Mass Murder Motives

Reasons for mass shootings resist quick or simple analysis

Posted Jul 20, 2012

In response to the mass murder in Aurora, CO, we seek to know why. James Holmes, 24, was arrested for allegedly entering a theater during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. Reports say he was dressed in riot gear, with a gas mask, and that he threw a canister into the audience before he began to shoot. With a dozen dead and many hurt, people want answers and they want them now. However, when media outlets oblige, early reports can mislead.

In truth, there are many different types of motive for mass murder, ranging from revenge to despair to free-floating rage at the world. Some people develop visions of annihilation, while others seek headlines. For the Aurora incident, we should allow time for a proper analysis. The shooter himself might not realize the many threads that wove into his stunning act of violence.

I’ve been reading Dave Cullen’s book, Columbine, about the 1999 massacre in Littleton, CO. I find many of his insights to be quite relevant to the Aurora incident. Notably, Cullen dissects the media coverage to explain how the many myths and misunderstandings emerged about shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Some persist even today (and Cullen admits his own role as a journalist back then in contributing to the errors). In the chaos, reporters had recreated the incident via contradictory eyewitness accounts and brief law enforcement reports, but this “need-to-know-now” approach typically produces errors.

It’s surprising how many media “facts” emerged about the Columbine shooters and how long the errors have endured. Cullen offers a careful account, using interviews and documents that were unavailable until years after the shooting. He includes what we know about the distortion factors in perception and memory, and his evaluation easily generalizes to other headline-grabbing massacres.

Having spent nine years on research, Cullen suggests that Harris had groomed a depressed Klebold for the day of destruction. Harris’s journals detail an intense hatred of his “inferiors,” which included just about everyone. Far from being unbearably bullied, he himself could be a bully. More to the point, Harris had “extinction fantasies” about wiping out other people.

In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm described extinction fantasies as an aspect of “necrophilism,” which can feed malignant aggression. People with a "necrophilous character" are guided by a set of values that glorifies death and demolition.

Malignant aggression, accordng to Fromm, is rooted in the desire to make a distinct mark on one’s world. Such people often have dreams about dismembered parts or rooms full of corpses. They have trouble relating to others and tend to feel bored. Preferring dark colors, they’re often obsessed with devices of destruction or role models who carried out large-scale slaughters. They feel a smirking superiority toward others, often being insensitive about tragedies that involved a loss of life.

As Klebold struggled with a sense of failure, equating suicide with tranquility and escape, Harris aimed his hatred outward. He attended closely to stories of prior school shootings. The way these young men reinforced each other’s dark side is a striking factor in their “mission.” Each time they worked on their plans, laughing over who might die, they took another step closer to action. Setting a date, collecting weapons, and having a clear target and a stated purpose increased the probability that they would play out their fatal scenario.

Although the shooting in Aurora differs in many ways from the Columbine massacre, one thing is certain: pressure to identify a simple reason is a mistake. A motive for planned violence of this magnitude generally simmers for a while, absorbing support from multiple sources until it reaches the boiling point. If we want perspective that could help us understand and prevent, we’ll need to be patient. It’s unlikely that immediate post-incident observations will be definitive.

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