Pittsburgh, Pipe Bombs, Parkland, Etc.

Different targets, the same mentality

Posted Oct 28, 2018

I have been evaluating offenders for nearly fifty years – people who have committed nearly every type of crime imaginable.  The same two questions continue to arise about the perpetrators of horrific violent events.  What was the motive?  How can we prevent such horrors from occurring? 

There appear to be a variety of political or ideological motives to recent mass attacks.  Republican lawmakers were attacked while playing baseball in Alexandria, Virginia. Nine parishioners and a pastor were massacred in Charleston, S.C. at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Recently, pipe bombs were mailed to nationally prominent Democrats. Most mass shooters are not motivated by political considerations (e.g., shootings at schools, at a Las Vegas hotel, at an Orlando nightclub). Embracing a cause may be an avenue of expression for long-existing criminality.

There are two commonalities to most mass shootings.  Most perpetrators had previously behaved in ways that had previously brought them to the attention of authorities.  Some had long criminal histories having nothing to do with the offense that made headlines.  The other commonality is that many had been active on social media.

Men and, to a far lesser extent, women have been committing crimes in the name of a cause long before social media existed. Social media may fuel already existing fantasies, but they do not “cause” crime.  What is critically important are the personality characteristics that these perpetrators share that have little to do with their particular environment. 

These are people who think in extremes.  They constantly struggle to overcome others, to prevail in all situations.  Compromise is antithetical to their view of life.  They see themselves as the hub of a wheel around which all else must revolve.  They regard the world as though it were a chessboard with themselves as the master manipulators.  If this view of themselves is threatened, they blaze with anger at a world that, from their perspective, does not give them what they believe they are due.  Consequently, they are constantly angry because others do not fulfill their expectations.  Any tiny detail of life that does not go their way threatens their lofty view of themselves.  Their entire self-image is threatened with collapse at the least insult or disappointment.  No one knows when their rage will boil up or who the next target will be.

Mass shooters come from different racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds.  What they share is a view of themselves and the world.  They believe that they are unique in the sense of being superior to others.  They build themselves up by trying to control others whether by deception, intimidation, or brute force.  They regard human relationships as avenues for conquest. The greater their accomplishments in legitimate endeavors, the easier it is for them to mask who they really are.  Such individuals find enormous excitement in finding ways to build themselves up by putting others down.  They know right from wrong but have a chilling capacity to eliminate such considerations from their thoughts while pursuing their objectives.   When apprehended, they regard themselves as the victims and routinely blame others or resort to claims of mental illness.

If they survive, they experience excitement in the aftermath. They have become known, in some cases internationally.  Their names and deeds are splashed all over the media.  They have not just a moment of fame, but enduring notoriety.  In perpetrating the crime, they know that they may not survive but, even if they go down in a hail of bullets, their names and deeds will not be forgotten.

Some mass shooters superficially have a charming, agreeable personality. Others are masters at intimidation.  People shrink back from them, fearing a confrontation. Some are loners, not desiring close interpersonal relationships or are shunned by people who were afraid of them.  Their main social interaction may occur by participation in social media while preserving their anonymity.

Perpetrators of mass violence do not announce their plans publicly.  No one knows how or when they will strike.  Under current laws, it is difficult to intervene to prevent them from committing crimes.  There is no way to contain or incapacitate them for long unless they actually commit a crime.  If compelled to seek counseling, there is no way to ensure their compliance or cooperation.

And so we are faced with the question as to whether we must sacrifice some of our freedom to have a safer society by imposing more deterrents – e.g., armed security officers at places where people congregate -- and changing laws so that we can more closely monitor and intervene when patterns such as those described above, politically motivated or not, are observed.