Mass violence: Why do they do it? What can we do about it?
|Q: This week it was northern Illinois. But it seems like every time you turn around, somebody’s shooting up a school, workplace, or public area. What makes a person snap and go on this kind of killing rampage? Is there anything the public can do to protect themselves? And what’s law enforcement’s role in preventing and responding to mass violence attacks? |
A: Mass murder is defined as the killing of multiple victims in a single incident, typically using the highest level of lethal technology available to the killer, which in most cases involves handguns, assault weapons, explosives, or arson. Some types of mass murder are committed in the name of a political, religious, or ideological cause; we label these terrorism, but this is not what we’re talking about here. In the case of the Omaha mall, and other like it, it is usually one disturbed individual whose fantasies of outrage and revenge impel him to explosive violence.
The mass violence cycle
An otherwise normal person, no matter how stressed, doesn’t just suddenly “snap” and go on a killing spree. In virtually all of the cases that have been studied by behavioral scientists, there has emerged a predictable pattern in the evolution of most mass violence incidents. The perpetrators are typically individuals with longstanding histories of contact with the legal, mental health, and/or substance abuse treatment systems; such was the case with the recent Omaha mall shooter, Robert Hawkins, as well as the Virginia Tech gunman this past April. The cycle that leads to the lethal explosion typically begins when an individual experiences a build-up of stressors stemming from health, employment, or romantic problems. Whereas most of us would be feel distressed under these circumstances, we generally try to do what we can to fix the problem, grumble about what we can’t control, distract ourselves with something enjoyable, and generally soldier on.
Who commits mass murder?
As noted above, many people get their asses kicked by life but they don’t take their pain out violently on helpless or innocent people. Behavioral scientists have developed a rough sort of typology of clinical syndromes that may be associated with mass violence. But bear in mind that most individuals with these diagnoses don’t commit murder or violence – they may not necessarily be the most pleasant people to deal with, but most are essentially harmless. It’s important that you don’t go around profiling the weird but otherwise peaceful citizens in your patrol area as a bunch of bombs ready to blow. They’re probably not, but understanding what makes them tick may help you intervene earlier and more effectively should trouble start to develop.
Perpetrators with borderline personality disorder experience drastic mood swings, mercurial personal attachments, and extremely intense emotional reactions. Having idealized a particular job, mentor, or romantic partner, the borderline individual may be plunged into rageful despair by a subsequent rebuff or disappointment, real or imagined. Their thirst for vindication and restoration of self-worth becomes an all-consuming passion and may include destructive or violent acts, usually centering around a specific person they once adored but have now demonized. Many of these instances turn into hostage-barricade situations when the subject returns to the home or worksite to show the offending parties “what you’ve done to me.”
Psychological effects of mass violence
Even among those not directly killed or wounded, acts of mass violence produce a psychological shockwave that impacts a wide variety of witnesses, friends, family, and community members, as we know from studying past episodes.
For example, in 1991, a gunman drove his truck into the front of a crowded cafeteria in Killeen, Texas and began shooting customers indiscriminately, many at point-blank range. After being wounded by police, the gunman fatally shot himself, killing a total of 24 people. Over three-quarters of people who witnessed the violence reported symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including intrusive recall of the event, hyperstartle responses, insomnia, and nightmares.
Although a quarter of the witnesses studied showed posttraumatic symptoms after the courthouse shooting incident, three-quarters of this affected subsample were found to have pre-existing histories of psychiatric disorder and only ten percent of the subjects developed a new syndrome specifically as a result of this incident.
Citizen and law enforcement repsonse to mass violence
While such studies may differ as to the scope of the psychological impact of mass violence, everyone agrees that all reasonable measures should be taken to prevent these tragedies and, when they occur, everything possible should be done for the survivors and other affected by the trauma. Many of the following recommendations for citizens and police agencies come from the lessons learned in dealing with workplace and school violence (see School Violence: The psychology of youthful mass murder and what to do about it).
Law enforcement response includes establishing a mechanism for instantly notifying local law enforcement of an emerging threat or act of violence, with redundant backup contingency plans in case the primary notification mechanism fails to function. Following an incident, civilian authorities should know how to keep the crime scene intact until law enforcement has gone over the area.
Mental health mobilization includes a prearranged plan for company representatives to contact their contracted mental health professionals immediately, arrange for the clinicians to meet first at the top levels of the organization for executive briefings, arranging for critical incident stress debriefings (CISD) for affected employees and stakeholders, and arranging a follow-up schedule for the clinicians to return for further psychological services as needed.
Post-incident investigations involve a collaborative effort between law enforcement and civilian authorities, and include questions about the nature of the perpetrator, his relationship to the organization or community, any warning signs that should have been heeded, and the organization’s and community’s overall security and threat assessment procedures.
To learn more about these topics
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.
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