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The Warning Behavior of Identification

Discerning threats for targeted or intended violence

Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber, believed he was the “ultimate warrior,” and wanted to be “the first hero of the second American Revolution.” Robert Bardo wrote a letter to Mark Chapman after he killed John Lennon in 1980—before Bardo murdered Rebecca Schaeffer, the television actress, in 1989. Dr. Malik Hasan, the 2009 Ft. Hood mass murderer, had SoA printed on his business card, a reference to “Soldier of Allah.” Eric Rudolph, responsible for a series of bombings between 1996-1998, described his own motivation as advancing the cause of anti-abortion and anti-gay activism. Dylann Roof, the young man who slaughtered nine in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last month, posted his neo-Nazi leanings under the pseudonym AryanBlood1488. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who killed 77 in July, 2011, aspired to be the contemporary incarnation of the Knights Templar, the Christian Crusade “special forces” of the 12th century. And Mohammad Abdulazeez appeared to identify himself as a violent jihadist before his two spree assaults in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on July 16, 2015. He wrote in his diary, “the opportunity to submit to Allah may pass you by” and conducted web searches on martyrdom before his attacks.

In our continuing research on the warning behaviors for intended or targeted violence, several have been found to be almost universal in the perpetrators we have studied (pathway, fixation, and identification); and these have also discriminated—along with novel aggression and last resort—between school shooters and other students of concern who had no intent to be violent in a recently published study.[1] We know what pathways are, and look carefully to see if we can find one. We then need to determine whether there is movement on the pathway, where is the subject located on the pathway, how quickly is he moving, if at all, and what is his target. Fixation is also quite important: it is an obsessive preoccupation with a person or a cause that leads to deterioration in work and love, and it drew our attention when it emerged in our studies of threats to the British Royal Family and attacks on western European politicians as an important indicator of both delusions and lethality risk.[2]

In the course of this work, moreover, we have also focused on the importance of identification, an old psychoanalytic term which refers to taking in certain aspects of another as a part of the self.[3] In common parlance, we often talk about “adolescent identity problems,” and what we “identify” with, phrases that speak to this universal aspect of child, adolescent, and adult development. In most cases identification is benign and positive, as we become like others we admire, whether our peers, parents, professors, supervisors, authority figures, athletes, musicians, or other professionals, and try to emulate what they do.

But there is a dark side to identification, and that is where we think the movement from fixation to identification may increase the threat of a subject of concern. This is still largely conjecture, but when embedded with other warning behaviors, especially those noted above, we think closer attention is warranted.

In our work we have found several patterns to help threat assessors clearly see the warning behavior of identification:

First, desiring to be a “pseudo-commando” or developing a “warrior mentality.” This is not the state-sanctioned training of a soldier; but instead, a largely fantasy driven desire to be a so-called fearsome individual with the goal of targeting civilians.

Second, closely associating with weapons or other military or law enforcement paraphernalia. This may be a virtual association, such as immersion in weaponry via simulated combat, or buying other military paraphernalia; or actual association, such as accumulation of weapons, including ancient or symbolic ones, often in secret, and skill development with a particular target in mind.

Third, wanting to imitate or surmount previous attackers or assassins. This is often behaviorally apparent in the pre-offense study of previous actual killers, sometimes even enhanced by dressing like a violent fictional character; and the desire to both emulate what actual previous murderers have done as well as outdo them, usually by attaining a greater number of casualties. In some cases, such as Bardo mentioned above, there may be a real attempt to communicate with the previous assassin and cultivate a relationship.

Fourth, believing oneself to be an agent or soldier to advance a particular cause or belief system. Many of my first examples in this brief commentary fall into this aspect of identification, and represent most of the terrorists from both the extreme left and right we see today.

An unfortunate unintended consequence: With the advent of ISIS in 2014, and the inordinate attention in the news to the growing number of arrests by federal agencies of such sympathizers in the U.S. and Europe, we also see a curious variation on the identification theme: if one uses ISIS as a graffiti identifier—scrawling the phrase, “ISIS is here” on a corporate or university bathroom wall, it is guaranteed there will be an immediate local, state, and federal law enforcement response, and dramatic news coverage. It reminds me personally of the Black Panther fans who would use the name—or posters of Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis—to inspire fear and loathing in the 1960s without any actual association to this violent extremist group. Herein the emotional gratification is found in the reactivity of the established order; or, to be blunt, it is the most potent way right now in 2015 American and Western European culture for an adolescent to act out. As The New York Times wrote on August 18, 2015: "teenage rebellion is expressed through a radical religiosity that questions everything around them. In this world, the counterculture is conservative, Islam is punk rock. The head scarf is liberating. Beards are sexy" (p. A12).

The movement from fixation to identification.

David Copeland, a U.K. bomber who targeted three minority communities over three successive weekends in 1999, expressed this well, “why, why, why can’t someone blow that place up? That’d be a good one, you know, that would piss everyone off…(this thought) kept going round, floating around my head, day after day after day. And then after a while I became that thought, you know, I was going to do it.”[4]

This is the movement from fixation to identification. Although fixation remains, the emotional resonance that permeates the conscious sense of self during identification may signal increasing risk and our greater concern.

Identity claims.

Sam Gosling, a social psychologist at the University of Texas, has pioneered the work in this area.[5] He and his students have studied the remarkable ability of young investigators to view displays (photos, paintings, books, statues, souvenirs, trinkets, posters, etc.) in an unknown person’s living space (bedroom, living room, office, etc.) and accurately discern both personality characteristics as well as their strongest affinities: with whom and what they identify. Put simply, an office worker who begins to hang posters of weapons in his cubicle is communicating an identity claim which may have threat assessment significance given other warning behaviors. A benign example of identity claims is the common behavior of many males to wear the game jerseys of their favorite athletes, or many women to carry purses with the name of the prominent designer displayed for all to see. The desired perception in others they want to evoke? This is whom I like and whom I am like.

Practical threat implications.

For professional threat assessors, watch closely for identifications expressed behaviorally—and movements from fixations to identifications—and whether they have implications for threat assessment in a person of concern. They may be warning behaviors, particularly if the object of identification is defined by violence; the threat assessor then needs to contextualize their importance by looking for other warning behaviors, particularly pathway, fixation, novel aggression, and last resort. Ask questions. Identifications are often unconscious, but will evoke a strong emotional response when queried. Continue to probe in a rapport building, nonjudgmental, and focused manner. Most importantly, recognize that identification warning behavior is a new concept, is not a predictor of violence—but may be a correlate of targeted violence—and should be treated at this point in time as another helpful lens through which the threat assessor can view his or her case.


[1] Meloy JR et al. (2014). Some warning behaviors discriminate between school shooters and other students of concern. J Threat Assessment and Management, 1, 203-211.

[2] James D et al. (2008). The role of mental disorder in attacks on western European politicians, 1990-2004. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 116, 334-344.

[3] Meloy JR et al. (2015). The concept of identification in threat assessment. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, DOI: 10.1002/bsl.2166.

[4] Gill P. (2015). Lone actor terrorists: A behavioural analysis. London: Routledge, p. 60.

[5] Gosling S. (2008). Snoop. New York: Basic Books.

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