in just a few of us, it seems possible the R-complex can completely override other brain functions, forcing them into submission and allowing the reptilian to take control. This would account for the otherwise unfathomable behavior exhibited by Vince Weiguang Li on the ill-fated greyhound bus.
While reptiles are not associated with self-awareness, some trigger must cause the creatures to feed. It’s possible the trigger is a basic, instinctive, form of the emotion that, in us, has evolved into intense pleasure. While scientists would probably argue the trigger is a purely visual response i.e. if it moves, eat it, that theory works fine for ancient reptiles, but in our more advanced brains, the killing instinct of the reptile combines with emotions unknown to this lowly, less evolved creature.
It’s my contention that Vince Weiguang Li experienced control by his reptilian brain, probably over a long period. The desire to kill became stronger and stronger, until eventually it was irresistible. His evolved brain would have fought against the primitive urge using reason and logic, creating an intense conflict psychiatrists would classify as psychosis.
The powerful, instinctive urges of the R-complex won out. Vince Weiguang Li had no choice but to kill. The intense satisfaction of the act caused him to mutilate his victim far beyond what was necessary simply to take life. To experience satiation, Li had to commit the ultimate, primeval act, and eat part of his kill.
What caused this degeneration into base, animalistic, behavior? It’s difficult to pin down, but for whatever reason, it would appear to be on the increase. As previously stated, the Greyhound bus incident was not the only example in recent days, though certainly the most obscene.
It’s known that violence breeds violence. Lack of respect for one’s fellow beings is a necessary prerequisite for war, whether in reality as in Iraq, or on the screen via movies or video games. The continual titillation of our reptilian brain with media-fed violence seems a likely ingredient in the recipe for disaster that culminated in the gruesome death of Tim McClean.
It may well have been just one of many other factors. Certainly, ‘mental illness’ would have played a part. Interestingly, following his arrest, Li begged the police to kill him. Did he, perhaps, feel it was the only way to prevent him repeating his crime?
If we spent more time concentrating on where we’ve come from, and accepting the dark, primeval cellars lurking in our minds, rather than concerning ourselves solely with the religious view of where we’re going and how ‘good’ we have to be to get there, it might be possible to better understand the primeval motivations driving those like Vince Weiguang Li, and maybe, just maybe, prevent another, similar, appalling incident.
 “Passenger beheaded on Canada bus” BBC, July 31st 2008
 “Man ‘admits Brazil girl murder'” BBC, Aug 1st 2008
 “Triune brain” Wikipedia
 “Paul D McClean” Wikipedia
Filed under: Darkness of the psyche