A Lonely Killer Strikes Again

Psychology quiz: Did the Colorado shooter have loads of friends?

Posted Jul 21, 2012

Commenting on the mass murderers Jared Loughner, Nidal Malik Hasan, and the Virginia Tech shooter (Seung-Hui Cho), I wrote, "Terrorists and Mass Murderers Are Lonely Guys."

PT Blogger Steven Reiss responded:

I think there are as many gregarious people who are mass killers as there are loners. If I recall this correctly, Heinrich Himmler, for example, was a real charmer. As head of the Nazi SS, he killed more people than all the loners in America in your lifetime.

I answered that Dr. Reiss seemed to be missing a basic distinction when comparing Himmler* (or Hitler, or Mao, or Stalin, or Pol Pot) to stateside mass killers who enter a public place and begin shooting.  The first group are part of some political, genocidal machinery.  But we are hoping very much no such regime rears its ugly head in America.  Instead, we are confronted time and again in this country by isolated killers whose lack of community means:

  • they have no social bearings -- they don't guide their behavior by how it impacts others' lives;
  • they have little to nothing to lose in terms of social esteem, intimacy, family ties;
  • they have time on their hands -- and minds -- to allow their feelings of rejection to fester;
  • and they have no one to tell their problems to who can comfort them.

We can test Dr. Reiss's and my competing hypotheses about people who shoot many people at one time (which I don't think Himmler, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, or Pol Pot did personally) by examining the Colorado shooter.  Tell me, dear reader, do you think he had oodles and oodles of friends?  Consider this New York Times report: Neighbors "described him as a solitary figure, always alone as he bought beer and liquor at neighborhood shops, ate burritos or rode his bicycle through the streets."

In other words, if James had someone to go to the movies with, he wouldn't have faced a crowded theater with guns blazing.  Always being alone is bad for mental health and makes people more likely to commit antisocial acts.  There's no remedy for being alone except to have friends and family and community.  Holmes was studying psychiatric neuroscience (a program his isolation caused him to abandon), including "the biological origins of psychiatric and neurological disorders."  But no pill can solve the isolation of people like Mr. Holmes, or of our society at large.

I feel for these people in a way that I feel for all of hurt humanity, although his actions have now placed Mr. Holmes beyond the pale of human sympathy.  I'm not sure what drives someone to such murderous madness, but I know that welcoming, supportive communities make mass murders less likely.

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* From a comment:

Just wanted to point out that Himmler's biography reveals a very introverted man with schizoid and narcissistic features.

He was emotionally distant...a 'loner' in that sense, one with little empathy for his fellow human beings.