Mass violence: Why do they do it? What can we do about it?

Q : This week it was northern Illinois. But it seems like every time you turn around, somebody’s shooting up a school, workplace, or public area.  What makes a person snap and go on this kind of killing rampage?  Is there anything the public can do to protect themselves?  And what’s law enforcement’s role in preventing and responding to mass violence attacks?


A:  Mass murder is defined as the killing of multiple victims in a single incident, typically using the highest level of lethal technology available to the killer, which in most cases involves handguns, assault weapons, explosives, or arson.  Some types of mass murder are committed in the name of a political, religious, or ideological cause; we label these terrorism, but this is not what we’re talking about here.  In the case of the Omaha mall, and other like it, it is usually one disturbed individual whose fantasies of outrage and revenge impel him to explosive violence.

The mass violence cycle

An otherwise normal person, no matter how stressed, doesn’t just suddenly “snap” and go on a killing spree.  In virtually all of the cases that have been studied by behavioral scientists, there has emerged a predictable pattern in the evolution of most mass violence incidents.  The perpetrators are typically individuals with longstanding histories of contact with the legal, mental health, and/or substance abuse treatment systems; such was the case with the recent Omaha mall shooter, Robert Hawkins, as well as the Virginia Tech gunman this past April.  The cycle that leads to the lethal explosion typically begins when an individual experiences a build-up of stressors stemming from health, employment, or romantic problems.  Whereas most of us would be feel distressed under these circumstances, we generally try to do what we can to fix the problem, grumble about what we can’t control, distract ourselves with something enjoyable, and generally soldier on.

But the violence-prone individual is typically an externalizer – he’s looking for someone to blame and his reaction often involves a noxious brew of persecutory ideation, projection of fault, and violent revenge fantasies.  This is partly due to his general sense of narcissistic entitlement and tendency toward impulsive self-gratification, paradoxically fueled by his self-perceived incompetence to take any real constructive action.  As these thoughts and emotions continue to percolate, the individual increasingly isolates himself from the input of others and accretes a mindset of self-justified martyrdom, often leading to hopeless suicidality with a retaliatory tinge: “If they can screw me, I can screw them back – bigtime.  Why should other people go on having what they want and enjoying themselves, when I can’t?  I may be going out, but I’m not going out alone.” The perpetrator fantasizes that after he’s gone, his Ramboesque exploits will be reported to millions of people around the world; his name will be a household word. Far from meekly slinking away, our hero will leave this world in a blaze of martial glory – just like in the movies.

The actual means of carrying out this commando action will be dictated by availability and, in our society, the easy obtainability of firearms usually makes this the method of choice.  The operational plan may be executed impulsively and immediately, or it may undergo meticulous planning with numerous revisions: Omaha mall witnesses later recalled Hawkins scouting out the place and entering and exiting several times. The final step is the violent act itself, which may occur any time from hours to months to years following the final perceived injustice. Vengeance has a long memory. 

Who commits mass murder?

As noted above, many people get their asses kicked by life but they don’t take their pain out violently on helpless or innocent people. Behavioral scientists have developed a rough sort of typology of clinical syndromes that may be associated with mass violence. But bear in mind that most individuals with these diagnoses don’t commit murder or violence – they may not necessarily be the most pleasant people to deal with, but most are essentially harmless.  It’s important that you don’t go around profiling the weird but otherwise peaceful citizens in your patrol area as a bunch of bombs ready to blow. They’re probably not, but understanding what makes them tick may help you intervene earlier and more effectively should trouble start to develop.

Mass violence perpetrators with paranoid personality disorder have shown a longstanding pattern of misinterpreting the words, actions, and motives of others as threatening, demeaning, or exploitive.  They may lie low and secretly nurse their grudges or they may be quite outspoken in their complaints, often filing numerous grievances, lawsuits, and restraining orders against employers, neighbors, or ex-mates before resorting to violence.

Individuals with antisocial personality disorder are likely to have left a long wake of employment, financial, legal, and personal troubles behind them.  They are motivated exclusively by self-interest and will utilize any means necessary, including violence and intimidation, to get what they want.  They are also usually quite impulsive and nonreflective and thus often compound their troubles through poor judgment and thoughtless actions.  Violence may be resorted to as “payback” for being wronged in some way.

Narcissistic personality disordered perpetrators feel a sense of entitlement: good things should come to them by virtue of their inherent superiority and specialness and, when they don’t, somebody’s got to pay.  These individuals can be very friendly and expansive one moment, as long as things are going their way and they’re getting the praise and recognition they think they deserve.  But their exquisitely thin skin may sustain a fatal ego-wound if they feel slighted or disrespected.  Then, they may resort to violence to “even the score.”

Perpetrators with borderline personality disorder experience drastic mood swings, mercurial personal attachments, and extremely intense emotional reactions.  Having idealized a particular job, mentor, or romantic partner, the borderline individual may be plunged into rageful despair by a subsequent rebuff or disappointment, real or imagined.  Their thirst for vindication and restoration of self-worth becomes an all-consuming passion and may include destructive or violent acts, usually centering around a specific person they once adored but have now demonized.  Many of these instances turn into hostage-barricade situations when the subject returns to the home or worksite to show the offending parties “what you’ve done to me.”

Many individuals with personality disorders may suffer varying degrees of depression, including thoughts of suicideImpulsive violence against the self and against others often go together, and the sense of hopelessness that is part of the depressed state may impel aggressive acting-out if the demoralized individual feels he has nothing to lose and decides to take others to the grave with him.  Indeed, the most common psychological recipe for mass violence consists of a mixture of anger, paranoia, and mood disorder.

Less commonly, organic brain syndromes due to head trauma, strokes, dementia, or epilepsy may be associated with short-lived, impulsively violent outbursts and may be preceded or accompanied by noticeable impairment in memory, concentration, reasoning, planning, or behavioral organization.  Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman was discovered to have a brain tumor on autopsy, but whether this played any role in his methodical 1966 campus killing spree is undetermined.  Finally, alcohol and drug abuse can potentiate violence from almost any other cause.   

Psychological effects of mass violence

Even among those not directly killed or wounded, acts of mass violence produce a psychological shockwave that impacts a wide variety of witnesses, friends, family, and community members, as we know from studying past episodes.

For example, in 1991, a gunman drove his truck into the front of a crowded cafeteria in Killeen, Texas and began shooting customers indiscriminately, many at point-blank range.  After being wounded by police, the gunman fatally shot himself, killing a total of 24 people. Over three-quarters of people who witnessed the violence reported symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including intrusive recall of the event, hyperstartle responses, insomnia, and nightmares.

Adverse psychological reactions are not necessarily inevitable, however. On May 5, 1992, during closing arguments of a divorce proceeding in the local courthouse of the small, upscale, St. Louis suburb of Clayton, Missouri, the estranged husband pulled two revolvers from his briefcase and shot his wife and both parties’ lawyers. He fired at the judge, missing him, and then strode through the back hallway, firing at several people. By the time police shot and wounded the gunman, his wife lay dead and five others were wounded.  The whole episode lasted less than ten minutes. 

Although a quarter of the witnesses studied showed posttraumatic symptoms after the courthouse shooting incident, three-quarters of this affected subsample were found to have pre-existing histories of psychiatric disorder and only ten percent of the subjects developed a new syndrome specifically as a result of this incident. 

Citizen and law enforcement repsonse to mass violence

While such studies may differ as to the scope of the psychological impact of mass violence, everyone agrees that all reasonable measures should be taken to prevent these tragedies and, when they occur, everything possible should be done for the survivors and other affected by the trauma. Many of the following recommendations for citizens and police agencies come from the lessons learned in dealing with workplace and school violence (see School Violence: The psychology of youthful mass murder and what to do about it).

Law enforcement agencies should collaborate with local businesses, schools, merchants, public facilities, and other organizations to proactively set up policies and procedures for preventing, responding to, and coping with the aftermath of a mass violence incident. The plan should include the following elements.

Law enforcement response includes establishing a mechanism for instantly notifying local law enforcement of an emerging threat or act of violence, with redundant backup contingency plans in case the primary notification mechanism fails to function. Following an incident, civilian authorities should know how to keep the crime scene intact until law enforcement has gone over the area.   

Mental health mobilization includes a prearranged plan for company representatives to contact their contracted mental health professionals immediately, arrange for the clinicians to meet first at the top levels of the organization for executive briefings, arranging for critical incident stress debriefings (CISD) for affected employees and stakeholders, and arranging a follow-up schedule for the clinicians to return for further psychological services as needed. 
Employee and family interventions include a designated person to notify the victims’ families of the incident and to be ready to offer them immediate support, counseling, and debriefing services.  Personnel managers at affected businesses should arrange time off for grieving and traumatized employees as appropriate.  After the initial stages of the incident have passed, the mental health clinician should help organizational managers and community leaders to find ways for survivors to memorialize the victims.
Legal measures include notifying in-house legal counsel or the company’s outside law firm, and they should be asked to respond to the scene, if necessary.

Post-incident investigations involve a collaborative effort between law enforcement and civilian authorities, and include questions about the nature of the perpetrator, his relationship to the organization or community, any warning signs that should have been heeded, and the organization’s and community’s overall security and threat assessment procedures.
Violence will probably never be entirely eliminated from society.  But local law enforcement officials can combine forces with civilian community leaders to reduce both the number and the severity of these incidents.  Although I can’t recall the name, some philosopher once said that a civilized society depends on its citizens feeling safe.

To learn more about these topics

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. 

NOTE:  If you have a question for this column, please submit it to this website.

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