June 2007 -- The April 16 massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech by a lone gunman has become another bloodstained entry in the ever-expanding ledger of mass murders, here and abroad. Headlines about slaughters in schools, post offices, and other public places blend in with daily news reports of terrorist assaults worldwide on civilians, reports so frequent and ghastly that eventually, unavoidably, they leave us numb. 

The actions of those who would blow themselves up in order to annihilate scores of ordinary citizens—who would kidnap, torture, and behead reporters—who would icily, indiscriminately shoot dozens of men, women, and children in schools or fast-food restaurants—are unfathomable to the civilized mind. So, we try to project ourselves into the skulls of the butchers and imagine what could possibly motivate such barbarity.
We know that we would never voluntarily to do such horrific things. We therefore think the killer must have been “driven” to commit his atrocities, by unbearable pressures, or by intolerable cruelties from others, or by sheer madness. On this assumption, we postulate various “causes” that might “explain” the otherwise inexplicable. This is the language of what I call “the Excuse-Making Industry,” a major spin-off of university humanities departments. Their catalogue of “driving forces” is limited only by their creativity, because of a simple fact: nobody’s life is perfect. Post hoc, we can always find some flaw in a monster’s life, a hook upon which we then try to hang his gory deeds.
So, after the bloodbath, we root around through the scrapbooks and closets of the killer, searching for the blemish in his life that, we assume, was motivationally decisive. Maybe poverty “made” him do it. (As the juvenile delinquent mockingly tells Officer Krupke in The West Side Story, “We’re depraved on accounta we’re deprived.”) Or, if he was from a wealthy home, maybe too much pampering and spoiling “made” him do it. Maybe drugs or alcohol or internet porn “made him crazy.” Maybe his girlfriend jilted him. Maybe somebody insulted or teased or abused him. Maybe his professor failed him. Maybe somebody stole the land of his ancestors—or enslaved them. Maybe it was a “reaction” to U.S. imperialism or Israeli repression or institutionalized racism or IMF lending policies in the Third World. Maybe there was a cyst on his brain or unnatural preservatives in his junk food or rap lyrics on his iPod. Hell, maybe the devil made him do it. Clearly, though, something must have “compelled” him to such an “act of desperation.”
But this very assumption implies determinism—that the murderer was moved by forces beyond his rational control, forces that propelled him, like a helpless billiard ball, to strike others. These explanations that we contrive, often from the flimsiest reeds of circumstance, invariably remove moral responsibility from the culprit. And so he, too, becomes a “victim”: someone who is “sick,” not bad, someone who needs “treatment” or “rehabilitation,” not punishment.
We try to project ourselves into the skulls of the butchers and imagine what could possibly motivate such behavior.
In the end, though, our “explanations” explain nothing, because millions enduring precisely the same circumstances—and worse—did not choose to shoot, stab, or blow up anybody. Moreover, as we look closer, we find that the great majority of these killers are not out-of-control psychotics who “couldn’t help it.” To the contrary, most of them fantasized, planned, even rehearsed their acts, often for months or years, and took great pains to avoid prior detection and capture. At any time, they could have (and often have) called off or altered their plans, especially if they calculated a high risk of being caught. So, they are in control and they do know what they’re doing.
But to say that their actions are not “caused,” in the deterministic sense, does not mean that they are unmotivated. People have reasons for what they do, and mass killers have reasons to do what, for most of us, is unthinkable.
So, why do they choose to do it? Are the motives of political terrorists, suicide bombers, and criminal mass murderers idiosyncratic to the individual? Are they different by category? Or are there motivational elements common to mass killers of all sorts? Abundant research on these questions exists, and I’ve looked at a lot of it, and spoken to many experts, while doing investigative journalism on crime.
Motivationally, I think it’s useful to segregate mass murderers into two categories: individuals and groups. The mindsets of people acting alone, or perhaps with a partner, tend to differ from those acting in groups. Individual mass murderers tend to kill for personal reasons; groups tend to kill for ideological ones. For descriptive simplicity, let’s call these mass murderers and ideological terrorists, respectively.

Mass Murderers

“I hate the f---ing world.”
        —opening line from the journal of Columbine killer Eric Harris
Reading biographical backgrounds of individual mass murderers, one is struck by recurrent motivational themes. These crimes are vengeful and nihilistic. The basic goal of the killer is to “get back” at society and to acquire a sense of power and control by causing massive, widespread pain and destruction. And the lead-up to such crimes tends to follow a developmental pattern.
Sometimes, the mass murderer is a sociopath—a cold-blooded, conscienceless individual who seeks a sense of power by manipulating and controlling others. Eric Harris, the dominant of the two Columbine killers, was such an individual; so was Richard Speck, who murdered eight student nurses in Chicago. Most serial killers, such as Ted Bundy, fall into this category; their crimes are usually sexual, and motivated by a lust for power and domination. (Serial killers, who slay various individuals over long periods, are usually distinguished from mass murderers, who kill many at one time.)
More commonly, though, the mass killer of complete strangers is a frustrated individual who nurtures a burning sense of grievance and humiliation. Either because of low self-esteem or due to some specific loss or personal failing, he sees his future as bleak and empty, and himself as powerless to change things. If such an individual blames only himself, he may become suicidal. If he blames others, however, he may become homicidal. Dylan Klebold, the other Columbine murderer, was such an individual. News accounts portray him as hotheaded, depressive, suicidal, with a poor self-image.
Our explanations explain nothing, because millions enduring the same circumstances –and worse- did not choose to kill anybody.
If an individual is depressed, suicidal, and self-blaming, he may kill his family and himself in despair. But if he projects his misery outwardly—if he sees himself as a social victim, blaming others for his situation—then hebegins to nurture a sense of grievance. He compares himself invidiously with others who seem to have the happiness, wealth, good looks, status, or relationships that he craves. Their constant presence around him becomes an unendurable reproach. They become symbols to him—and scapegoats for his plight. They don’t deserve their successes; it’s unfair that they should be happy when he isn’t; he, too, is entitled to the happiness that they have; they succeeded at his expense.
“Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats,” snarls Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho on the home video he left behind to rationalize his crimes. “Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust funds wasn’t enough (sic).” Likewise, John Allen Muhammad, one of the “D.C. snipers,” was a chronic loser and social misfit who raged against white American society, which he held to be responsible for all his failures.
Eaten by envy and smoldering with resentment, such a person tends to become alienated and reclusive. He retreats into private obsession with his symbolic scapegoats, fixated on invidious comparisons between their lives and his, his anger and frustration building as he blames them for his misery. He dehumanizes them in his mind as being worthless, evil, subhuman. Gleefully, he begins to fantasize their downfall and humiliation and his own empowerment. To him, their humiliation, their annihilation, would be simple justice. Soon, the fantasies turn in violent, sadistic directions:in these, he becomes the ruthless, avenging angel for his own misery.
But how does he move from fantasy to action? Here, I think it’s helpful to think about an apt comparison: military training. Soldiers on battlefields are almost always “normal” people who, in combat, can bring themselves to behave in ways not much different from mass murderers. What makes ordinary people capable of doing such things? The answer is training—both psychological and physical. On the psychological side, military training aims at instilling in soldiers a compelling rationale for killing “the enemy.” On the physical side, the training rehearses the actual steps of combat, making it easier and easier for the soldier to take extremely violent actions and commit mayhem on others.
Essentially, mass murderers do the same things. They don’t simply wake up one morning and decide to go out and slaughter their neighbors. They have concocted a rationale and then rehearsed a plan to do so in fantasy and, sometimes, in escalating actions or even “dry runs.” They acquire weapons, practice at firing ranges, and sometimes—as in the Virginia Tech and Columbine cases, and in the “sniper” rampages in D.C. and the University of Texas—they even affect pseudo-military garb and tactics. They watch violent films and video games, projecting themselves into the action. Sometimes, they first commit smaller crimes that psychologically “Break the ice”: minor assaults, burglaries, arson, torturing animals. But always they are rehearsing, if only mentally, quietly nurturing their grievances and their secret plan of revenge and empowerment.
Often, some triggering event—some humiliation, job loss, divorce—sets off the pre-planned rampage. For example, in 1984, James Huberty—angry and depressed due to unemployment—went “hunting for humans” at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, California, killing 21 and wounding 19 before shooting himself. Marc Lépine, who harbored militaristic fantasies and hated feminists, was outraged that a woman got a job that he thought he deserved. In December 1989, he went to the University of Montreal, separated women from men in a classroom, then killed 14 women and wounded 15 men and women before committing suicide—the worst mass killing in Canadian history.
After the fact, we tend to look at the single precipitating event and attribute to it causal significance. But psychological and practical preparation for the slayings was already in place. Low self-esteem; humiliation; a burning sense of victimhood; enviously blaming and dehumanizing others; revenge fantasies—these are motivational factors commonly found in mass murderers. They are nihilistic losers, enraged at the spectacle of happy, successful people around them, seeking to become powerful, famous, and long-remembered “somebodies” at last—by depriving others of the lives they cannot have.

Ideological Terrorists

“ . . .I felt no guilt or remorse at what I was doing; I thought only of completing the mission . . . .”
        — Kim Hyun Hee, terrorist bomber of Korean Air Flight 858
Terrorists generally harbor motives different from those of criminal mass murderers.
Experts tell us there is no single identifiable “terrorist profile.” For the most part, they are not delusional psychotics and most are not sociopaths, though certainly some of these sorts are attracted to terrorism. In fact, sophisticated terrorist groups try to screen out such individuals because they are unreliable.
Instead, most terrorists come from the ranks of ordinary people. Many terrorist leaders, like Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, were not “losers” before launching their campaigns of bloodshed; they had been successful, educated, well-socialized individuals with plenty of friends and family members.
What, then, could transform such ordinary people into the kinds of monsters who could send airplanes crashing into buildings or strap on a bomb and set it off in a crowded marketplace?
I said earlier that ordinary soldiers could be trained to commit extremely violent and ghastly acts during combat, acts that they would normally regard as utterly repugnant—the only requirements being a compelling rationale and sufficient rehearsal. That is also true of mass murderers, and it is equally true of terrorists.
Unlike nihilistically motivated mass murderers, however, terrorists are ideologically motivated. For the mass murderer, destruction is an end in itself. For most terrorists, however, destruction—even including their own self-destruction—is a means to a “higher” end: it is destruction for the sake of some belief or cause.
Those that surround the killer become symbols to him–and scapegoats for his plight.
Those who study terrorists stress the importance of “group dynamics” in their development. A September 1999 Library of Congress study, “The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?,” is illuminating in this regard. It observes that “transformation into terrorists with a political or religious agenda takes place within the structure of the terrorist group. This group provides a sense of belonging, a feeling of self-importance, and a new belief system that defines the terrorist act as morally acceptable and the group’s goals as of paramount importance . . . Terrorist groups are similar to religious sects or cults.”
The collectivization of personal identity is a theme stressed by numerous researchers. In “Psychology of Terrorism,” forensic psychologist Dr. Randy Borum writes, “Perceived injustice, need for identity, and need for belonging are common vulnerabilities among potential terrorists.” Israeli political scientist Ehud Sprinzak says, “It appears that, as radicalization deepens, the collective group identity takes over much of the individual identity of the members; and, at the terrorist stage, the group identity reaches its peak.”
Not surprisingly, the stages of excuse-making that lead to terrorist violence are similar to that which leads to mass murder. Borum says it “begins by framing some unsatisfying event or condition as being unjust, blaming the injustice on a target policy, person, or nation, and then vilifying, often demonizing, the responsible party to facilitate justification for aggression.” Not that different from what we know of the motives of Seung-Hui Cho and other mass murderers.
Within the confines of such a group, the perspectives of individuals become divorced from reality and independent judgment. “The actions of terrorist organizations are based on a subjective interpretation of the world rather than objective reality,” observes researcher Martha Crenshaw. Simultaneously, the member is gradually exposed to, and becomes inured to, extreme and violent acts.
The group’s ideology provides this interpretation and insulation from reality, and it also rationalizes violence. When Kim Hyun Hee detonated the bomb that destroyed Korean Air Flight 858, she had no ethical misgivings. “At that moment, I felt no guilt or remorse at what I was doing; I thought only of completing the mission and not letting my country down,” she wrote.
Irrationalism, collectivist group-think, and the extolling of self-sacrifice as the highest virtue are elements central to all terrorist ideologies. The extreme manifestation of this mindset is the suicide terrorist. French filmmaker Pierre Rehov went undercover in Palestinian territories to produce a documentary, “Suicide Killers,” about the development of suicide bombers. He told an interviewer:
You are dealing with seemingly normal people with very nice manners who have their own logic . . . . It is like dealing with pure craziness, like interviewing people in an asylum, since what they say, is for them, the absolute truth. I hear a mother saying “Thank God, my son is dead.” Her son had became a shaheed, a martyr, which for her was a greater source of pride than if he had became an engineer, a doctor or a winner of the Nobel Prize. This system of values works completely backwards since their interpretation of Islam worships death much more than life. You are facing people whose only dream, only achievement is to fulfill what they believe to be their destiny, namely to be a shaheed or the family of a shaheed. They don’t see the innocent being killed, they only see the impure that they have to destroy.
In the case of Islamic terrorists, we have additional, cultural factors at play. Bernard Lewis, one of the foremost authorities on Islam, notes that Muslim fundamentalists have long seethed with resentment against the West for its military, economic, and especially cultural influence and power, which has come to extend deep into Muslim lands. “It was too much to endure, and the outbreak of rage against these alien, infidel, and incomprehensible forces that had subverted [the Muslim’s] dominance, disrupted his society, and finally violated the sanctuary of his home was inevitable.” In their eyes, America became the Great Satan. “Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western civilization the greatest challenge to [their] way of life,” Lewis writes. “And  . . .  [as] the recognized and unchallenged leader of the West, the United States has inherited the resulting grievances and become the focus for the pent-up hate and anger.”
So, like the mass murderer, the Islamic terrorist not only gains a sense of belonging, identity, and worth from his murderous activities; he also feels a sense of personal empowerment. He is at last somebody.

Stopping the Slaughter

Understanding the intellectual processes and social dynamics by which humans change into monsters provides insights as to what we might do to stop many mass slayings before they occur. As I’ve noted, two necessary precursors to any killing spree are a rationale and rehearsal. Let’s consider each in turn.
Rationale. The world will always have its losers. Not everyone will be able to successfully navigate life’s shoals, and self-esteem is a trait we are only beginning to learn how to nurture.
But it is one thing for a depressed, suicidal loser to blame and turn on himself; it is quite another for him to blame and turn on the rest of society for the “injustices” committed against him—injustices that “deprived” him of his “rights” to happiness, love, land, and wealth.
It should be easy to see how the reigning egalitarian philosophies of our time promote toxic feelings of victimization, entitlement, and envy.
It should be equally easy to see how the excuse-makers in the humanities departments, who propagate every kind of deterministic “explanation” for crime, have effectively insulated criminals from all responsibility for their deeds, becoming their professional “enablers” (to use the buzzword).
It should be just as easy to see how extolling the “heroism” of self-sacrifice to a collective or ideological cause only feeds the motivational cycle of terroristic violence.
If one seeks a true “cause” for the rapid spread of mass murder and terrorism in the world, look no farther. These popular ideas our  have poisoned the cultural soil from which now sprout the nihilistic revenge fantasies of killers such as Charles Manson, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, or John Muhammad; just read their “manifestos.” They also provide ideological justifications for attacks on us by terrorist enemies abroad, such as bin Laden and Zawahiri; read their manifestos, too.
Most people want to do “the right thing.” If we allow morality to be inverted so that the massacre of innocents becomes “the right thing,” is it any wonder why now see everywhere the incredible spectacle of righteous slaughter?
Promoting, as key moral values, reason, personal responsibility, and the sovereignty of individual life will go a long way toward marginalizing violence in society. It will deprive potential killers of a necessary precondition to their acts: a motivational rationale.
Rehearsal. No one commits, on the spur of the moment, unthinkable atrocities. In fact, that is a contradiction in terms: those who commit atrocities first think about them. They rehearse them in their minds. They obsess about them, losing themselves in a world of bloody fantasies. Fantasizing helps establish the unthinkable as the normal.
Happy, active kids are not the stuff of which mass murderers are made.
Violence has been a central element of literature and art since Homer, and no one should call for its censorship from popular culture. But the normalization of particularly graphic, sadistic violence in popular culture—through films, video games, and music lyrics—has unquestionably helped to fuel the fantasy lives of angry, troubled individuals. We don’t have to patronize those who produce such psychological poison or be kind to them. Nor do parents have to allow it in their homes, where it can infect their children.
Adolescence is often a time of frustration, poor self-image, and uncertainty over personal identity. Parents and teachers, in particular, should be watchful for signs in their kids of extreme social alienation and morbid attraction to violent fantasy, and be prepared to intervene.
The old saw that “an idle mind is the devil’s playground” is, metaphorically, quite true. Nothing better fills this vacuum than a productive purpose. Adults should try to guide their children toward creative and fulfilling pursuits. Happy, active kids are not the stuff of which mass murderers are made.
The normalization of what has been called “righteous slaughter” in our world—and the excuse-making that encourages it—constitutes perhaps the greatest challenge to our civilization. Philosophies that promote irrationalism and “Groupthink,” egalitarianism and envy, determinism and personal irresponsibility, self-sacrifice and collectivism, have only fueled the fantasies of today’s blood brothers: the hate-filled nihilists and the angry fanatics. They are charting the course of millions toward annihilation.
The only alternative is to choose a new philosophical chart that will put us on a new heading—toward reason and self-responsibility.

spiderID=1497


Donate to The Atlas Society

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please consider making a donation. Our digital channels garner over 1 million views per year. Your contribution will help us to achieve and maintain this impact.

× Close Window
Anthem Slider

Newsletter Signup

Sign up for our email newsletter to receive the most recent news and articles directly to your inbox.