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Motives for a Massacre

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The key remaining piece of the puzzle in the horrendous movie theater massacre is unraveling the alleged shooter’s motive(s). Why would a bright college student kill people, mostly his own age cohort, probably not known to him personally, for no apparent reason?

The suspect, James Holmes, conforms to some of the features frequently found in U.S. mass murderers: He is male, white and aged between 20-30, although profiling is a weak science at best (millions meet the foregoing characteristics of course!). But one feature sometimes found in mass killers, being connected to or knowing some of the victims in some way, is probably not present as noted above.

Some of the more frequently identified motives for mass murderers include revenge (eg., got fired or another major rejection), power, terror, attention/fame, perceived injustice(s), among others.

What might be some of the possibilities for motive in this dreadful crime? Many such crimes, as in most complex motivated behavior, involve more than one psychological ingredient in the recipe. There are often multiple factors at work.

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Mr. Holmes is likely of high IQ, and has apparently an impressive academic record. He seems to have shown a strong interest in psychiatric issues and the brain. His sophisticated booby-trapping of his apartment, which bedeviled America’s greatest bomb experts for 24 hours also bespeaks very high skill, ability to learn new complex tasks (explosives, related electronics) on his own (we assume no accomplice). The very complicated planning of his crime also reflects high skill.

Could his motive be his madness? Some have suggested he is psychotic. My guess is no. There seems to be too much careful planning in close touch with many realities, to be accomplished by a psychotic individual. He may be a psychopath, certainly showing no empathy. He will be thoroughly examined on this issue. One problem here is that few procedures, concepts and measures in psychiatry and psychology were developed or validated on such extreme and monstrous behavior, and their scientific validity with him could be in doubt. He is unquestionably an outlier and application of the usual psychiatry and psychology may be in question.

One might speculate on some other possibilities of motive(s).

Why did he drop out of university, in a prestigious program in neuroscience? Was it due to academic problems, drop in motivation or interest, or personal problems and stresses in his life, or what? His stock-piling of ammunition and explosives apparently began at about the time he dropped out. One would want to talk with his doctoral advisor and others at the university. Having spent a career teaching in doctoral programs, I can attest to the high stress they can engender in some students.

What do his parents know? His mother has apparently made a provocative comment about him, seeming to imply she was not surprised that it was him. Would not a parent normally say,” Never, that couldn’t be my son!” Frequently, but not always, in mass murder cases people close to the perpetrator saw things of concern.

What of Batman, and violent video games, and his alleged identification with the Joker, a major nemesis of the Dark Knight, and the selection of The Dark Knight Rises for his dramatic massacre. Could he be acting-out a role? A fantasized sequence? Could this be a copy-cat crime, carried out in the real world, based on his violent video game experiences? It will be important to learn his video game habits. Did they involve Batman games?

Is he socially inept and seeking attention from a world that has shown no personal interest in him? Could this be one ingredient in the causal recipe?

One might psychologize further about possible motives,and as with many such cases, we may never know for sure. And he may be unwilling to inform us,or incapable of the self-understanding required.

Two final issues stand out:

Firstly, he seems not to have wanted to die, no Freudian death wish here (e.g., the extensive protective gear), he gave up to the police easily (no suicide by cops) and he did show what might be some sort of late remorse or redemption when informing police of the booby-trapped apartment, or was the latter, belying months of work and detailed preparation, an impulsive ploy for a better deal?

Secondly, the most important fall-out from this crime is what we can learn from it to help reduce the future likelihood of such crimes. Clearly the red-flag rubric should be considered, the warning signs in a person’s behavior that usually get ignored or not acted upon. Consider the reported 90 separate packages delivered to him over a two- to three- month period by UPS prior to the crime. Were not many sender addresses indicating ammunition/explosives/gun dealers? We hear it was all legal. OK. But should we have laws allowing authorities to informally interview such a recipient under concerns for domestic terrorism? I would urge the White House, given the continued examples of such mass murders and the relentless gun homicides in our society, to create a project to bring together the best and brightest expertise on this topic to formulate a sort of “Manhattan Project” to identify effective strategies and design their implementation, filling the research gaps where needed, to reduce these heinous behaviors. The Manhattan Project built the most violent weapon, we need a comparable Project to undo the violence of everyday life.

Frank Farley is a psychologist and professor at Temple University, Philadelphia, and former President, American Psychological Association. He can be reached at (215)668-7581 or frank.farley@comcast.net

Frank Farley, Ph.D., is a L.H. Carnell Professor, Temple University, and former President of the American Psychological Association.

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