Barry Schaller
Barry Schaller ()

Last of three parts

“Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires.” (MacBeth, Act 1, Scene 4)

Each new public mass shooting episode challenges us to understand the mind and motive of the shooter. The epigraph draws on the incisive wisdom of Shakespeare’s “MacBeth,” a literary work that explores the human mind as it struggles with murderous acts.

The effort to understand the psychological makeup of public mass shooters presents an enigma. They tend to be secretive figures, eluding detection until too late. Most shooters die during their single killing spree, many by their own hands, the rest at the hands of law enforcement. Families of shooters, like most suicide survivors, are reluctant to speak.

The key question is what toxic mix of suicidal desire, perceived victimization, craving for fame, access to arsenals of guns, and an accelerant, mental illness that distorts all the factors causes these individuals to turn into killers of innocent people in the course of their own self-destruction? New perspectives on the problem are needed.

One such perspective is shaped by taking into account that our culture tolerates and even promotes violence. This includes massive publicity which ensures the mass shooters that their need for a pathological kind of celebrity will be satisfied. We know that potential shooters emulate past behavior in fulfilling their needs. Are we as a society ready to make changes to our culture? Current evidence suggests that the interests involved in promoting entertainment violence of all kinds, extending to social media, prevail over those favoring cultural change just as the interests in preserving gun culture prevail over sensible restrictions on access for high-risk individuals who seek to build arsenals. Both issues, especially the latter, are highly politicized.

Another perspective would involve considering what avoidance, oversight or denial prevents family members, friends and educators who see warning signs from taking action. Unlike terrorist threats, internal or external, in which warnings of attacks are closely monitored, the mass shooting threats are not monitored by anyone.

Returning to the key question, I suggest that another approach may be useful. That is to view these mass shooters primarily as suicidal. Virtually all of them are suicidal and have no exit plan. Most remain at the scene awaiting death or apprehension. Motives and choice of victims are irrational.

Understanding any suicide presents an enigma. Survivors want to close the door on the subject. Attempted suicides involve different motives and narratives. Suicides are difficult to classify in a way that enables meaningful research, though we have some basis for the study of suicidal behavior. Military personnel and veterans commit suicide at high rates, although they are rarely homicidal. We know they are in despair. Too often, their lives are worse off than before. They face loss of identity, unemployability and relationship failure.

Some suicides are committed openly in ways that suggest that, in their desperation, those committing suicide may be trying to inflict pain on someone whom they perceive failed them. Military suicides do not display victimization as do the mass shooters. But they suffer, as do the shooters, from alienation from society. Like the mass shooters, they wish to die, and like the shooters, they have ready access to firearms, which provides impulse shooters with means of destruction.

Unlike military suicides, mass shooters press toward suicide, similar to suicide by cop. When they take their own lives, they do so publicly after their killing spree. If we view them primarily as suicides, people in despair, without hope or power, victimized in their perception, we may understand them better. We need to understand their solipsism—closed minds in closed universes of their creation. We may understand better why they take the lives of others who are defenseless, powerless targets—like themselves, in a sense. The victims of society victimize. They demonstrate their alienation from society by destroying others.

Mass shooters suffer from mental illness as reflected by their grossly disproportionate actions and by the ease with which they kill without apparent remorse, without empathy. Their mental illness causes them to have distorted perceptions of themselves, their victimization and their decision to kill. The crucial role that mental illness plays in these episodes makes this a major public health problem. Bringing it within the ambit of public health would provide a useful set of criteria for analysis, in addition to tools to deal with the problem.

University of Alabama professor Adam Lankford has written about the common features shared by suicidal terrorist bombers and suicidal mass rampage shooters. The former category we think of as motivated by ideological motives and the latter by personal motives. They are all suicidal, generally affected deeply by mental illness, by irrational feelings of victimization by someone or something: a government, a co-worker or boss, fellow students or family members. They develop feelings of victimization, enhanced by their clinical illness, and become motivated to exact revenge or retaliation, sometimes symbolic, by committing murder before they commit suicide. They—especially the mass shooters—commonly are obsessed with celebrity and fame. They crave attention to a pathological degree.

All these suicidal killers are shaped by their own cultures and policies. So far, we have been plagued by suicidal mass shooters rather than suicidal terrorists. Focusing on them as suicidal with unique features that lead them to be murderers may be useful. We can learn from studying other suicidal killers. History shows that, although mass shootings are not new to American society, they have been increasing in number.

Viewing shooters as primarily suicidal has a benefit that is not obvious at first glance. It enables us to see them for what they are: in plain terms, severely mentally ill people with grossly distorted perceptions of reality, lacking normal empathy and rational thinking. Once the shooters have carried out their actions, the public has obvious difficulty viewing them with any compassion. Outpourings of concern and compassion go to the victims and their survivors. However, until these individuals take action, we can view them as mentally ill individuals who could benefit from intervention with mental health care. That is not to say that every shooting could be prevented, but it seems likely that some could be prevented.

Where does the fault lie: with society’s neglect of these outliers, with the criminal justice system, with uncontrolled access to lethal weapons, with an inadequate mental health system, with exploitative publicity, or with our saturation with violence? We continue to have a shocking level of street violence, mainly involving firearms, resulting in a huge loss of human lives. This invisible violence is usually overlooked in the focus on political issues. Racial violence has again emerged in recent months in the form of disparate treatment of suspects by law enforcement officials.

Recent studies have lent support to an approach that takes into account the cultural tradition and sociological factors that influence American society. We are accumulating knowledge of potential causes and solutions. But this country does not rise with common purpose to the challenge. Conflicting interests and priorities create deep divides among us. Issues become politicized, first by one side, and then by another. We cannot protect every innocent victim of this unthinkable violence any more than, in the global terrorism setting, we can eliminate every one of our potential enemies, drones or no drones. But we cannot afford to ignore rational ways to reduce and control the danger.

“[A] tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

We cannot undo the wrongs that have been done to innocent victims who have suffered a cruel—and meaningless—fate. But if we do nothing, those actions—those “tales told” are acts of violence “signifying nothing”—tear the fabric of peaceful freedom that our democracy should protect. Our mission is to take positive action. Important elements include adequate attention to mental illness identification and treatment and reduction of gross disparity and marginalization from society’s expectations and rewards—the American Dream. They also include provision of substance abuse treatment and control of firearms, especially to high-risk people, as well as curbing the cultural obsession with entertainment and media violence. We must also look more deeply into the root causes of the problem and reframe the highly politicized debates that lead to dead ends rather than constructive solutions. That involves examining how political dysfunction contributes to disenfranchising portions of our population, leading to the type of alienation that can turn toxic.

For some individuals, the American Dream can become a nightmare. We do not seem to know why, although we bandy about political rhetoric concerning the dream. We, as a people, avoid acknowledging the limitations of this elusive goal. We are aware of groups of people who are not in a position to achieve the promises of the dream, those who face well-known barriers—race, poverty, lack of access to education, untreated addictions, mental illness, citizenship, disabilities. The barriers can be insurmountable. But the list extends further to include individuals who do not fit into the mainstream of society for various reasons. The young, white males who have committed nearly all of the mass shootings constitute a category of people who face barriers beyond race, poverty, lack of education or citizenship. But they suffer from mental illness and other psychological barriers. We can continue to leave them behind or we can determine to pay attention to them.

In a democracy, it is highly unlikely that culture can be changed politically from the top down. Even acknowledging the widely discussed political dysfunction that has locked us in—or out—for decades, there are many other influences on culture that are beyond the control of our political system in this global age. At some point we must recognize the need to improve the knowledge and critical thinking skills—the capacity to understand—of our entire population through our public school system. On a broader scale, a starting point would be to rediscover our common interest, our common goals, our compassion and empathy, and our sense of connection—unity—with each and every person in our society. •