What was the shooter’s motive?
That’s the question that everyone wants answered right now, not just in the recent Fort Hood shootings that left three (plus the gunman) dead and 16 injured, but also in the tragedies that took place at the Washington Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Columbine.
The list goes on, which is probably why President Obama said Wednesday night, “We’re heartbroken something like this might have happened again.”
Mass shootings have actually occurred for decades, and their frequency has not technically increased. What has changed is our society’s fascination with the shooters, and our willingness to glorify their memory with obsessive media coverage.
Although each killer’s declared reasons change from incident to incident, each seems not only prepared to die, but see their death as their ultimate goal. Rather than simply killing themselves, however, they decide at some point to take others with them either for being members of a group they see as having driven them to contemplating suicide or to reap posthumous fame.
Adam Lankford, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, who has analyzed and authored books on suicide terrorists told The New York Times last year:
“Although terrorists may share the same beliefs as the organizations they spout, they are primarily motivated by the desire to kill and be killed .” That’s right, suicide.
In 2010, the suicide rate was 12.4 per 100,000 people in the United States, the highest it’s been in 15 years. It’s even higher among military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
This should come as no surprise, since we live in a time when reality television and social media are zealously pushing a culture of self-promotion, glory and celebrityhood. Mr. Lankford breaks down three factors that set suicide-killers apart from others:
First, they suffer from mental health problems that have produced a desire to die. Second, they have a deeply dramatized sense of victimization that their life has been ruined by others. Third, they seek fame and glory through killing.
Mr. Lankford says that common mental illnesses include everything from clinical depression and schizophrenia to even post-traumatic stress disorder. Recent reports indicate the Fort Hood shooter may have had post-traumatic stress disorder and had mental health issues.
In his 2012 New York Times piece, Mr. Lankford wrote: “It makes little difference whether the perceived victimizer is an enemy government, or their boss, co-workers, fellow students or family members. The key is that he feels that he has been terribly mistreated and that violent vengeance is justified.
In many cases, the target for revenge becomes broader and more symbolic than a single person so that an entire type or category of people is deemed responsible for the attacker’s pain and suffering. Then, the urge to commit suicide becomes a desire for murder-suicide.”
More than 70 percent of murder-suicides involve the perpetrator’s spouse or romantic/sexual partner, but that means three out of 10 may kill people they don’t even know. Sadly, oftentimes, those are the events that gain the most national exposure.
Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold both fantasized that their story would posthumously be transformed into a Quentin Tarantino film. When the U.S. Secret Service analyzed their journals, federal agents learned that the young shooters originally planned to kidnap a group of students from their school, shuttle them to Denver International Airport, hijack a commercial airliner and crash it into the center of Times Square. They knew and, indeed, planned that at the end of the road lay not only the deaths of their victims, but their own.
These two young shooters were no dummies. If Mr. Tarantino was going to make a movie about them, they knew they needed to give him some good material. Their instincts were not entirely wrong: The nation was riveted by their stories for years.
When the two boys did take their own lives in the library of their high school, they did so boldly with a 1-2-3 countdown.
Aaron Alexis killed a dozen people last year at the Washington Navy Yard, in the nation’s capital.
Seung-hui Cho, who killed 32 college students in cold blood at Virginia Tech before killing himself, left behind a video in which he referred to Harris and Klebold as “martyrs.”
Several years later, Sandy Hook’s Adam Lanza trumped his predecessors on the diabolical scale by gunning down elementary-school children before taking his own life.
We have a problem — a big problem.
Our society rewards evil with fame and glory, and there is no simple answer, such as gun control or requiring mental health checks that will, alone, put a stop to these incidents.
We have to actually start exercising our own discretion by what we watch on television, what we say on social media and how we interact with others without being forced to do it.
As our nation sits on the edge of its seat waiting for more information about reported Fort Hood shooter Ivan Lopez, we could alternatively choose to turn the channel because the truth is that a mass murderer does not deserve glory or attention.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a former Washington, D.C., prosecutor and investigative reporter who covered the Columbine shootings.