The Futile Search for Motive after a Mass Shooting

Searching for a motive after mass murder is common and futile.

Posted Sep 09, 2011

Just days ago in early September, 32 year-old Eduardo Sencion, who family members say was mentally ill walked into a Carson City, Nevada pancake restaurant and killed four people and wounded seven.  Then he turned his gun on his ultimate target, himself.  Early police reports say he was armed with Chinese-made and Romanian-made AK-47-style long guns and a .38 caliber revolver.  He fired multiple rounds during the incident, which killed three on-duty Nevada National Guard members and a civilian woman.

Witnesses say that before he sprayed bullets inside and outside the restaurant, he walked right up on the uniformed soldiers and opened fire.  Perhaps he thought they were armed.  Perhaps he thought they were a threat to him.  Perhaps he didn't like the US military.  We will never know because he took his reasons with him.

This case parallels other mass murders that have happened in restaurants, bars, homes, hospitals, schools, churches, malls, and workplaces in the US and Europe.  A mass murder is defined by the FBI as a homicide event caused by one suspect, who kills three or more victims without a "cooling off" period.  A serial killer may kill multiple victims, but there is a time gap of days, months, or even years between attacks.  And a spree murderer is defined as a suspect who kills three or more people in multiple locations, over a brief span of time, as in a one-man crime wave across a city or county.

We can certainly define Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and their destruction at Columbine High School, as mass murderers, along with Sueng Hui Cho, who took out his revenge en masse, at Virginia Tech.  And adding to this list is a new mass killer, Anders Breivik, who used a downtown Oslo bomb to slay eight and an array of firearms to murder 69 children and adults at a Norwegian island campground.

After each of these terrible events, local, national, and international news media sources always ask the same question: why?  The horrified public asks the same question, as do the survivors of these mass shootings or the surviving family members of the dead.  The painful reality of this question, how ever well-meaning is the plea, is that we won't ever know the real reason, even if the suspect leaves a lengthy blog (as did George Sodini, to "explain" why he killed three women taking a dance class at an LA Fitness gym outside Pittsburgh, PA in August 2009). 

We can define the equation elements for these types of mass murder cases as having three parts: The Motive plus The Opportunity equals the Violent Attack.  But the search for motive is futile because we can't change the motive after the fact.  We can have influence on how we respond to a person's cries for help, anger issues, or pre-attack behaviors.  Knowing the answer to the "why" question is not satisfying in the aftermath of a mass murder. 

It may be religious, as appeared to be the motive for US Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the November 2009 Ft. Hood, Texas Army Base shooter, who killed 13 of his fellow soldiers and mental health colleagues. 

It may be revenge against a spouse, as when Bruce Pardo built a flamethrower in his backyard, wore a custom-made Santa Claus suit, and brought three hand guns to the front door of his ex-wife's parents' house in Covina, CA.  When his 2008 Christmas Eve rampage was over, he had killed his ex-wife, nine of her family members, burned down the house, and left 14 children as orphans.

Perhaps the motive is anger or rage toward a person or group, who made the perpetrator feel bad, as with Pearl, MS school shooter Luke Woodham, who killed the girl who spurned him, another student, and his mother in October 1997.

The problem with identifying the motive for these shootings is that it always comes after the fact.  The information is interesting, but we can't unring the bell and prevent what has already happened.  So if motive and opportunity are the parts of the violence equation, shouldn't we focus all of our efforts and prevention attention on interrupting the opportunity?

In assessing threats, whenever we see evidence of: economic stress; mental illness; the desire for revenge; and easy access to firearms, then Houston, we have a problem. 

Addressing each of these, alone or in concert, requires courage on the part of concerned family members or friends of the troubled or troubling person, who often rationalize their lack of response by saying, "He told me he was going to kill his boss one day but I just didn't know who to report it to.  We tried getting him to go to a counselor, but he just wouldn't." 

It requires courage on the part of company administrators, supervisors, and HR professionals to stop rationalizing irrational workplace behavior.  "That's just how he is.  That's why we call him 'Crazy Larry.''"

It requires courage on the part of school teachers and administrators to stop saying, "Look at Johnnie's essay and accompanying art work about shooting up this school.  Isn't he creative in his use of scary words and bright colors?"

It requires collaboration on the part of law enforcement officials and clinicians to work together to respond earlier and more decisively when disturbed people start to exhibit early warning signs of an attack, moving from "ideas to actions, on a path to violence," as the US Secret Service says in its two reports on targeted violence (the Exceptional Case Study Project and the Safe School Initiative, available at www.secretservice.gov/ntac).

Most of us agree with clinicians, who say the vast majority of mentally ill people aren't dangerous.  Of course, that's only true right up until the moment that they are.  Lions, tigers, and sharks aren't dangerous either, until they begin to bite your arm.  Let's stop wasting emotions and efforts trying in vain to answer the "why" question.  Let's work together to intercept mass shooters when they show the recognizable signs of distress and consider solving their problems through the use of high-powered weapons.

In 1994, Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence.  He holds a doctorate in Business Administration, an M.A. in Security Management, a B.S. in Psychology, and a B.A. in English.  He worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999.  He is the San Diego Chapter President for the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP).  He can be reached at drsteve@drstevealbrecht.com