Given my history of researching and writing about criminals, a friend has asked me to comment about the horrifying mass murder of school children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.
First, it should go without saying that our chief focus and concern here should be for the innocent victims -- the little kids, the adults on the school staff, and their many grieving families. When somebody commits an atrocity like this, it's too easy for him (and it is almost always a "him") to get the lion's share of the attention -- which is one main reason why these creeps do such things. The media always comply with their desire for instant attention-by-atrocity by spending inordinate time on them rather than the many victims, whose names vanish quickly into obscurity. I won't give the dead killer that posthumous satisfaction here. I'm instead filled with sorrow for the families and friends who lost so much yesterday, including the irreplaceable, budding lives that now will never be. And many more than two dozen lives were extinguished yesterday: The lives of many survivors and loved ones will never be the same, and we also can count them as having suffered fatal wounds. I grieve for them all.
Second, regarding the killer's motive, which my friend asked me to discuss: It's hard to know what the story is here without knowing more about him -- whether he was psychotic (the sort that hears voices in his head), or a psychopath (just a nihilist). Pure psychotics are largely dysfunctional in the world, and incapable of the kind of long-term fantasizing, planning, and secrecy that such a crime usually requires. Whenever we find that a true psychotic is involved in mass killings, he seems to be a paranoid schizophrenic acting more on impulse, using whatever weapons are available and not having thought out things very clearly. But most of the time, these crimes are pre-planned and carefully prepared for -- which indicates the functioning, criminal calculation of a psychopath (aka "sociopath"). Occasionally -- as in the "Dark Knight" killing spree in the Colorado movie theater -- it appears that there's a mixture of mental illness and conscious, nihilistic cunning and calculation involved. I don't know enough in this case to hazard a guess as to what "type" the killer may be.
Once that can be determined, however, then the next question is what lame "provocation" set off this specific killing spree. There's usually a triggering event: some slight or disappointment or personal disaster that the perp regards as symbolic of his wasted life -- as a symbolic end of the road. If the person is otherwise sane, but nihilistic/psychopathic, he almost always has been nurturing such real or imagined "grievances" for a long time, building them to a slow boil. Sociopaths/psychopaths (and criminals generally) always have some rationalization for what they do. (In the age of terrorism, those rationalizations are often ideological.) They always have shaky self-esteem, coupled with the belief that their lives have been somehow "spoiled," or denied some justice or "entitlement" to the happiness that others enjoy. They always feel envy toward those hated "others" and fantasize about getting revenge, about "getting back" at those responsible for (or who remind them of) their blighted lives. And so in these crimes there is always a scapegoat class of people, who symbolize for the killer why his life has been spoiled, why some grave injustice has been committed against him, and why those "others" deserve "payback."
You have to understand this to grasp that, for the mass killer, murder is an empowering event. He is playing God with other human lives, and gets a tremendous "rush" of power and control by treating other humans like playthings. A perfect example was the case of Ted Bundy, who was kidnapping, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering dozens of young women...while simultaneously working at a suicide-prevention hotline! Nothing for me better symbolized the mass killer's addiction to the feeling of power he gets by controlling the fate of other human lives.
While both serial killers and mass murderers are motivated by the desire to experience power and control over others, "mass murders" (where a lot of people are killed in one event, or in a "killing spree" over a few days) are somewhat distinct, motivationally, from serial killings (where three or more people are murdered in sequence over a considerably longer period).
Sociopathic serial killings are usually sexualized crimes of power, control, and sometimes anger and revenge. Their nihilistic perpetrator seeks power and control, or to express anger and the desire for revenge, against a certain "type" of victim, through sexual domination, pain, and humiliation. The victim "type" symbolizes for him something deeply personal, tied emotionally to his own anxieties. The perpetrator, usually feeling that he has a blighted, empty, or inadequate life, feels the thrill of empowerment by these crimes, in which his victims are reduced to the status of toys. The serial killer is not "attention-seeking" in the sense of wanting everyone to know his name, because he doesn't want to get caught, and he takes great pains to avoid apprehension. But he usually loves hearing about his crimes in the media, getting an additional cocky "rush" by putting something over on the police, and perhaps on those around him, who don't know about his grisly secret life. Sometimes serial killings aren't overtly sexualized -- e.g., the "Unibomber," the "DC snipers," hospital nurses who poison patients, etc. But the thrill of "playing God," of exerting ultimate power and control over lives, is a constant motivational theme. And so is their wellspring and source: feelings of living inadequate, flawed lives, alienated from a society where "everybody else" seems happy, wealthy, and content.
In contrast to serial killings, sociopathic mass-murders are almost always attention-seeking devices -- nihilistic crimes intended "to show THEM" (the scapegoat class, or society at large), to "get back" at the symbolic tormentors. The killer usually wants his name to be broadcast far and wide; he seeks infamy, because he's "making a statement" against the society that (in his fantasy) has irreparably ruined his life. The key word here is "irreparably." Because he thinks he can never find solace and happiness, his killings are usually "suicide missions" planned with military precision; he often dresses up in quasi-military garb for the "mission" and fantasizes himself as being a "soldier" conducting an "operation"; and he usually expects or intends to "go out in a blaze of glory" -- to die during the killing spree, either in a hail of bullets from the cops, or by his own hand.
Obsessive fantasizing and mental "rehearsal" are two other necessary ingredients to mass murders and serial killings. These types of people live, day and night, in a world of nonstop fantasy: revenge fantasies, sadistic sexual fantasies, fantasies of nihilistic destruction. They "rehearse" their crimes constantly in their heads, long before they actually commit them. They also frequently "rehearse" their crimes in slowly escalating forms. Serial killers often begin with sadistic porn, graduate to being "peeping Toms" and stalkers, then perhaps burglars -- invading private homes where their targets live, and stealing and collecting intimately personal "trophies," such as underwear. As they start to act out their fantasies, they carefully prepare "kits" with abduction items and various sadistic tools or sexual toys. Similarly, mass murderers often stockpile weapons and military "camo" garb, conduct "advance recon" on target sites, carefully plan their "missions," and practice shooting at firing ranges or on video games while imagining that the targets are their intended victims.
This explains how killers can commit horrific crimes. Just as surgeons have been given a rationale for cutting into the human body, and are then trained through endless rehearsals to "get used to it" -- just as soldiers have been given a patriotic rationale for committing mayhem on "the enemy," and are then trained through endless rehearsals to "get used to it" -- so too do mass murderers and serial killers prepare themselves with rationalizations and excuses, and then engage in obsessive fantasy and rehearsals, to "get used to" committing monstrous acts against innocent others. In their minds, their "targets" are anything but "innocent," you see.
In this particular case, you might wonder, "How could classrooms of little kids be regarded by the killer as his tormentors or as perpetrators of injustice against him?" In fact, of course, they can't be. But again, these crimes are symbolic.
One media report
suggest that the perp was a "loner" who played lots of video games and lived
with his mother; a friend described him as "very thin, very remote and [he]
was one of the goths.” Reports are that the killer first murdered his mother, who was a teacher or teacher's aide at that particular school. That seems to be a significant "triggering event," and a likely link to a possible motive. If I had to guess at this point, based only on paltry evidence, I'd suspect that this killing spree was probably about hatred of his mother and/or "getting back" at her -- about a nihilistic desire to "show HER" by destroying the kids to whom she was paying a lot of attention, "rather than ME." Or perhaps he had been a student at that (or a similar) school, and was either tormented by other children or felt miserably alienated from them; and now, at age 20 and with an empty life, blamed the school for his misery. [UPDATE: It's now uncertain that his mother had any direct connection to the elementary school. I have read that she removed the perp from high school and home-schooled him. In some fashion, school seemed symbolic to him, but we'll have to await more information.]
Again, these are only wild guesses, based on paltry preliminary information. But it wouldn't surprise me if something like that was going on in this guy's head. It would fit the pattern of so many similar crimes.
One thing I do know: Gun control won't stop crimes like this. Mass killers would only use other means -- and they do. The same day that this blood bath was occurring in Connecticut, we read of some similar monster in China stabbing dozens of kids in a school. It is also noteworthy that the worst such mass-killing in an American school occurred in 1927, when somebody used three bombs to blow up a school.
So, what do we do -- outlaw knives, or the many simple household chemicals that people can use to make bombs? Then they'd turn to poisoning food in the school cafeterias -- or dumping toxins into public water supplies -- or chaining building doors shut and burning them down, with their occupants. Or driving cars along sidewalks, mowing down pedestrians. Or hijacking airliners and slamming them into buildings. Or dumping acid over the balconies at sporting events onto spectators below. Whatever. The destructive possibilities for nihilists who fantasize obsessively about such things, 24/7, are boundless.
The fact is that objects don't murder. Murderers do. Given the ingredients of blighted lives, social alienation, revenge fantasies -- and these days, an "entertainment" culture that glorifies sadistic brutality, plus "empowerment" ideologies that give millions of followers moral rationalizations to commit violent mayhem in response to various alleged "injustices" -- we will always have mass nihilistic crimes.
Depriving ordinary people of the means of defending themselves won't do anything...except to increase the number of vulnerable sheep for society's roaming wolves to prey upon. Those predators will always find the tools and means to kill. But the one constant in all of their unspeakable crimes is that their victims were not allowed to possess and carry the means to fight back against their victimizers.
Who knows what the outcome might have been if the school principal or a teacher in Newtown, Connecticut, had been allowed to carry a handgun?