Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Men and Mass Killing

Could we have prevented the violence in Fort Hood?

Can Social Isolation Predict Violence in Men?

When Nidal Malik Hasan, a US army psychiatrist, opened fire on his colleagues and patients at Fort Hood last Thursday, he was using a tragic and almost uniquely male form of expressing extreme emotion: using firepower to kill.

Of course most men don't murder others when they feel angry or hard done by. But in 93 percent of cases, mass killers are under 50, they're male, and they're socially isolated. Whether they shun people or others have darned good reasons to avoid them,typically these men have few legitimate social outlets for their feelings of rejection and persecution. So, even if there is some kind of triggering event, there is also a biological vulnerability-a severe social blind spot-- that turns these men into horrific accidents waiting to happen.

In no way is this sympathy. Still, when looking over the apalling history of workplace or campus shootings, one clear theme emerges: these are men who feel that the social world has abandoned them. And out of rage, injured pride and glaring gaps in empathy, they imagine their only recourse is to return the favor. Take Jason Rodrigues, an engineer who took out a handgun the day after the Fort Hood shootings-killing one and injuring five people at his former employer's offices-two years after he'd been laid off. His parting comment? "They left me here to rot." Or George Sodini, who opened fire in an LA health club last August, killing three women before he turned the gun on himself. "Women just don't like me," he said, after having talked openly about his "exit plan" and loneliness prior to his crime. Like Marc Lepine, the enraged 25 year old who killed 15 young women at an engineering school in Montreal, they "externalize" or put the blame for social isolation squarely on others, in this case "feminists." .The now jailed engineering professor, Valery Fabrikant, described by journalist Morris Wolfe, as a "pathetic, deranged, clever, horrible man" also blamed innocent colleagues at the university for his problems- in his case an inability to secure tenure, when he murdered four fellow engineering faculty members at Concordia in 1992.

Whether there were problems with promotion in academe is hardly the point, just as its not that relevant whether Maj. Hasan opposed the war. What is crucial is that these men showed a history of social isolation, threatening behavior and instability. More than metal detectors, what ‘s needed is evidence-based psychology, and procedures entrenched in the bylaws of universities and employers, so people know what can and should be done when a colleague, --nine times out of ten a male loner in his prime--issues warnings, and withdraws further from communal life.

The New York Times correctly nailed the army for not providing enough professional support to its suicide-plagued soldiers .Perhaps with more than just one psychologist per 650 front line troops,not only to monitor soldiers, but its own burned-out mental health personnel, this tragedy might have been averted.