Envy is a common feeling. In most instances, it is a harmless matter of people wishing they had someone else's attributes or possessions. In some cases, however, envy can be a motivation for murder. Earlier this month, Stephen Morgan killed Johanna Justin-Jinich, a student at Wesleyan University. Beyond the murder of Johanna, with whom he had been obsessed for a long time, Morgan had written in his journal that he thought it was "okay" to "go on a killing spree at this school" (i.e., Wesleyan). Why did he want to kill people at Wesleyan? His journal gives us a clue. In an entry written approximately two hours before the murder, Morgan referred to all the smart and beautiful people at Wesleyan. This suggests that envy may have been a factor in his planned killing spree. If so, he would not have been the first school shooter to envy the people he wished to kill.

At Columbine High School, Dylan Klebold envied the social successes of the school's athletes. In his journal, he wrote, "I see jocks having fun, friends, women." In another entry he wrote, "I hated the happiness that they [jocks] have." In contrast, he wrote about himself as being so different from everyone else that he seemed to believe he was not truly human or capable of functioning like a human being.

At Virginia Tech, Seung Hui Cho criticized people as stuck-up hedonists. He stated, "Your Mercedes wasn't enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren't enough, you snobs." Despite this hostility, Cho wished he could join them: "Oh the happiness I could have had mingling among you hedonists, being counted as one of you." It seems that his antipathy toward them was driven by his inability to be included among them.

Cho also wrote a short story about a student named Bud who contemplated committing a school shooting. Cho presented Bud as an outsider who viewed everyone else on campus as living in "heaven-on-earth." Cho wrote that there was "something magical and enchanting about all the people's intrinsic nature that Bud will never experience." Bud envied them. He wished he could join them. He fantasied about killing them. In real life, the same was true of Cho.

In 1997 in West Paducah, Kentucky, Michael Carneal shot eight people in the school's morning prayer circle. Why them? Perhaps because they were among the most successful, talented, and popular students in the school-they were everything that Michael was not. He grew up in the shadow of his outstanding and popular sister and was painfully aware that he did not measure up to her or students like her.

In 1998 in Oregon, before Kip Kinkel went on his shooting spree at school, he had circled the face of a teammate in the football team's photograph and written "kill" by it. Why? The person in question was the team's best player and was going out with the girl that Kip liked. Kip was on the football team but sat on the bench and was desperately lonely. Like Dylan Klebold, it seems that Kip envied the success of his teammate and "hated the happiness" of his peer.

Many people have assumed that school shooters target peers who have picked on them. This is rarely the case. Few shooters kill anyone who has harassed them. Rather, as noted with the examples cited above, shooters are more likely driven by envy than by revenge. This seems most true among those shooters I identify in my book as psychotic-i.e., those who are schizophrenic or schizotypal.

Psychotic shooters tend to experience a sense of alienation and inadequacy that is absolutely devastating. They realize that they are not normal, and some even feel non-human. They are aware enough to realize how dysfunctional they are, and it is torture for them to constantly be in the presence of their higher functioning peers. This results in anguish that drives them toward suicide, as well as rage that drives them toward homicide. These feelings are exacerbated by psychotic symptoms including hallucinations and delusions. School shootings are the result of a convergence of numerous factors. Among these multiple influences, however, we should not overlook the role of envy.

About the Author

Peter Langman

Peter Langman, Ph.D., is the author of School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators. He trains professionals in law enforcement and education on preventing school shootings.

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