Category Archives: Psycho-social Factors

A Durkheimian Understanding of School Shooters and Suicide

“I have hostages” yelled the Red Lake school shooter, as he returned to the classroom where the majority of his victims lay. This false claim was made in order to buy some time as tribal police officers closed in on him, having already successfully shot him in the leg and hip; moments later, he put the shotgun he had been using under his chin and fired. When the Virginia Tech perpetrator heard the shotgun blast of law enforcement breaking through the building doors he had chained shut, he killed himself with a gunshot to the face, doing so in the classroom with the highest number of fatalities.

These examples are a common pattern: school shootings tend to be homicide-suicides, with perpetrators committing suicide in a self-harming method, such as a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, or ‘by cop,’ provoking law enforcement to fatally wound them. A study by Adam Lankford[1] mapping out trends within types of organised violence found that 88% of school shootings involved some form of suicide attempt. This raises the issue of why school shooters choose to take this route rather than face the criminal justice system.

A starting point is sociologist Emile Durkheim’s renowned inquiry Suicide: A Study in Sociology.[2]His study involved a macro-level examination of conditions influencing suicide, such as gender, religion and marital status. With the empirical results of his research, he grouped suicides into four categories: egotistic, caused by excessive individualism; altruistic, where the needs of others outweigh individuals’ own self-worth; anomic, deriving from a lack of purpose; and fatalistic, a desire to escape pain and oppression.

The mindset of school shooters during their lives seems to fall under the rubric of ‘egotistical suicide,’ given their state of extreme individualism, depressed and apathetic state, and disconnectedness from society. The Red Lake shooter’s Neo-Nazi ideologies alienated him from his peers: he was unsuccessful in getting classmates to join his ‘movement’ and was disgusted by what he called the ‘Americanization’ of Native American teenagers in their clothes, music and colloquialisms. Additionally, he criticised his teachers for their ‘poisoned opinions’ against Nazism and for ‘silencing’ his views on the ‘racial purity’ of Native American being destroyed by mixed-race marriages. The perpetrator of the Virginia Tech shooting displayed strong alienation and apathy from the university at which he was a student: he continually ignored his peers’ efforts to talk to him and refused to contribute in classes; he took photographs of girls in his class and sexually harassed a number of female students; his dorm room was sterile and bare. In his manifesto, by contrast, he accused his peers of ‘destroying his happiness’ positioning himself as the victim and blaming the university as an institution for all his problems.

Interestingly, Durkheim believed that ‘egotistical suicide’ does not usually take the form of a homicide-suicide, due to the apathy of the individual beforehand. Relating this to school shooters finds they were in a state of ‘egoism’ prior to attacks and that planning their horrific massacres appeared to give them a goal to ‘live for.’ As soon as the shootings reached their finishing point, the Red Lake and Virginia Tech shooters committed suicide before law enforcement reached them knowing that the police would either fatally wound them or arrest them. This final act of controlling their own deaths appeases both their excessive individualism and the violent fantasies.

 

[Durkheim’s study, other literature and discourse analyses of shooters’ writings were used to produce this post. This is extracted from a chapter I co-wrote with colleague, Dr. O’Grady, which will appear in the book volume Gun Violence in American Society. Future blog posts will build upon this model.]

 

[1] Lankford, A. (2013). ‘A comparative analysis of suicide terrorists and rampage, workplace, and school shooters in the United States from 1990 to 2010.’ Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 17 (3), 255-274.

[2] Durkheim, E. (1897/2002). Suicide, A Study in Sociology. . Trans. J. A. Spaulding and G. Simpson; G. Simpson (ed). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

 

Narcissism: A Threat Assessment Perspective

One of the Columbine shooters claimed: ‘I feel more confident, stronger, and more God-like’ when using guns; whilst the Virginia Tech perpetrator compared himself to biblical figures and spoke of his attack inspiring a revolution. Describing oneself as a God and feeling far superior to others: these are common motivation factors for school shooters, linking to the personality condition ‘narcissism.’

The term originated from the Greek legend of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, but this condition is so much more than just vanity. The criteria outlined on the ‘Narcissism Personality Inventory,’ a forced choice questionnaire consisting of forty items designed to clinically measure the condition, are: low self-esteem, dominance, egocentricity, a grandiose sense of self-importance or superiority, fantasies of success and power, sensitivity to criticism, feeling indifferent towards others; exploiting interpersonal relationships and expecting favours without reciprocating, a lack of empathy, and alternating between over-idealising and devaluating other people. The combination of these factors seems rather paradoxical: How can one have a grandiose sense of self-importance and low self-esteem? Why alternate between idealising other people and being apathetic towards them?

The key factor here is fragile nature of identity. Identities are constantly being developed throughout the course of one’s life. Even during this process, it is not enough to simply assert an identity; it has to be approved or disproved through the feedback of others. For the narcissist, the grandiose sense of self-importance they hold relies on the validation of others: an ‘admiring audience’ is their equivalent of Narcissus’s pool of water showing his reflection. This means the high self-esteem and superiority they hold are ‘fragile’ in nature and masking a real sense of worthlessness and shame. Important to note here is these characteristics apply to ‘overt narcissism,’ rather than the other ‘covert form’ where those who suffer from it suffer from a feeling of hopelessness and despair.

A sense of injustice at the world and blaming everyone but themselves for their problems, coupled with some form of mental illness, means school shooters believe the attack they perpetrate will make a ‘statement’ to society and gain them some recognition. The school[1] itself becomes the target for internal attackers like the shooters at Red Lake High School and Virginia Tech University, who felt persecuted by specific persons, groups or just in general and blame the school for all their problems: challenging their ideological views about Neo-Nazi ‘racial purity’ in the case of the Red Lake perpetrator; not adjusting to university life and a lack or romantic success — which led to the stalking and harassing of female students — for the Virginia Tech shooter.

In that case warning signs could be indicative of a potential need 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; and a sense of isolation from others in a particular environment and/or society in general. Clearly, what is important here is the amount of traits (individual, personality ones and environmental and life factors) present: aggregating these over a certain period of time should be indicative of someone’s susceptibility to enacting a school shooting. If there was only evidence of one or two, for example, feeling isolated from school as a result of bullying and over-reacting to slight criticism, this could be attributable to other factors, such as feeling pressure from schoolwork. It is when these are combined with more disconcerting aspects, like fantasizing about having power over others and then intensive shooting practice, that red flags should be raised.

[Narcissism literature and discourse analyses of shooters’ writings were used to produce this post. A longer version of this model will appear in the book volume Gun Violence in American Society, a chapter I co-wrote with colleague, Dr. O’Grady. This model will be further developed in blog posts in the near future]

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[1] School here refers to a broad, all-encompassing term of education institutions, including elementary, middle and high schools, as well as colleges and universities.