We will probably never know if Adam Lanza achieved his goal, whatever he thought that was, on the day he took so many lives in Newtown, CT. His motives died with him. Police and media reports suggest he smashed his computers, thereby destroying any forensic evidence his writings, photos, or web histories might have offered. His murdered mother can offer us no insight and his father and brother and other relatives are not talking much, and who can blame them? How or why do you defend the actions of a monster, who was related to you by blood?
But whatever his plan, he managed to create years of pain in a matter of minutes. If his rampage plan took weeks or months to shape, then its brief and bloody ending happened in mere moments. Let’s put ourselves inside his head and look at the impact of his actions. Whether he intended these outcomes or not, here is a hard list of what he has wrought:
• Using a premeditated plan, he engaged in mass murder, using high-powered weapons, against defenseless, unarmed, soft targets. He took as many lives as a terrorist group would, using a bomb.
• The media response was huge, international, instant, obsessive, and guaranteed to create a firestorm of discussion over gun ownership, gun sales and control, multi-round assault weapons, and gun murders as such a common part of the U.S. culture.
• The timing, near the holidays, created maximum societal impact. What a horrible connection to the holiday season, a supposed time of peace?
• He raises the unsolvable question of why. His suicide defers all answers as to his motives, forever.
• He revealed the inherent and grimly unfixable vulnerability of our most treasured population, at the very place where they spend so many hours away from their families. Schools are supposed to be safe zones, where we leave our children in the hands of trained, screened professionals. He showed us how we can’t easily protect an elementary school from one 20-year-old bad guy.
• He moved quickly along the Q-Rating spectrum, going from being an absolute nobody to infamous, thereby bypassing famous, in less than two hours. (Lady Gaga is famous; Lanza is infamous.)
• He took his revenge against his mom, society, or other students who may have bullied, teased, threatened, or worse, ignored him. Think how every classmate who ever insulted this kid feels, or every girl who didn’t respond to him, “Was it me? Did I send him over the edge?”
• Did he follow the road of the copycat, and tie his actions to besting Cho from Virginia Tech, the Columbine killers, or the Colorado theater shooter? He had to have said, “How much worse do I have to be to surpass them?”
• It’s no accident he destroyed his computers, knowing the forensic people would search for every site visit, social media post, journal, blog, or electronic ranting.
• This event ruins Christmas for decades in Newtown. Any anniversary or memorialization near the shooting date will arrive among the presents, wreaths, and flocked trees.
• He ruined the families of every murdered victim. Every parent of a dead child will say what every parent says, sobbing, when they bury a child, “I wasn’t supposed to outlive my kid.”
• He created a lot of damaged survivors, with potential PTSD issues, problems trusting adults, and nightmares that will always seem so real. Some will find it hard to detach going to a school (middle, high, college) campus from a place where death happens. (Several of the Columbine survivors earned online college degrees, finding it impossible to go into a classroom again.)
• As a former cop, I fear the PTSD issues for the Newtown first-responders, including the real possibility of post-event suicides from the “strongest.” More cops kill themselves each year then are killed by crooks. Some police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and maybe even staffers from the Coroner’s Office who went to the scene will quit. Let’s hope they get help for what they had to see.
The news media obsesses over the motive in these cases. This is not useful. We need to focus our efforts on interrupting the opportunity. It will require a forceful mix of changes to our mental health services availability; assault weapons and high-capacity magazine bans; more school security devices and plans; and threat assessment and management processes. After yet another mass murder incident that tears at the national fabric, Adam Lanza may have done enough to start these changes.
Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is a San Diego-based speaker, author, and trainer. He has spent his career focused on high-risk employee problems, crime and violence prevention, threat assessment, and workplace and school security issues. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first books on workplace violence. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration; an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 15 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht