Thoughts on Newtown
The Sandy Hook Shooting & The Shooter
This past Friday, December 14, a 20-year old man fatally shot his mother in the town of Newtown, Connecticut, and then, armed with weapons his mother had owned, attacked the local elementary school, Sandy Hook.
There, he fatally shot 20 students, all from two first-grade classrooms, and six staff. He injured at least one other adult. Somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes after arriving at the school, the attacker shot himself dead. See more details here, if you have not already got your fill.
I want to take the opportunity to post some thoughts on these events and on the reactions I have seen and read elsewhere.
Inside the Mind of a Killer
Fancy titles aside, I am not going to get "inside the mind" of the attacker. Obviously, I'm not professionally qualified to do so, nor do I have any personal knowledge to offer.
What I can do is make the point that there is no single cause to which responsibility can be pinned in the attacker's life or health. Instead, there is a plurality of causal factors.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I saw many comments on Facebook and heard speculation that the attacker was mentally ill (whether suffering an acute episode of depression or a chronic clinical illness). The Wikipedia article summarizing the attack notes:
A local psychologist, Jeannie Pasacreta, whose son was in Adam Lanza's graduating class, said she recalled a loner who did not display unusual behavior, but she said when individuals suffer "mental health problems in a quiet compliant way, people don't pay attention". Lanza's brother told law enforcement that Adam was believed to suffer from a personality disorder and was "somewhat autistic". A law enforcement official and friends of Nancy Lanza reported that Adam had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. However, several medical experts have stated that there is no link between the shooting and either Asperger's or autism in general.
[The notes in square brackets are links to cites.]
I suspect the focus on mental illness is a result of the shooting spree by Jared Loughner, who if memory serves was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic after his attack on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (House of Representatives).
Obviously, I am in no position to say whether he was or not. I'm in no position to say that, if so, whether mental illness played any role in inspiring the attack. Based on other things I have read, I have reason to doubt that mental illness was involved.
For example, this post by a professional neuroanthropologist from this past July, discussing some of the literature. There is this letter as well, a portion I will now quote:
A consequence if not a driving force of the pendulum swing away from benevolence and toward the protection of others has been increased attention to an individual’s dangerousness, with the operative presumption that dangerousness is often the result of a mental illness. But dangerousness is not always the result of mental illness. Individuals who commit violent or aggressive acts often do so for reasons unrelated to mental illness. The contract killer, for example, who murders to receive payment for services rendered and the aspiring gang member whose right of passage requires taking the life of another do so with full knowledge of the nature and consequence of their actions. Their motivation is the benefit derived by the act unencumbered by any impairment of mental capacity.
Research, in fact, confirms the error in associating dangerousness with mental illness, showing that “the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses . The absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is still very small and…only a small proportion of the violence in our society can be attributed to persons who are mentally ill” . Violence is not a diagnosis nor is it a disease . Potential to do harm is not a symptom or a sign of mental illness, rather it must be the central consideration when assessing future dangerousness.
In reality, no one can predict future dangerousness precisely and with absolute certainty. Assessments of future dangerousness therefore may be more accurately described as the identification of factors associated with potential dangerous behavior by a given individual. In making such an assessment, the clinician should be able to articulate measures necessary to a management plan that minimizes the identified future risks. Hospital emergency rooms, outpatient departments, general psychiatric in-patient wards and day hospitals all demand their own particular clinical justifications . [Emphasis mine, numbers in square brackets are cites to sources.]
I should also like to draw upon some historical facts. The men who undertook strategic bombing on behalf of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command were almost certainly all relatively ordinary young men. I dare say that had Bomber Command's C-in-C Arthur Harris provided the aircrews with parachutes, grenades, and flamethrowers and ordered them to drop into Germany and attack German elderly, adult women, and children in person, they would surely have refused, almost to a man. Yet they had no problem doing the very same thing from altitude. All that was required was the right circumstances (of which more later).
Others have raised this objection as well, for example here.
The bottom line: it is extremely unlikely that the attacker was mentally ill, and, if he was, it is very unlikely that the mental illness was a key causal factor in motivating the spree murder.
There are a number of ways in which the attacker's upbringing could be causal factors in inspiring the Sandy Hook shooting:
We do not appear to know enough at this time whether the attacker was subject to any form of acute or chronic abuse as a child. I am not terribly familiar with searching the relevant literature for good summaries of our understanding regarding the links between child abuse and later violence. From what I have seen, there is a strong link between experiencing an abusive childhood and becoming a serial killer, but I am not aware of any such relationship for spree killers such as the Sandy Hook attacker (or other, similar incidents, such as the Columbine shooters).
So at this time I would not rule out child abuse or neglect, but without any confirmatory evidence I would consider it very unlikely.
It is worthwhile to note that the attacker's first victim was his mother, whom he shot four times in the face. It appears whatever motivated him to attack the school also motivated him to kill his mother.
(As a side note, it appears under normal circumstances, a healthy proportion of parricide perpetrators do have mental health issues. However, the sample used in this paper appears to consist of people who engaged solely in parricide without any additional spree killing, which means it may not help shed light on this).
Just as organizations tend to form a 'corporate culture' which sanctions or prohibits certain ways of thinking, speaking, and acting, and just as societies and sub-societies do the same, so do families tend to form their own mini-cultures.
Interviews with personal acquaintances, friends & family of the attacker's mother indicate that she was a firearms enthusiast, and routinely took her two sons to the shooting range. They also suggest she was something of a survivalist, stockpiling resources to survive a societal collapse.
The familiarity that routine firearms training would have brought was doubtless indispensible to the attacker. Whether the survivalism had any influence in inspiring the attacks would depend on the extent to which it was saturated with visions of apocalyptic violence. I suspect that as more information comes forth, we will find it of little consequence.
As hinted at above, the attacker's life circumstances, his sociocultural script (to borrow and expand a term used by Daniel Lende of PLOS blogs), are a possible causal factor in inspiring the killings.
I brought up the example of RAF Bomber Command to show how rather ordinary humans can be convinced to kill if the circumstances are right. Another example is, of course, the Milgram experiments, in which people are found to have a very difficult time resisting authority even when directed (or authorized) to administer potentially fatal electric shocks (though the experiments' subjects were not, in fact, doing so). Yet another example is riots and mob (as in large-numbers) violence. Other facts could doubtless be given.
Daniel Lende points to an interview with an Australian forensic psychiatrist who summarizes what was known at the time about spree killers.
The points which stand out the most are:
(1) The importance of firearms in spree killers' worldviews (not merely as tools with which to commit murder, but central parts of their identities and personal narratives).
(2) The importance of suicidal ideation combined with a quest for meaning.
(3) A hatred of the world (and of people) which the killers feel has ignored or mistreated them.
Some select quotes (in no particular order):
They're almost all male, there is one exception. They're young. They tend to be in their 20s. They are typically social isolates. They very rarely have close friends or confidants. They almost never have an intimate relationship, although they sometimes have had brief relationships, which have usually failed.
The other thing about them is that they are angry and resentful at the world, they blame the world for not having recognised their qualities, for having mistreated them and misused them. Resentment is central to their personalities.
They spend their time ruminating on all those past slights and offences. And they begin to develop a hatred for the whole world.
Perhaps most important of all, these people are on a project to suicide. They go out there to die, and they go out to die literally in what they see as a blaze of glory. They are seeking a sort of personal vindication through fame or, more precisely, infamy.
The other thing they all must all share is they're gun-obsessed. These people, guns are not just the method that they use for the final tragedy, guns are central to most of these men's lives. Very often they're the thing which has given them most satisfaction.
Another common circumstance that spree killers tend to share is the experience of having been bullied or otherwise "otherized". Whether this is the case with the Sandy Hook attacker remains to be seen.
Because of the fundamental attribution error, it is easy to forget about the circumstances surrounding a person's life and their decision-making (the cultural background radiation, you might say). But it matters
Access to Firearms
It's fair to say that access to his mother's arsenal aided the Sandy Hook attacker in undertaking the attack and in increasing the body count.
(It doesn't get as much airplay, but there was a school attack in China the same day as the Sandy Hook attack, in which 22 children and 1 adult were injured. Thus far none of the victims appear to have succumbed to their injuries. The salient difference? It's much more difficult to obtain firearms in China, especially firearms such as the assault rifle used by the Sandy Hook attacker. I suspect there were more differences than merely access to weapons, as this table shows, Chinese school attackers are able to kill with melee weapons.)
There are two respects in which access to firearms played a role in the attack, as far as I can see: the first is the logistics of access; the second is cultural/political.
Logistics of Access
In the United States, it appears to be relatively straightforward to acquire firearms. Indeed, the Sandy Hook attacker made use of weapons in his mother's personal arsenal (most notably, as noted previously, an assault rifle). His mother appears to have acquired all the weapons through legal means, and presumably had succesfully crossed any regulatory hurdles in Connecticut to possess firearms of that nature. The attacker himself was too young to own firearms on his own in Connecticut.
Suffice it to say that, if the Sandy Hook attacker happened to match the profile suggested by Dr Mullen (noted above) regarding firearms-obsession, he had no trouble finding the appropriate hardware to fulfill his murder-suicide ideation. (Actually, this is true even if he did not share any generalized firearms obsession, as murder-suicide is precisely what he eventually engaged in).
In the United States, as a matter of law & politics, individual firearms ownership is an uncontested fundamental right, for various reasons, the majority of which are generally legitimate.
There exist substantial lobby groups seeking to preserve the status quo or even extend firearm ownership/remove such restrictions as exist. These groups have generally been far more succesful than organizations dedicated to reducing the quantity of firearms in circulation or impose additional constraints on their use.
The legal/political aspects of firearm possession, use, & regulation in the US is mediated by what is often referred to as a "gun culture", which to some extent romanticizes the possession of firearms. It is closely linked to activism in support of the Second Amendment (which is itself, I dare say, subject to some romanticism).
As noted in the interview with Dr Mullen, the young men who typically engage in spree murder are obsessed with firearms to a far greater extent than others. I am not familiar enough with the literature and advocacy of firearms enthusiasts to say how normalized a firearm-related obsession can be (that is to say, whether eventual spree killers' fondness for firearms can be shown to stand out even from other enthusiasts).
Almost as an afterthought, it should be noted that the attacker's personal decision-making - rather poorly, as it turned out - is also a causal factor. At any given time, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of people share one of the above causal factors with the Sandy Hook attacker. Yet the vast majority are not at risk of becoming spree killers themselves. The larger the cluster of common causal factors is, the fewer people who will have them all in common with the killer. Nevertheless, my conjecture is that there are likely some several hundred or thousand people who share the majority of proximal causal factors with the killer who themselves are very unlikely to effect a mass murder of this nature.
In the absence of any other verifiable distinction, I suspect the marginal difference between the Sandy Hook attacker (and other spree killers) and the rest is their choices (however much these have been constrained by the other factors).
Take That!, Single-Issues Proponents
As I hope to have satisfactorily demonstrated, one cannot simply ascribe the spree killings in Sandy Hook (or indeed anywhere else) to mental illness, easy access to firearms, bad upbringing, bad choices, bad circumstances, or any other single concern.
Unfortunately, it's a package deal.
The astute reader will by now have noticed (I hope) that I do not refer to the Sandy Hook attacker by name anywhere in this article.
While, to be fair, I may be engaged in some problematic "otherizing" of my own, in my estimation he will be over-emphasized in the narrative of this event in the days and years to come, at the expense of his victims. My intention in leaving his name out is to delegitimize the emphasis on the perpetrators of spree killings in the popular narrative.
As a further step towards that end, I hope to publish a post about the victims before the new year.