Category Archives: Psycho-social Factors

Revenge on the Institution: The Example of Erfurt

Continuing with the global theme discussed in the last blog, this post provides an insight into the 2002 school shooting at Gutenberg High School in Erfurt, Germany. This attack resulted in the murders of seventeen victims, as well as the suicide of the shooter. In this blog, I will advance the argument that this incident was an exercise in ‘revenge’ against the institution.

 

Outside of the family system, school is the social institution which adolescents have the most interaction with. (1) Prior to the attack, the perpetrator, Robert Steinhäuser, was said to be struggling at school, having failed a required entrance exam for university admission. This was coupled with a series of absences from classes. When it was discovered that he had forged medical notes to exonerate him missing classes, he was subsequently expelled from school — something he kept secret from his family members. Having found himself in this predicament (and not sharing this with those closest to him), Steinhäuser’s next course of action was to carry out an attack on the school.

 

It has previously been argued that school shootings in the United States perpetrated by adolescents have been attacks on the institution itself. (2) The Erfurt massacre was another example of this, evident in the fact that Steinhäuser purposefully targetted his former teachers during his shooting attack. In the end, fourteen of the seventeen murdered were staff members at the school; the remaining three victims included students and a police officer responding to the incident. Before killing himself, Steinhäuser stated “That’s enough for today” as though his intended target had been met.

 

Given the fact that Steinhäuser had been expelled from the school, it is clear that this massacre was part of a ‘revenge’ attack against the institution. As a concept, revenge differs from ‘punishment’ and ‘retaliation’ in its proportionality, motivations and consequences. Revenge is said to be more ‘emotionally complex’ in that it involves a perceived wrongdoing on behalf of the enactor. The intention of revenge, therefore, is to ‘diminish one’s opponent’ by taking direct action to harm them. (3) Since institutions are said to be “reflections of the people in them” (4), the Guternberg High School seemed to Steinhäuser to represent the source of his problems. Notably his purposeful gunning down of teachers and others who got in his way, such as the police officer responding to the incident, is indicative of this. Overall, it could be said that the Erfurt school shooting was a vengeful mission predicated on the assumption by the perpetrator that the school, as an institution, had ‘wronged’ him.

 

[The next blog post will continue the global theme by discussing the Jokela school shooting in Finland.]

 References

(1) Cullingford, C. (2000) Prejudice: from individual identity to nationalism in young people. London: Kogan Page, 99-100.

(2) Harding, D. J., Fox, C. and Mehta, J. D. (2002) ‘Studying rare events through qualitative case studies: lessons from a study of rampage school shootings.’ Sociological Methods Research 31(174), 189.

(3) Govier, T. (2002) Forgiveness and Revenge. New York and London: Routledge, 20, 36.

(4) Cullingford, C. (2000) Prejudice: from individual identity to nationalism in young people. London: Kogan Page, 203.

 

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Threat Assessment Model: Online Threats

The last blog spoke about using behaviour in everyday life as part of threat assessment. Internet sites can also be auspicious locations for tracking the existence of potential threats. What can be taken from analyses of online comments is the importance of language and descriptiveness when assessing potential threats on there. Clearly, YouTube videos geared towards empathising and/or idolising school shooters is going to attract a certain kind of audience — these are, therefore, more likely to contain potential threats. Evident in the findings here is that a certain number of factors indicate the possibility of a potential threat.

 

-Looking at the key agents in the statements. Who are they? Upon whom is blame and responsibility being placed? A tendency to exonerate shooters from blame and place culpability with the victims, those in the school, and society as a whole show at the very least a willingness to have some degree of empathy with shooters. This, obviously, does not necessarily mean that the user expressing those comments is a potential threat, so this needs to be in combination with the other factors listed.

-Material that fits under the rubric of the ‘revenge and bullying thesis,’ where users adopt the stance that the victims deserved it, the perpetrator was achieving justice, and that bullying was the main driving force behind the attack. Here, the shooters are being ‘romanticised’ and their attack has created, to an individual susceptible to its influence, a ‘culture script’ of action as a way to resolve their problems. What makes this have the potential to be a threat is combining this frame with statements sharing personal experience of bullying, followed by expressions of a desire to also carry out a school shooting.

-The degree of attack planning, such as sharing knowledge of ways to gain weapons legally and illegally or naming specific targets, times and dates. When users are as detailed as this, it suggests something more than just an internet troll or bored kid looking for attention, as they would be more inclined to just put “I want to carry out a similar attack,” which is very vague, has an absence of a target and attack plan, and has not considered the means to obtain resources needed to execute a shooting.

-Statements paralleling past shooters or expressing narcissistic tendencies. The former would be in the form of “everyone else is to blame for making me want to do this,” which denotes persecution and a perceived injustice, and switches agency from the potential threat-maker to other (perhaps unspecified) agents. The narcissistic statements would fit with the traits outlined in earlier blogs, with comments like “I am so much better than everyone else and I laugh at their incompetence” if this was combined with other components outlined in this model. The over-reaction aspect is perhaps less of an issue on YouTube and other internet sites because the very nature of such debates means that discussions can commonly degenerate into rants and abusive comments — of course, this only serves to worsen the problem and any negative feelings the user already has.

-What should particularly be flagged are any discussions where users appear to be encouraging each other or possibly collaborating to plan an attack together. The more detailed and descriptive the discussion, the more likely it is that this could be shaping up to become something else. These should be closely monitored and interventionary action taken if required.

 

[This blog was put together by analysing comments on YouTube videos about school shooters. It builds upon the threat assessment material detailed in previous blog postings and is best used in collaboration with the offline behaviour threat assessment model proposed.]

A Threat Assessment Model: Offline Behaviour

The blogs published on the 4th, 8th and 11th June documented the personality characteristics of past school shooters: fragile male identities, a specific form of overt narcissism and fitting the state of ‘egoism’ conceptualised by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. Previous school shooters have shared the following characteristics: feeling a sense of injustice at the world and seemingly blamed everyone else for this; persuaded to carry out their attacks, either by specific persons, groups or predicated on the feeling that they had suffered throughout their lives; blame was bestowed upon everyone else bar the perpetrator for all their problems, tying in with the sense of injustice and persecution they feel; a lack of romantic success exacerbating matters, sometimes leading to stalking and harassment of females; excessive individualism, where the perpetrators felt they were ostracised by others and a lack of connection to society. It seems that the homicide-suicide of school shootings could encourage those with fragile, narcissistic identities in a state of excessive individualism to go through with the violent fantasies in their minds. Moreover, they know that once they have gone through with the murders, the time will come where law enforcement either shoots them dead or arrests them; therefore, they go into the rampages with the clear intention of killing themselves at the end.

With this in mind, a threat assessment model can be developed to be applied to both offline, everyday behaviours. Applying overt narcissism traits — not covert narcissistic characteristics, given they tend to revolve around a general sense of hopelessness and despair, not any active plans to sustain a high sense of self-esteem and demonstrate superiority — to warning signs could be indicative of a potential case for threat assessment: over-reaction (commonly aggressive or passive-aggressive) to the slightest criticism, high self-esteem that needs constant validation; the desire to be infamous and extreme fantasies of success and power, delusions of grandeur; a feeling of superiority combined with a sense of worthlessness; a sense of isolation from others in a particular environment and/or society in general. Taking all this into consideration, it is advised that threat assessments take into account the factors the narcissism and egoism factors outlined above when investigating a potential threat. It is of key importance hereto avoid ‘profiling,’ given this can lead to ‘false positives’ (people who fit the profile but have no intention of carrying out a school shooting) and ‘false negatives’ (where there is no evidence of the traits, but someone has the intention to perpetrate an attack). It is when the traits outlined above are combined with more disconcerting aspects, like fantasising about having power over others, expressing the desire to harm people in the school and intensive shooting practice, that red flags should be raised. The next blog will explore how this model can be coupled with online threats to create a hopefully more robust and thorough model of interrogating potential threats for their harm potential.

[Interested readers are directed to the blogs published on the 4th, 8th and 11th June for further information. A more detailed version of this model will appear in a chapter co-written with Dr. O’Grady to appear in the edited volume Gun Violence in American Society.]

Online ‘Leakage’: Interrogating Internet Activities as Part of Threat Assessment

The last two blog discussed school shooter admirers expressing their thoughts in the site YouTube. What is of key concern here is that users with similar mindsets sympathising with and admiring school shooters might ‘discover’ each other on social media and plan an attack together or perhaps encourage others to perpetrate a shooting — with this in mind, it certainly seems that online sites should be subject to more intense scrutiny and threat assessment.

The study conducted by Pollak et al. examining a series of school shooting incident for patterns found that in eighty-one percent of actual and planned incidents at least one person knew about the attacker’s plans beforehand. It was discovered that the most commonly cited reasons for bystanders not coming forward with threats were: not having a supportive school climate, lack of a positive adult influence, not taking the threat seriously, and having a close relationship with the threat-maker. In the case of YouTube comments, the ‘bystanders’ — other YouTube users and ‘guests’ who view the site but are not logged on — are in a much better position to report threats: they do not have a relationship with the threat-maker; even if some users do not take the threats seriously, others will; unlike a school environment, they do not need to worry about being scolded if it transpires that they ‘overreacted’ to the threat.
The counterargument could be made that users attracted to a particular kind of video (say, a school shooter fan video) would be more likely to encourage and desire a school shooting than report threats. This highlights the need for researchers in relevant fields (criminology, psychology, sociology) to prioritise further studies into this area and for online Intel to then feed its way through to threat assessment. A way to facilitate this process is for websites like YouTube to have links to the appropriate authorities for the countries its users are from; this would be more encouraging to bystanders, who may feel they do not know the most relevant organization to report threats to. Of course, the predicament here is that trying to find the ‘right’ authority that has jurisdiction over threats posted on the internet is problematic, as it draws resources away from other matters. The development of a threat assessment model could negate this to some extent, especially if partnerships could be fostered between the relevant bodies such as researchers, schools, local law enforcement.

One problem arising, however, is trying to conduct threat assessment on the basis of the threat alone does not reveal whether the threat-maker has the ability, motive and desire to actually carry out the threat which they speak. On sites like YouTube, no other information is generally known about users outside of the threat, bar that which they do reveal — it is questionable how much of this is true though — so this makes threat assessment using online Intel only a tougher process than piecing together someone’s history in a school environment. The context is which a threat is made is of key important here, as it reflects the threat-maker’s mental and emotional state at that specific moment in time; hence, a threat could be triggered by substances or a devastating event when the threat-maker actually has no intention of going through with it. Accordingly, this is even more of an issue with online threats, for some commentators, rather than actually planning an attack, will be internet trolls or even just bored children looking for attention or deliberately trying to start an argument.
A short-term solution to the threat requires the cooperation of the website in question to give some details about the user’s location so that schools in close proximity can be warned. Once the website has provided some information about the threat-maker, a long-term solution would need a partnership between researchers assessing online Intel and the local school board to see if there are any parallels between threats reported both by bystanders online and within schools. If users’ identities were narrowed down further, then that would require communication between researchers and individual schools to try and trace the individual — students at each school could be encouraged to report anything they see online to facilitate that process. This calls for the creation of a separate agency to monitor and investigate threats posted via the Internet, or for perhaps passing some legislation to deal with online threats (a number of states have included cyber-bullying in their bullying protocols, which is a good start.

[Threat assessment knowledge was used to put together this post. The next blog will document a threat assessment model using all the postings throughout June 2014.]

School Shooter Admirers: Why Intervention is Required

In the last blog, I spoke about those who created a ‘revenge and bullying thesis to justify the actions of school shooters. Analysing such comments certainly suggests that for some users, school shooters have been romanticised as ‘heroes’ for bullied kids who dislike school. In this post, I want to further explore the sentiments expressed on YouTube comments by those expressing some kind of ‘fan admiration’ for the Red Lake and Virginia Tech school shooters.

Throughout the video comments, the terms used to describe the Virginia Tech shooter are ‘God,’ ‘true legend,’ ‘courageous warrior,’ ‘martyr’ and ‘hero’; whilst others said “my respect to him” and “he will be remembered for his bravery.” Some users placed responsibility for Cho’s actions upon his ‘bullies,’ whilst he is exonerated from blame and praised for defending himself. Other subjects’ comments proceed to assign the blame for the creation of school shooters to a variety of sources, such as society, popular people, life, society, bullies, high school environments, school teachers, and school officials. This comment log also addresses [in their words] feelings of being stifled, rejection, isolation, pain, torment, suffering, abuse, neglect, damaged, and being the ‘odd one.’ Other YouTube commentators made the point that they empathise with Cho but that he should not have killed innocent people, just his bullies: this at least shows some awareness of the lack of connection between the perpetrator and those he killed/wounded.

Similarly, a handful of commentators commended the Red Lake perpetrator for being ‘smart’; although the reasons why they think this are not given. A number of other comments were more standard displays of admiration claiming the perpetrator ‘stood up for himself’ and calling him a ‘hero.’ These kinds of comments show that the Red Lake shooter is idolised by disenfranchised kids who feel the same way as him. Users seemed to particularly feel sympathy for this perpetrator because of the tragedy in his life (his father killed himself and his mother was left brain-damaged after a car accident) and felt that he was too a ‘victim’: “he suffered great hardship and depression”; “he was obviously mentally ill and depressed.” Others revealed that they too had felt the same way. It seems the personal tragedies he suffered made users feel his suicidal tendencies were more understandable than other school shooters, especially if they themselves can empathise with him. The use of evaluative adverbs here ‘bullied,’ ‘depressed,’ and ‘suffered’ all convey value judgments) about the Red Lake perpetrator’s life. It seems that if a school shooter is relatable in some way, people are more likely to sympathise with him. This does not always necessarily lead to admiration; however, it shows a move towards a humanised interpretation of the school shooters, differing from traditional understandings of him as an ‘evil figure’ based on a Nietzschian understanding of ‘evil’ being inherent in the actions themselves.

More worryingly, to a handful of users carrying out a school shooting was the more ‘desirable’ option than just committing suicide, as this would not have garnered any attention. Comments claim that the infamy arising from some school shootings was the persuasive element for them: “violence is the way to get world attention”; “we all die but he’s [the school shooter] now a legend.” The sociologist Emile Durkheim (discussed in the blog published on the 8 June 2014) made some very interesting points on imitation and suicide that could be linked to the ‘copycat’ nature of school shootings. Imitation is defined as “the immediate antecedent of an act is the representation of a like act, previously performed by someone else,” which can occur between unconnected individuals. More importantly, “no imitation can exist without a model to imitate” and that is where the ‘cultural script’ of school shootings comes into play, prescribing a course of action which school shooters use to try and solve their problems. Paralleling this is Durkheim’s acknowledgement that pertinent to the act of imitation is seeing the initial act; without this, the act of suicide will be non-existent. In the case of school shootings, these tend to be highly publicised and the ones that are particularly shocking (Sandy Hook, December 2012) or with the highest death count (Virginia Tech, April 2007) are notorious in nature. For school shooters, the prospect of infamy through their act of homicide-suicide — more likely to come from particularly shocking and deadly attacks — is a driving force for them.

[This blog used a critical discourse analysis framework to assess YouTube comments. Future posts will incorporate the blogs published throughout June 2014 to formulate a threat assessment model.]

The ‘Revenge and Bullying’ thesis: YouTube Discussions of School Shooters

The ‘revenge and bullying thesis’ circumscribing bullied boys getting revenge on their tormentors was popular in YouTube debates. This is in spite of the fact that school shooters target innocent people; in some cases, they do not even know their victims (Sandy Hook; Virginia Tech). An effective evaluation of this was an YouTube debater stating “If kids are bulled too much, they now carry out a Harris-and-Klebold [type] revenge.” More worryingly, in YouTube reactions of there was a high proportion of praise and sympathy for the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters, which suggests that the perpetrators — in particular the Columbine ones, since their friends were quoted as saying the shooters had been bullied constantly at the school — are idolised by other bullied kids; this could possibly inspire others with grievances to plan a similar attack.

The idea that the Virginia Tech perpetrator had been racially abused and sought ‘revenge’ against his bullies was a way for disgruntled teenagers to romanticize his actions. A video featuring an interview with his suitemates left some users purporting that they must have bullied him: “These two f**** made fun of him all the time and talked s**** about him”; “It’s obvious that they didn’t treat him like a normal human being.” By contrast, his suitemates made an effort to speak to him and would bring him along to social events, but he would ignore them or engage in strange behaviour like stabbing the carpet at a party they took him to. This left others wondering why the shooter did not target his suitemates in his shooting rampage. At times, users threatening and verbally abusing each other, which is indicative of the nature of online ‘discussions’ — certainly showing that the ‘virtual sphere’ is not always conducive to free and democratic debates — and also shows the strength of people’s feelings on the matter: they feel their point of view is correct.
It certainly seems that because bullying is such a widespread problem, a number of users will have experienced it before and thus empathize with school shooters, with some stating that if they too had been pushed a bit further they may also have taken a similar route. This relates to the theory that school shootings create a ‘cultural script’ of action utilized as a coping strategy for kids feeling depressed and angry, whether due to bullying or personal problems. The correlation between bullying and school shootings became so prevalent for users that they began to ‘normalize’ that a school attack would be the consequence of bullying: “If people didn’t bully and treat others like s*** there wouldn’t be any school shootings”;“If you shove the “weird kid” enough times, he WILL shove back.”

There were counterchallenges in YouTube discussions to the instances of blaming bullying. In the Columbine sample, claims were often made that the perpetrators engaged in bullying themselves and/or were popular in school. The main challenge to the ‘bullying and targeting’ theory prevalent in YouTube discussions is that the Columbine perpetrators killed some people that they did not even know and few of the victims were actually jocks; this, coupled with the fact that the attack was originally intended to be a bombing to blow up the entire school, makes the alternative theory that the shooters were instead targeting the school as an institution a more viable one. Similarly, there was counter-opposition to the idea that the Virginia Tech shooter had been bullied, with people surmising that he was perhaps jealous of everyone else on campus for having an easier time adjusting to university life. The fact the perpetrator went into a number of different classrooms in Norris Hall (the site where the worst of the massacre occurred) showed he was not targeting any particular groups. Moreover, the particularly brutal nature of the attacks — a total of just over a hundred bullets were fired into the thirty-two killed and each of the survivors had been shot at least three times — suggests that the shooter intended to damage the university in general rather than having a vendetta against any specific persons. Accordingly, some users recognised that those killed were not necessarily the ones who bullied the perpetrators: “everyone is a target” and “they kill anyone who gets in their way.” Further exemplifying this were users’ discussions of the Aurora Theatre and Sandy Hook shootings: the completely random nature of these attacks and lack of relationship between the shooters and victims is likely to fuel feelings of fear and the idea that ‘anyone can be a target’ — something which suggests a particular typology of violence.

[The research conducted for this blog were analyses of YouTube comments on videos relating to the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings. Future blogs will build upon this to develop a threat assessment model relating to online activities.]

School Shootings as ‘Performances’: A Goffmanesque Understanding

“The majority of the audience won’t even understand my motives,” documented one of the Columbine perpetrators in his journal. Such a sentiment suggests that school shooters can view their attacks as a ‘performance.’ To explore this idea further, I wish to draw upon Erving Goffman’s theatrical metaphor about the ‘performing self’ and ‘front [visible] images.’ A key idea deriving from Goffman’s book is that “during a performance, the ‘performed self’ is seen as some kind of image.” Relating this to school shootings finds that prior to attacks, a number of perpetrators have carefully constructed materials, such as videos, photographs, writings and diaries, to display a certain ‘image’ and outline their ‘justifications’ for their forthcoming attacks. Drawing upon Erving Goffman’s theatrical metaphor, it could thus be said that they function as ‘stage props’ offering immediate displays of messages shown to audience members — in this case, the public — otherwise known as its “‘front’ [image].”

My blogs posted on the 4th and 11th June 2014 described how most school shooters tend to have narcissistic and fragile male identities. It could be said the shooters try to negate this and present themselves to others in a certain way using these constructed materials and thereafter try to maximise their potential audience by sending or intending to send their multi-media packages to news media outlets or uploading material to the internet. There are numerous examples of this occurring globally and it has just increased with the advancement of technology and growth of social media. Maps, notebooks, journals, blueprints of the school, websites, and videotapes were carefully constructed by the Columbine shooters with the intention of sending these to news media stations beforehand, although this never transpired. The Orange High School (2006) perpetrator mailed a collection of video tapes and a letter explaining his motives to local newspaper Chapel Hill News. The German school shooter of Emsdetten (2006) left a video and posted comments on the Internet. The Virginia Tech (2007) shooter sent a package consisting of twenty-seven video clips, an eight-hundred word document and forty-three captioned photos into the broadcast news station National Broadcasting Company (NBC). In Finland, both the Jokela (2007) and Kauhajoki (2009) school shooters left media packages and posted videos on YouTube. Similarly, the recent Isla Vista shooting spree (2014) of the surrounding campus area involved the attacker posting a video detailing his motives to YouTube and emailing a manifesto to people he knew, which has since been uploaded onto the internet.

This trend can be related to Goffman’s notion of presenting one’s self to gain acceptance from others and Lasch’s idea that the “narcissist depends on other’s validation.” It highlights the need for interventionary efforts before school shootings commence, with anyone aware of someone they know possibly putting together such materials bringing this to the attention of law enforcement and the educational institution they attend. School shooters do not tend to just ‘snap’; rather, attacks are usually planned well in advance, with these manifestos being part of the preparations. Incorporating these materials or the act of preparing such materials into threat assessment cements the idea that a threat is substantive and immediate action is needed to prevent the attack occurring. This requires co-operation from those closest to potential school shooters, however, and will require extra vigilance when someone is engaging in violent behaviour and/or making troubling threats.

Even after the school shooting has ended and the perpetrators are either dead or have been arrested, their ‘performance’ still continues through the viewing of YouTube videos, the promotion of their manifestos in the news media and discussions on social media. The continuation of the ‘performance’ via online discussions also emphasises the need for internet postings to be investigated. The online activities of the person in question could be interrogated for warning signs as part of threat assessment — this is something which will be developed further in a future blog.

[This blog was put together with Erving Goffman’s book and further reading about school shootings. Future blogs intend to build upon this one, by discussing the use of online comments in threat assessment.]