On October 1, 2017, Las Vegas experienced the most deadly mass-shooting in modern US history. 58 dead. More than 500 wounded. Thousands traumatized. The world watching and congregating in support.
Unfortunately, mass shooting sprees are becoming commonplace. From Sandy Hook Elementary to Utøya Island, Norway, to an Orlando nightclub, mass shootings are increasing around the world.
In the face of such tragedy, most of us are left with more questions than answers: How can this happen? Why do people become mass-shooters? What goes on in the mind of a killer?
Although the answer to these questions is incredibly complex, one fact is clear: people often use emotional pain to justify extreme acts of cruelty. In this way, mass shooters often justify killing others through the lies they tell themselves.
How is self-deception active in the mind of a killer? Let's take a step back to understand self-deception in humans. All of us experience pain in response to challenging life circumstances. Some of our pain may be in response to objectively traumatic events: perhaps we were raised by an abusive parent; lost a child; had a near-death experience; were raped or mugged; or became physically disfigured or disabled.
When confronted with hardship, people often justify bad behavior by blaming other people for their pain. For example, an adolescent may justify getting in physical fights by telling himself that someone was speaking disrespectfully about his family. A mother may tell herself that her child deserves to be screamed at because he or she is misbehaving.
In the same way, mass shooters often justify their murderous behavior by blaming others for their emotional pain. For example, a shooter may blame the group they are killing for hardships in their life. A shooter may be philosophically against the beliefs of the group they are killing (e.g., around religion, values). Or, they may be so miserable in their own life that they feel gratified hurting others.
In fact, history suggests that humans use lies to justify everything from slavery to genocide. We create groups and artificial divisions in our own minds—us versus them—to reinforce that they are different from us in some fundamental way. We then use those differences to justify harming them.
The Naked Truth is this: Mass shootings are increasingly common. In the mind of the shooter, there is a justification for killing. And it is based in lies. The biggest lie being that they are justified in murdering innocent bystanders. In the wake of this most recent Las Vegas shooting, it behooves all of us to support one another through the grieving process. #VegasStrong
As a psychologist living in Las Vegas for 11 years, witnessing this carnage is heart wrenching. Everyone can support our community by donating time or money through a GoFundMe campaign started by Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. Visit https://www.gofundme.com/dr2ks2-las-vegas-victims-fund.
Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D.
Frankl, Viktor (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Warren, C. S. (2014). Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Psychology of Self-Deception. Sevierville, TN: Insight Publishing.