Keep Calling Him a Coward

The psychology of mass killers and how we can stop feeding them

Posted Jul 20, 2012

It’s happened again: A mass shooting has senselessly taken the lives of Americans, this time at a movie theater in Colorado.

This type of attention-seeking violence has, unfortunately, become all too common. Overall, violent crime has declined in the U.S. since its terrifying peak in the early 1990s. But these types of mass shootings, at schools, malls, and grocery stores, were unusual until relatively recently. Three-quarters of the deadliest mass murders in U.S. history occured since 1980. Some of this is due to the availability of assault weapons. Yet anyone interested in psychology also wonders why these shooters choose to kill people.

The perpetrator is almost always a young man. Obviously, these are not mentally healthy individuals. Some are depressed; others seem sociopathic. Some, like Eric Harris of Columbine, are both. They seem to be seeking fame and attention in the sickest way possible, by killing people.

This morning, I heard several people on the news call this latest shooter, James Holmes, a “coward.” That is the right word for someone who kills people when they’re watching a movie. It’s also a word we need to keep using, over and over, until everyone gets the message that shooting people is not a path toward glory, fame, and notoriety.

Of course, we’ll never know the true motives of any of these nutjobs. But a common theme in many of these shootings is a streak of narcissistic grandiosity and attention-seeking. Robert Hawkins, who killed 9 people at a mall in Omaha, Nebraska, in December 2007, left a note saying, “Just think tho I’m gonna be [f]ing famous,” he wrote in his suicide note.

In videotapes made before the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold debated which famous director would film their story (Spielberg or Tarantino?) Harris makes several statements that are shockingly similar to items on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?” he asks while picking up a gun and making a shooting noise, similar to the NPI item “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me.” He also said, “I could convince them that I’m going to climb Mount Everest, or I have a twin brother growing out of my back. I can make you believe anything,” similar to the NPI item “I can make anyone believe anything I want them to.”

After the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, police puzzled over why Seung-Hui Cho killed two victims at 7:15am and then waited until 9:30am to begin killing again. Their question was answered the next day when NBC News employees received a package from Cho containing papers, photographs, and videos postmarked the day of the shootings.  Apparently, Cho wanted to show everyone how powerful and cool he was, and informed the media exactly how they could help him with this.

When the U.S. media was busy talking about Cho’s grand evil plan and every detail of his short life, Korea—where Cho’s parents emigrated from—reacted with a culture-wide feeling of shame. The South Korean ambassador apologized for Cho’s actions. This is the message we need to keep repeating: Murderers are cowards. Mass murder is a source of shame for the nation, not something that makes you an outlaw or a cool killer. Teens thinking that they might like to go out in style by becoming infamous would realize they would only bring shame on themselves, their families, and their entire country.

So let’s learn about the lives of the victims who were so tragically lost today. Let’s see their pictures, and remember what we lost. But let’s hold back from talking about the shooter's diabolical, brilliant plan and call him what he is: A coward, and nothing more.

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