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Identifying The Next Mass Murderer—Before It’s Too Late

What clues we can look for before the next mass murderer strikes

On June 17, 2015, according to authorities, Dylann Storm Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat down, and after an hour or so allegedly shot three men and six women, attending a bible study class. Immediately people began to take sides, and not just about the gun debate. Was this an act of terror? Was this a hate crime? Was this a “lone wolf?” Was this a conspiracy? On and on. What is interesting as well as frustrating is that none of these terms serve a useful purpose.

Four years ago, on July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik set off a bomb near the government headquarters of the Labor Party in Oslo, Norway; after which he proceeded to the secluded island of Utøya, where he methodically killed, with a high powered rifle, 65 plus children attending a youth event.  Does it matter if we call Anders Behring Breivik a terrorist, mass murderer, or a lone wolf? Not really, only one thing matters: how did he become this way, and were there signs that could have prevented this horrendous tragedy?

Once again we face a mass murder (FBI defined as 4 or more) and we need to get past the debate over the nomenclature (terrorist, extremist, mass murderer, lone wolf, genocide, etc.)—that serves no prophylactic purpose. When it comes to Dylann Storm Roof, Anders Behring Breivik, the Boston Marathon Bombers, or the likes of Theodore John "Ted" Kaczynski known as the UNABOMBER, and Timothy McVeigh, it’s not what we call them, the issue is: could we have prevented their acts? The answer is yes. And yet, we seem to be incapacitated when we hear the term “lone wolf” or “solo terrorist” as if we were describing a demon beyond our capability to identify and stop.

When I go through the airport in New York, I often hear, “See something, say something.” I admire that, but honestly, most people—when it comes to mass killers like those named above—don’t have any idea what to look for. They may be looking for the instruments of murder or terror (explosives, pipe-bomb, backpack, a gun, remote control device, etc.), but they have no clue as to the mindset of these individuals and that is precisely what we need to look for. That means we all have a responsibility, because this is beyond the scope of law enforcement, this is a societal responsibility.

The fact is that all of these individuals named above have many traits in common and if we know what to look for we, society, not just law enforcement, may be able to prevent the next mass murder or terrorist attack, or whatever you wish to call it – because if statistics bare out, there will be others. How many? In the United States they occur with almost metronomic frequency—about 20 mass murders a year—that is almost two a month (Time Magazine, August 6, 2012: 28-29).

What can we do? We must educate ourselves because these kinds of individuals can only be stopped by an aware society that knows what to look for, and unfortunately law enforcement is of limited assistance.  Here are some lessons I learned and some ideas on what to look for after years of profiling these kinds of individuals for the FBI. These are the most common traits to look for: 

Narcissistic Traits –They believe themselves to be special, to have the right to do and say, but also to act out as they wish, feeling omnipotent in their beliefs and assured that only they have the wisdom, vision, and understanding of the problem and of course the solution. They narcissistically have the right to devalue others (people of color, minorities, abortion clinic doctors, police, etc.) with impunity and without remorse. These narcissistic beliefs will spew out in their conversations and rants. For the most part, narcissistic traits are seldom hidden, they ooze out of the narcissist when they speak, how they view others, through their worldview, and of course through the disdain they show for those they hold in contempt.

Paranoid Ideation All of these individuals irrationally fear something though they are loathe to label it as such—they prefer to call it hate—but in essence it is driven by fear. Ted Kaczynski feared technology—hated scientists; Timothy McVeigh feared the militarization of police departments (if he could see things now?)—he grew to hate the federal government so he bombed the Murrah Building; Anders Behring Breivik feared Muslims taking over Europe—he killed the children of politicians he hated; and now it appear that Dylann Storm Roof, if the government is correct, feared blacks or African Americans—so he murdered them out of hate. 

Passionate HatredParanoia, literally the irrational fear of things or people, fuels hatred to the point it becomes passionate hatred—the kind that drives in turn irrational action or criminal behavior. Passionate hatred is palpable from the conversations and statements made by these individuals or the adornments (clothing, tattoos) they display; so it is detectable, but here is the catch: Hatred, as Eric Hoffer warned us in his book, The True Believer, can bring people together and can unite them—and there are a lot of haters in this country and around the world. Unfortunately, this hatred is often masked or covered up by those who are willing to look the other way, including family members or by those who are also true believers. 

Passionate hatred need not be a collective enterprise, as it was for the Nazis who used it to unite the German people against the Jews. Hatred can also be a solo, twisted, paranoid fueled affair, where the person self righteously only sees black and white, no middle ground or consensus. This kind of rigid unyielding thinking fuels hatred but it also does something curious that Hoffer also warned us about. Hatred, but especially passionate hatred, can give purpose to an otherwise unfulfilled life as was noted in the book, Hunting Terrorists. Look back and see how often these individuals lead marginal or unfulfilled lives.They all do or did.

The danger also of passionate hatred is that no matter how irrational it is to us, it is not to them. Fueled by paranoia and their narcissistic certainty and infallibility, they assume that that which they fear or loathe is an existential threat. Technology was an existential threat for the UNABOMBER Ted Kaczynski, just as irrationally as people of color can be an existential threat for the likes of Anders Behring Breivik and Dylann Storm Roof. Sick as those rationales are, people kill, even start civil wars over such paranoid-fueled hatred.

Wound Collectors – In past articles I have talked about wound collectors. These are individuals who collect social or historical slights, procedural wrongs, injustices real or imagined, mistakes, faux pas, on and on for a purpose. That purpose is to validate their hatred and paranoia and justify just how correct they are.  And they don’t just collect wounds they nurture them so they don’t die out.  They take them out, dust them off, tell and retell them, think about them, and garnish them, so that they become almost mythically powerful through repetitive admiration (story telling, ideation, writing, rituals, etc.). Thus, wound collection is essential, it provides the justification for acting out. Regular criminals, incidentally, don’t collect wounds; they don’t have to. All of the above individuals did.

Communication – Invariably communication, in all its variety, follows wound collection as they tell others of their thoughts, fears, concerns, and hatred. Communication almost always precedes action whether it is nonverbal (signs, symbols, attire, tattoos, ornaments, tags, patches on clothing) or verbal. The question then is, “Is anyone listening or looking?” or are the clues being dismissed. Humans are a communicative species. They talk to their friends and family, they write in their diaries, they email, they text, they Tweet, they publish manifestos, post on Facebook or Instagram, or they upload videos on Youtube. Invariably there is a trail of words that precede action or as in the case of Terry vs. Ohio (392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1968), actions in the form of body language telegraphed what the suspect was planning—to rob a store.

Violence as Magic – For these individuals as they ideate about what they hate and they methodically build their rationale based on collected wounds, at some point, and it varies with each; violence becomes the “magical” solution. At that point they have given up on all other methods of dealing with their paranoid-fueled hatred or fear. Violence becomes the solution and they psychologically and irrationally dismiss alternatives. It’s here that these individuals begin to seek out weapons or the means for carrying out their violence. At this point there are usually few if any intrinsic restraints left—in other words the person has made up his mind as to what action to take.

Isolation – But before violence takes place or the actual act is committed something else takes place. At this point these individuals have either been in the process of self-isolating: first psychologically and then physically. By self-isolating the individual assures that he is not listening to outside factors (extrinsic) that would derail his thinking or ideation. Coupled with physical isolation, the individual insures no outside distractions, and they can focus on their ideology, collected wounds, and the magical solution to solve the issue. In physical isolation, they can further focus their hatred, refine their magical solution, plan how to execute their action, come to terms with their decision and how the violence will be carried out.

The Lethal Cocktail – When you have all of these things in place; the narcissistic personality with paranoia fueled hatred that embraces violence as the means to bring forth change, you have a lethal cocktail which makes the individual truly meta-stable – extremely volatile and dangerous. This is an individual that has crossed the philosophical line and is ready to act out. At this point, it is often too late, though not impossible, for friends, family, neighbors, associates, and law enforcement to intercept. 

These individuals are the so-called ticking time bombs, the terrorist, the lone wolf, the mass murders—whatever you want to call them lurking out there ready to act out. They are what we most fear—a focused dedicated killer that has abandoned all restraint. If we only knew when and where they will act out?

Acting Out – At this point there is nothing left to hinder the individual. There are no longer any intrinsic factors such as a conscience that whispers turn back. And if there is no extrinsic factor (someone reports them or a locked door keeps them from going inside or a security guard challenges them), the individual will act out. What comes next is what we usually read about in the front page of the paper the next day—some kind of carnage. What we cannot say is there weren’t any clues. Humans leak what they think, feel, or desire, but we broadcast what we hate.

We need to go beyond “See something, say something.” We need to, as a society, listen, observe, engage, and if need be do more than say something – remember that next mass-murder is just a month or less away.

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Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25 year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every BODY is Saying, as well as Louder Than Words and Dangerous Personalities. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through Psychology Today or at – Joe can be found on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook. Copyright © 2015, Joe Navarro

Additional resources can be found in Hunting Terrorists: A Look at the Psychopathology of Terror (CCThomas).