Rampage killings in Illinois and Alabama ... how do we explain it?

I have written before about seemingly unpredictable, explosive acts of violence.

Two years ago, I discussed the Virginia Tech Shooter (Is existence too painful to endure?).

In my comments about why people kill (A typology of violent offenders), I discussed the over-controlled hostility personality type: those who are likely to explode or "go postal."

On Today, Good Morning America and the Early Show, I listened this morning as neighbors and commentators asked over and over again: "why did this happen?" I do not believe that the answers are all that elusive.

When I wrote about the Virginia Tech Shooter, I said that the obvious explanation is that he had an "over-controlled personality style." In other words, it would be easy to say that he was an individual who had pent up feelings of aggression that he was unable to normally express, and that at some point, he exploded like a pressure cooker going bad. I noted, however, that this was not the correct explanation.

Instead, what I said is that there are some individuals who find their existence to be painful and who want to "tear reality apart." In doing so, they wish to inflict as much harm as possible.

Recently, I consulted on a homicide case that did in fact involve an explosion of "over-controlled hostility." It was a case in which a parent killed a child in a brutal and inexplicable way. But it was an act quite different from these cases that we have recently read about in the press.

In the Alabama and Illinois cases, from what we read in the news, it looks like there was a deliberate intention formed to inflict as much damage as possible. The anger and hostility is evident, and it looks like it was not expressed simply via an emotional "explosion."

When I spoke about the Virginia Tech shooter, I said that it appeared that he had harbored and nurtured his anger, deriving meaning and satisfaction from it, and that he had used his anger as an excuse for whatever offense he might wish to commit. In the same way that some people will cut on themselves to feel alive, some people tend to nurture intense feelings of
emotional pain so that they can experience an intense rush of emotional feelings.

As I listened to the news this morning, I had the distinct impression that the shooters in Illinois and Alabama are not ones for whom we should extend understanding or forbearance. In both cases, the available facts suggested that they were intent on suicide and intent on maximizing the impact of their death wishes.

We typically think about suicide as an act involving passivity. The person is depressed, giving up, and giving in. I have seen that happen. More typically, I view suicide as way to inflict harm on those who will survive. My view is that in most cases, suicide involves anger and aggression, rather than depression and defeat.

The cases we are looking at today in the news look to me like cases of "aggravated, aggresive suicide."

From the news reports, it looks to me like these are cases in which individuals were not to be satisfied simply by inflicting the type of pain that accompanies ordinary acts of suicide. Instead, it looks like they wanted to satisfy themselves fully. It looks like they wanted the full measure of satisfaction that can be obtained from harming others, and from harming others cruelly.

Obviously, people will say that these individuals must have been suffering from some type of mental disorder. That may be the case and I would not doubt it for a moment. But before I would attribute such acts to mental disorder, I would want to rule out the more obvious explanation, which is that that they "suffered from" bad character and bad personality traits.

How do we explain these events?

We can explain it in the simplest terms. We can say that they were troubled and desperate individuals.

Or instead, we can say that these were individuals who were intent on wreaking havoc, intent on doing harm and intent on causing as much harm to others as they felt had been caused to them.

From what has been reported, it does not appear that these were tragedies - acts that were inevitable and could not have been prevented. Instead, it looks like these are cases in which individuals made decisions to do harm, and to emotionally profit from their actions, even if only for minutes.

Obviously, I don't know all of the facts and circumstances, it's just what I have heard in the news.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.