Mass murder is predictably unpredictable

James Alan Fox

July 23, 2012


It didn't take very long once the initial shock wave surrounding the Colorado theater massacre had passed for the speculation about motive and mindset to begin. Experts of all sorts were asked for their theories on what kind of person would slaughter innocent strangers and then calmly surrender to the police. And as soon as the gunman's identity was reported, the race was on to fill in the details, to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and to identify those telltale warning signs that were tragically missed.

Through collaborating with my Northeastern University colleague Jack Levin over three decades in examining countless case studies of mayhem, several common characteristics and motivational themes have emerged. Mass killers tend to be profoundly frustrated and despondent over life's disappointments, isolated from family and friends who might be in a position to provide comfort and support, and see themselves as the victim of undeserved mistreatment and unfairness. For them, the act of murder against certain people seen as responsible for their misfortune, if not against a corrupt society in general, is justified. Successful and fulfilled people, by contrast, have little need for vengeance or reason to wreak havoc in such a dramatic and public fashion.

Mass murderers often reserve their last deadly round for themselves or stand ready to be killed by police at the scene. For many, especially older assailants who have endured long years of perceived mistreatment, life on Earth becomes meaningless. They are prepared to die so long as they first achieve sufficient payback by becoming the powerful one who gets to dispense the misery. Yet even those assailants who, like the accused shooter in Colorado, willingly surrender do so knowing that they had successfully accomplished their mission: not only have they shared the pain, but they established themselves as a fearsome and dominant force in the eyes of the world.

So if there is a common pattern to these shootings and those responsible for the carnage, what does that suggest about predictability and prevention? Unfortunately, not much is readily available to help reduce the risk.

The difficult and sad truth is that thousands upon thousands of Americans share these same characteristics. There is a vast pool of people who fail to reach their ambitions, blame others or "the system" for their troubles, and have inadequate social support, yet very few will pick up a gun in response. Although the mass killer profile is predictable, their exact identifies are not. Mass murderers often exhibit telltale warning signs in their behavior or words, but these become clear only with hindsight. These so-called "red flags" are actually yellow ones that turn red only after the bloodletting.

The lack of foreseeability should not stop us, of course, from trying to improve the well-being of others. It would be great, for example, if the legacy of the Colorado shooting and similar tragedies was the expansion of mental health services. However, those who are truly ready to rampage would typically view the problem to be with others, not themselves, and would resist treatment.

Tighter controls on firearms licensing and sales would help to curtail our nation's high rate of gun violence, but not neccessarily this extreme form of violence. The fact is that most mass murderers, despite their readiness for violence and psychological impairment, do not have official records of criminality or mental illness that would disqualify them from gun ownership.

And perhaps we should all try harder to reach out to those around us who seem to be struggling financially, socially or psychologically. In a highly complex, modernized and diverse society, it is far too easy for folks to feel alienated, detached, and isolated, with little hope that life will improve. Still, worthwhile attempts by all of us to be a better neighbor, even to the oddball next door, may not be enough to salvage those at the edge.

In addition to these long-term strategies, we should be careful regarding the kind of attention given the Colorado shooting and the man who stands accused. Within hours of the massacre, the name and likeness of the alleged gunman were featured everywhere. He was well on his way to becoming iconic with much more than his undeserved 15-minutes of infamy.

It is quite appropriate to shed light on the crime, but without shedding a spotlight on the one believed responsible. Excessive focus on the details of his past inadvertently humanizes someone who allegedly acted in an incredibly inhumane way toward a crowd of innocent movie-goers. Not only does this indeed pile insult upon injury, but it potentially speaks to the handful of others with a similar mindset who might dream of walking the same murderous path.


James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He is co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder and writes the Crime and Punishment blog for The Boston Globe.