As we sort through the horrific shooting in Connecticut, wondering why anyone would would target young children, I’m reminded of other similar incidents. They don’t entirely shed light, as each incident has its own contained set of circumstances and dynamics, but they do show the role of anger, humiliation, failed social support, and the need to strike out.
In 1927, the deadliest massacre at an elementary school occurred Bath, Michigan. Andrew Kehoe, 55, lived on a 185-acre farm and was reported to be cruel to his animals. Indeed, before he went on his murderous rampage, he bound his horses with wire and set his barn on fire. Factors in his rampage were the drain on his bank account of his wife’s chronic illness and the expenses of the farm itself. Then town leaders raised taxes to build a school. So, Kehoe formed a plan. It was his way to punish and control.
He got a job at the new school as a maintenance man, which gave him easy access. Over a period of months, he purchased explosives. Inside the school, he worked day after day wiring charges together and envisioning dead children. He managed to plant over 1,000 pounds of explosives. At the same time, he wired his own home with fire bombs. Finally, he was ready.
On May 17, he bludgeoned his wife to death. He also cut down his fruit and maple trees, leaving them to stand on their stumps. The next day, as children arrived for school, Kehoe detonated the bombs at his home. Townspeople and fire-fighting personnel rushed over to help, freeing Kehoe to destroy the school.
He drove there in a truck full of dynamite and set off an explosion. As the school burned, he beckoned the superintendent of schools to his truck and shot at the explosives in the back seat, blowing them up. The superintendent and another man were killed, as was Kehoe, himself.
Thirty-eight children, most of them ages 7-11, died that day with seven adults. Fifty-eight others were seriously injured.
Kehoe left behind a sign, posted on his property, to explain his madness: Carefully hand-lettered on a piece of wood were the words, “Criminals are made, not born.” He blamed others for the failures and frustrations of his own life, and decided that someone must pay.
In Scotland in 1996, another angry man, Thomas Hamilton, wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth II to complain about a campaign calculated to ruin him. A week later, on March 13, he armed himself with four weapons and went to the Dunblane Primary School. He entered the gymnasium, where students, ages 5 and 6, were sitting in circles for a class.
Hamilton started shooting. He killed thirteen students and a teacher, and wounded fifteen students and another teacher before shooting himself in their midst. Three of the wounded kids died later, making Hamilton’s death toll for the day, including himself, eighteen.
In the British “Public Enquiry,” it was noted that Hamilton had a persecution complex and delusions of grandeur. When he'd opened a series of Boys’ clubs after his scouting career failed, the numbers diminished due to his militaristic style. Comments from a psychologist and psychiatrist about his character during the six months prior to the massacre included the following observations:
- He was abusive toward parents who withdrew their sons from his club
- He did not allow anyone to question how he ran his clubs
- He felt victimized
- He was overly sensitive to what people thought of him
- He tried to keep the boys from having contact with their parents
- He had no close relationships with adults
- He had a strong interest in firearms and had recently purchased the firearms he used in the shooting incident; acquaintances had observed that he'd treated his guns as if they were his children
Like Kehoe, as his life failed, Hamilton blamed others. With no support system, he found consolation in his shooting activities. This probably gave him the idea that with guns he could put an end to what others were allegedly saying about him and supposedly doing to him.
Blame, frustration, depression, and anger at others, coupled with the means to definitively punish, is a volatile combination.