Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

Can Future Perpetrators of Mass Killings be Identified?

We recognize tell-tale signs after the fact.

In the aftermath of the mass shootings that have taken place all too frequently in public places (schools, malls, etc.), discussion is taking place in this country about whether such events can be prevented. Despite the certainty expressed by some experts that we know enough to identify future perpetrators of mass murders, the answer unfortunately is that we are not able to predict such occurrences in advance.

After the fact, mental health professionals, educators, and others can point to "tell tale signs." It is quite a different matter to say that we can do this accurately before tragedy occurs. Many juveniles and adults express their "dark thoughts" in drawings, writings, and even in conversations. We pay to see mayhem and slaughter at the movies. Surely, every person who shows an interest in killing, articulates a wish for revenge, or renders chilling, violence-laden illustrations in doodles or in formal artistic work does not constitute a danger. Nor does every loner or student who seems weird pose a menace.

Let us suppose that we can spot a person who we think may become a school shooter. What do we do with him? Perhaps we can persuade him to see a counselor. Or, if he refuses and we have evidence he is dangerous to himself or others, we can obtain a court order for mental health services. We can compel him to obtain treatment. But we cannot force him to cooperate. Individuals with antisocial characteristics are quite opposed to treatment and do not believe they need it. They are not truthful. They are self-serving and are very good at feeding others what they think will get them out of a jam and off their back.

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In my book "Before It's Too Late," I maintain that we can detect in children early patterns that are precursors of criminal behavior sometimes as early as in the elementary grades. Just ask a fourth grade teacher if she knows a child who constantly lies, blames others for his wrongdoing, and insists on controlling others, using any means to an end! We do not know whether these children will become law breakers, much less school shooters. We do know that they will experience serious conflicts in interpersonal relationships and likely will injure others. We can do a great deal more than we are now doing in terms of identifying and helping some of these youngsters and engage in such an effort without labeling children as future "criminals." And, of course, we can encourage boys and girls to inform someone who is a responsible position with authority if they discover that another youngster is planning to harm someone.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think we can predict with any degree of reasonable certainty who, among our many troubled youngsters, will be the next perpetrators of mass killings such as those occurring in at Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and in other public places.

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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