It took only a few hours after Friday's mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., for the media to ask if the perpetrator, Adam Lanza, had a history of mental illness.

Reports have suggested that Lanza suffered from Asperger syndrome and that he may have been on psychiatric drugs.

Pundits have asked if the killer's actions could have been prevented had he received proper psychiatric help.

These may be obvious questions and statements, but just how useful are they? Some social commentators wonder whether the status of Lanza's mental health will ever give a satisfactory answer to the horrific mayhem unleashed at Sandy Hook Elementary School - or any of the other estimated 61 mass killings in America since 1982. They suggest that looking for disease in the perpetrator helps us avoid looking at our own social ills.

Mental illness has become an easy catchall to explain inexplicable human acts, says science writer Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America.

Friday's killings were so unthinkable, says Whitaker, "that we just can't place it within any frame of reference that makes sense to us. . . . The best we come up with is to say, 'This person was crazy,' as if that will somehow be an explanation."

Harvard University psychologist Paula Joan Caplan says we've made a fetish out of medical and psychiatric jargon.

"In the last decades, we have become an intensely psychiatrized society, so that everything is supposedly explained if we put it in psychiatric language," says Caplan, coeditor of Bias in Psychiatric Diagnosis.

Connecticut therapist Gary Greenberg is equally frustrated by the media's need to diagnose Lanza.

"I think you could diagnose this guy with some mental illness or other, but it will never explain what happened. Show me a mental disorder that explains this," says Greenberg, author of the social critique Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease. "The fact remains that most people who have mental disorders don't pull out guns and kill people."

Greenberg says coming up with easy explanations for unthinkable crimes eases our own anxiety. It gives us the illusion of control.

"How we label inexplicable events varies with history. A few hundred years ago, we may have called this the work of Satan," he says. "My own feeling is, how could you see something like what happened . . . and not feel evil exists?"

But Greenberg says neither word, mad or evil, gets us very far in figuring out how to prevent these killings.

Using psychiatric labels to talk about Lanza's behavior deflects attention from the social conditions that gave rise to his actions, some commentators assert.

"We tend to react in two ways in such situations. We either focus completely on the perpetrator and the single act, or we take a social perspective and talk about gun control," says Robert Jensen, who teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Both are true in a sense, of course. But the bigger picture is this: What are the underlying cultural conditions that make [mass murders] not only possible but increasingly routine?"

Jensen, whose new book, Arguing for Our Lives: Critical Thinking in Crisis Times, is due in April, says we are increasingly turning away from communal bonds, defining ourselves only in terms of the most aggressive form of capitalism.

"We live in an incredibly corrosive culture that is not designed for people. It is designed for profits, for technology, for bureaucracy, but not for people," says Jensen. "I hope at least [Friday's shootings] can lead to a kind of deep conversation we really need to have about what it means to be human."

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com