Textbook Shooter
A friendless society invites wanton acts of violence

By James Alan Fox and Jack Levin
August 7, 2009

Tuesday's horrific massacre at LA Fitness Center in Collier, like countless others that have occurred over the years, reminds us painfully that no place is absolutely safe -- not a restaurant or a school, not a church or a shopping mall. And now, apparently, not a health club, a place that so many Americans consider their oasis for working out the stresses and frustrations of daily life.

Of course, for George Sodini, the health club was nothing more than another venue for feeling rejected, particularly by the young, attractive women crowding the weight room. The club became, as a result, the very spot he chose deliberately to work out his frustrations, not with weights and a treadmill, but with a loaded 9 mm. Mr. Sodini's victims may not have known him very well, if at all, but that is precisely part of the reason why they were targeted. He sought revenge against women, the youthful athletic types who never took the time to know him.

There are so many features about this shooting spree that are tragically textbook. Like most mass killers, Mr. Sodini struggled through a long history of failure and rejection, from childhood, with a brother he regarded as a bully and a father he saw as distant and unconcerned, through middle age after decades without consummating an intimate relationship. It reached the point where life was absolutely meaningless and the future seemed to promise only more of the same.

Rather than take responsibility for his own inadequacies in relationships, Mr. Sodini -- in typical mass murderer fashion -- externalized the blame, projecting his problems onto all the young beautiful women -- 30 million of them by his estimate -- who ignored him. Plus, he blamed black men for stealing away all the good-looking white women he had hoped to date.

As the classic loner, Mr. Sodini wrote in his blog about being "isolated," about having no "close friends," about spending so much time by himself. From his viewpoint, it wasn't only women who had rejected him; it was all of humankind. In his extreme loneliness, Mr. Sodini was without emotional support and comfort. There was no one there to help him deal with his demons, to encourage him to do the right thing, or at least to help him gain some perspective on his situation.

If George Sodini was so much like the archetypal profile of a mass killer, then could -- or should -- others around him have seen the warning signs? The irony is that had anyone been truly close with him, close enough to understand his profound frustrations and despair, then the result may have played out very differently. However, in his state of virtual isolation, Mr. Sodini was alone with his thoughts -- and his blogful of pathetic rants.

Aside from the gunman, the real culprit in explaining mass murder can be found in society itself and in a trend that has affected millions. During recent years, there has been an eclipse of community, a dwindling of social relationships -- family ties and neighborliness -- that had protected former generations of Americans from succumbing to disaster.

In an earlier era, family or neighbors could be counted on to assist in times of financial ruin or emotional distress. But today you're basically on your own. Many Americans simply have no place to turn when they become desperate. Their misery has no company. Without options and without support, mass murder can sometimes seem like the only way out.

At the same time, growing numbers of Americans are opting for the solitude of telecommunicating and the Internet. They avoid traffic jams on the highways but also give up interaction with co-workers. Their neighborhoods no longer provide them with a source of friendship and camaraderie. More typically, Americans don't even know their neighbors' names and faces -- only the e-mail addresses of faraway acquaintances whom they have never met. They are quick to communicate at a superficial level with total strangers in chat rooms or blog exchanges, but too busy to sit with their neighbors and share a beer and conversation.

While traditional and real social networks have contracted, the online versions, such as Facebook, have grown. However, these represent only virtual communities. And even online, some unfortunate souls remain friendless.

The sad truth about mass murder is that there is rather little that we can do to prevent it. But we must still make an effort, perhaps by reaching out to the seemingly isolated stranger sitting alone at the next table in the restaurant or working out with an iPod at the next treadmill in the gym. We may, in the process of trying, enhance the well-being of others and begin to repair our lost sense of community. We might even avert a tragedy or two.

James Alan Fox and Jack Levin are professors at Northeastern University in Boston and co-authors of "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.".