What Drives Someone To Commit Mass Violence?

By Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

Adam Lanza, the gunman responsible for the recent shootings at Sandyhook Primary School in the US, was not a terrorist in the strict definition of the word. He had no political cause, but he terrorised a community and a nation and committed a heinous crime, reminding many of the Beslan School hostage- taking (September 2004, North Ossetia, Russia) in which over 300 innocents were killed. What drives people to carry out such acts?
I have been studying terrorism for ten years – interviewing terrorists, their family members and close associates, and their hostages – and I find there are a lot of parallels between terrorism and mass shooting sprees. For one, terrorists are made, not born. The same is true for mass shooters.
In the case of terrorism, I have found that there is a ‘lethal cocktail’ of terrorism that takes vulnerable individuals and moves them along the terrorist trajectory to enact violence. A vulnerable terrorist recruit rarely acts alone; he or she needs a group, an ideology and social support to propel them into violence. The group equips them, the ideology justifies violently killing civilians and social support makes it more attractive to engage. The individualacts out of their own pain, which resonates with the other three ingredients.
Mass shooters, as opposed to terrorists, often do act alone, but let us not deceive ourselves that they are in fact lone actors. Just like terrorists, there is a group that equips them – it is the local gun store, gun fair, a friend or family member, or any place where they can quickly and easily obtain means to kill – once they have crossed the mental line where killing others becomes acceptable. And the ideology and social support that justifies mass shootings in the US – in the demented minds of those who carry out the attacks – is the cultural milieu of violent movies, computer games, even family and cultural socialisation that models for troubled young men to refrain from expressing their emotions and asking for help (“big boys don’t cry”) and glorifies using gun violence as a means to express pain and solve problems. (See the latest action movie, television show or computer game where the hero shoots his way into the arms of the loving girl). Social support also exists in the instant and overwhelming media attention that mass shooters are guaranteed to get by expressing their painful outrage, despair, or whatever other sick idea they wish to get across through murder.
Like terrorists, mass shooters are vulnerable individuals and usually highly troubled. A young man does not pick up a semi-automatic rifle and go into a school, workplace or public gathering and shoot as many people as possible for no reason. In the case of shooting school-age children, the perpetrator may highly identify with the age of his victims, symbolically killing himself at the age when he suffered sexual abuse or some other violence or humiliation which he has never gotten help with, do not know how to get over, and is now expressing his outrage about through the killing of others. Again, we see emotions acted out – instead of being spoken about and worked through – with violence being used to
try to wipe away pain. Perhaps the perpetrator may just be mentally ill and unable to contain or work through upsetting emotions and the gun provides this person with an outlet.
Terrorist groups know that when a vulnerable individual is in overwhelming psychic pain, it is often not hard to enlist that person into a suicide mission – he wants to express that pain, will act on behalf of the group and seeks to exit this life, going out as what he believes is a ‘hero’ by following the militant jihadi ideology that promises instant access to paradise.
In the case of mass shooting incidents, the lone perpetrators are often not following any terrorist ideology and do not believe their act will take them instantly to paradise, but they are in deep psychic pain. Their emotional pain is so overwhelming that they want to express their outrage and despair publicly, unleashing a bloodbath that can only result in their death even if they do not suicide. They have so little help for dealing with their anguish that it overwhelms any reasonable judgment, and they see death as their only viable exit. They are in a state of what suicidologist Edwin Shneidman called ‘psychache’, which is the biggest predictor of suicide. But these actors will not simply suicide. They will kill others as they exit life, which is why our first responders now need to know how to act fast to take the suicidal murderer down, hopefully lowering his potential number of victims before he kills himself or suicides via ‘death by cop’. In either case, the terrorist or the lone shooter is aiming at suicide (the terrorist may be calling it ‘martyrdom’) and we need to better understand what is happening. His psychic pain is overwhelming and he will express it until he is killed or he kills himself – if he is equipped to do so.
So How Can We Prevent The Next Adam Lanza?
The problem can be addressed via a number of avenues. The fact is that in America, vulnerable individuals have access to semi-
automatic weapons at the time when their minds are filled with overwhelming pain and a desire to die – but not without first expressing their outrage, despair and emotional pain in a slaughter of others. The availability of guns makes certain that the ‘lethal cocktail’ of mass shootings continues to exist and occur in the US. Americans have to come to grips with finding a balance between their freedoms and the need to protect their children and innocent civilians. And some element of that is likely to involve the restriction of weapons that enable people to commit carnage in seconds.
More needs to be done to try to identify and intervene with troubled youth, giving help to young people who were abused, neglected or otherwise hurt and who are now searching for a way to resolve horrible inner pain without knowing where or how to get help. Truthfully, this kind of psychological care is very costly, and at a time of fiscal challenges, it is not easy. That said, the real question becomes, can we really afford not to provide this type of assistance when looking at the faces of the children lost in Connecticut? We can and should provide good mental health interventions that identify and treat troubled youth. But will we? And will everyone that needs it engage in accepting help? We cannot force troubled young people who have committed no crime into therapy.
We are also unlikely to do away with violent movies, television shows and computer games that model killing. But we do have to recognise that our entertainment media is contributing to a violent society and perhaps decreasing the empathy of children who grow up witnessing countless violent acts. We can and should limit more carefully what we let our children watch and play. And as consumers, we should encourage the entertainment industry to create dramatic action films and games that are fun and engaging but do not glorify death and killing.
There is no escaping the fact that the media will cover every moment of any mass shooting. Therefore, there will always be a subsection of troubled young people who will want to pick up guns to act out their pain. As long as there are easily accessible guns, some of those young people in overwhelming psychic pain will choose guns, and mass shootings ending in suicide, as their means of expressing outrage and their pathway out of agony.
We can give teachers guns, put a cop in every school and hope they stop the perpetrators before they shoot our children. And we can begin to identify, treat and intervene in the lives of abused, neglected and hurt young people to prevent them from becoming violent in the first place. But for those we miss and who fall through the cracks, we can ensure protection of the general population by creating strong controls on assault weapons. We can and must stop the next Adam Lanza.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. She is the Author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”.