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When it Comes to Mass Murder, Think Method and Means—Not Motive

When it Comes to Mass Murder, Think Method and Means—Not Motive

We spend far too much effort trying to understand the impossible-to-fathom motivation of mass murderers, far too little effort finding common sense gun control compromises that could greatly reduce the lethality of their means.

After every, mass murder, the question everyone asks is Why? How could anyone possibly be so violent, or so evil, or so out of control, or so crazy as to engage in the wholesale and indiscriminant killing of a bunch of people who are usually complete strangers.

In some cases, there are longstanding preexisting warning signs—a history of mental illness, substance use, isolation, and estrangement, the repeated experience of being abused or bullied, and/or the influence of a political or religious or racist cult.

Sometimes, there is an event that might be seen as the immediate trigger—a fight, a humiliation or failure, a rejection, some burning of all bridges, a cutting off of hope and connection. But often enough, the mass murderer is (like last week’s knife-wielding Pennsylvania schoolboy) someone with no preexisting risk factors, has no special current stressors, and is part of a loving family.

I have spent a long professional life as a psychiatrist judging peoples’ motivations and attempting to assess the risk that the person in front of me might harm himself or others. I have also in studied the available literature and made a small contribution to it. My conclusion is that we will never really understand the motivations of mass murderers or be able to pick them out of the vast crowd of people with the same motivations and experiences who don’t kill.

Even after everything is analyzed to death, the motivation for mass murder always remains a mystery. For every mass murderer, there are tens of thousands of similar people who never go berserk. We can’t ever expect to predict who will do it and when.

The excessive focus on ferreting out the psychological motivations arises from understandable human curiosity, but it also serves a dangerous political purpose. So long as we are distracted by the Why?, we do not attend to the much more practically important and politically charged question of How?

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