Mass Murder

I'm sure most of you are aware of the recent shooting in Charleston SC, in which a white man motivated by racial hatred killed 9 black people.

Predictably, many people are using this event to promote their political agendas. Some are using it to promote the view that white racism against blacks is a major problem in the US. Some are using it to promote gun control. Some are using it to promote censorship of beliefs they don't like. Some are using it to promote hatred against whites.

It is always a fallacy to infer from an isolated incident to a general conclusion. Isolated incidents tell us nothing about the way things generally are. They are anomalies.

Sometimes people see a pattern, real or imagined, in isolated incidents such as mass shootings. For example, one slogan says "Why is it always a white guy?", circulating with a picture of some famous white mass killers. The intended message is something like "Whites are evil" or "Mass killings are due to white supremacy". ran an article with that title back in 2013, with the subtitle: "The LAX shooter, once again, is reported to be a white male. Here's why they're always first to violence". The article's message was that white men have a sense of entitlement, and because they are losing economic power and privilege, they are acting out violently.

Salon article

There are several problems with this view. First, not all mass killers are white. There have been mass killers of various races: white, black, E. Asian, Arab, native american, Hispanic, etc. The racial distribution So that premise is false. But let's assume for the sake of argument that the premise is true, and every single mass killer was white. In fact, let's grant the author every premise he assumes. The article's conclusion would still be irrational. Why? Because it explains an anomaly (mass killing) as due to a general condition.

The author was trying to use a dramatic incident as evidence for his general claim that white men are angry. But of course it does not support that claim, because it was a rare incident.

Even if white men were entitled and angry as the author suggests, that could not explain mass murder, because only a tiny, tiny fraction of white men commit mass murder. The explanation for mass murder cannot be something that is shared by millions and millions of other people who do not commit mass murder. If one in ten million white men commit mass murder, that is not evidence of any general property of white men. If white men committed a disproportionate number of mass murders, that would be evidence for some factor that is more frequent in white men, such as a rare mental defect, but it still would not imply anything about the vast majority of white men.

Mass killings are only a tiny percentage of murders, and murder accounts for less than 1 percent of all deaths in the US. Suicide kills about twice as many people as murder. The death toll from mass murder is difficult to precisely calculate, but it is very small. Most murders are not mass murders. Roughly 2.6 million people die every year in the US. If 100 died from mass murder in a year, that would be less than one in 20,000 deaths. Mass murder is sensationalized by the media, but it is a very minor cause of death. You are probably going to die in old age from heart disease, stroke or cancer. (That is, unless our society collapses.)

CDC death rates

All mass murders are outliers, so we should not view them as examples of a general pattern, but as remarkable deviations from normal human behavior. What makes these incidents fascinating is that we can relate to the killers to some degree, but there is a gap. We can't imagine doing what they did. What were they thinking and feeling?

I'm going to review some of the more infamous mass murders in recent history, to show the diversity of factors involved.

-- Brown's Chicken Massacre, Palatine Illinois. January 8, 1993 Juan Luna and James Degorski (18 and 19 yo) went into a restaurant at closing time, intending to rob it and kill everyone there. They must have intended to kill everyone, because Juan had worked there before and was recognized. Juan bought a chicken dinner and ate it while they sat in a booth. Then they pulled out a gun and ordered people into the back. They got one of the restaurant's owners to open a safe, then killed everyone. The exact details are unclear. They killed seven people and stole $2000. The case was unsolved for 9 years, until they were convicted on DNA evidence and the testimony of Degorski's former gf. [Thrill kill, sadism, psychopathy]

-- Oklahoma City Bombing.  Carried out by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Killed 168 people, injured over 600, caused $600 million dollars in property damage. Motivation: hatred of the federal govt., esp. ATF and FBI, due to the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents. Timothy McVeigh was withdrawn as an adolescent, a veteran of the first Gulf War, no career, no girlfriend, no ability to connect with women. Terry Nichols may have been more of a psychopath. He was married with children. He may have killed his wife's first child, although the death was ruled an accident.

-- Columbine Massacre: Littleton, Colorado, April 20, 1999:  Two teenage boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (white), shoot and kill 12 fellow classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School before killing themselves. They wanted to kill more people than the Oklahoma city bombing. Instead, they only killed 12 kids, mostly in the school library, after a homemade bomb failed to detonate in the cafeteria. They seemed to lose interest in the killing, got tired of waiting for police to storm the building, and committed suicide in the library. [alienation, psychopathy, difficulty relating to girls, misanthropy, depression, anti-depressant meds?, fulfillment of power fantasy]

-- Atlanta, Georgia, July 29, 1999: Stock market trader Mark O. Barton (white) goes on a day-long shooting rampage, killing 12 people, including his wife and two children, before taking his own life. [financial losses, past criminal behavior, possible earlier murdered first wife and mother in law, psychopathy/pathological aggression]

-- Beltway sniper attacks Feb - Oct 2002 (17 killed over 3 weeks -- spree killing) John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo (black) planned to kill 6 white people per day for 30 days. Their killing spree begins with the shooting of a woman in Washington State, and ends near Washington DS, with a death toll of 17. [Islam, hatred of US, hatred of whites, loneliness, trouble with women. Muhammad was divorced, estranged from his children, "adopted" Malvo]

-- Red Lake, Minnesota, March 21, 2005: Teenage boy Jeffrey Weise (Native American) kills two people at his grandfather's home on an Indian reservation and then goes to his local high school where he kills seven others before committing suicide. [troubled childhood, Prozac for depression, gothic tastes in music and clothes, bullied/teased, outcast, Columbine inspired?]

-- Blacksburg, Virginia, April 16, 2007: South Korean student Seung-Hui Cho goes on a rampage at Virginia Tech University, killing 32 people before committing suicide. [depression, anxiety, alienation, bat-shit-crazy, loneliness, hatred of rich people]

-- Covina, California, December 24, 2008: White man Dressed in a Santa Claus suit,  Bruce Jeffrey Pardo goes to a party at his ex in-law's house and starts killing people, then sets fire to the house. Nine people are killed. The gunman commits suicide. [hatred of in-laws and ex wife following divorce]

-- Fort Hood, Texas, November 5, 2009. US army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan (of Palestinian ancestry) opens fire at his military base, killing 13 people and wounding 42, before being overcome by police. [anger at US Military operations, Islam, unmarried, socially isolated]

-- Oikos, California, April 2, 2012: Male nursing student One L. Goh (Korean) methodically kills seven people at a Christian university. [paranoid schizophrenia, was angry at school administrators]

-- Aurora, Colorado, July 20, 2012: James Eagan Holmes kills 12 people when he opens fire at a movie theater showing a late-night premiere of a Batman film in a suburb of Denver. "The message is: there is no message" [failing at life, one brief, failed relationship, alienated, philosophically lost]

Aurora Shooter's Notebook

-- Oak Creek, Wisconsin, August 5, 2012: White supremacist and US army veteran Wade Michael Page (white) fatally shoots six people and wounds four others at a Sikh temple before taking his own life. [white supremacist, hatred of minorities, failure in life, demoted/discharged from army, fired from job]

-- Newtown, Connecticut, December 14 2012: 20 year old Adam Lanza (white) kills his mother, then kills 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school. He then commits suicide. [Hatred of children?, Asperger's, OCD, anorexia,  issues with mother, severe alienation and fantasy world]

-- Boston Marathon bombing April 15, 2013  Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (chechen, muslim) set off pressure cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 and injuring over 200. Once identified, they killed a MIT policeman and attempted to flee. Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police. Dzhokhar was wounded and captured. [Islam, hatred of US, violent tendencies, married, attempted to flee]

-- Miami, Florida, July 26, 2013: A gunman (Hispanic, Cuban) kills six people in a shooting rampage at an apartment building, taking two people hostage before being killed by police after a lengthy standoff. [trouble with women, steroid use, employment issues (fired), acute paranoid psychosis?]

-- Washington Navy Yard shooting Washington DC, September 16, 2013: Aaron Alexis, 34 yo black man, killed 12 people in shooting at a naval base in Washington DC, with the gunman being fatally shot by police. [paranoid psychosis, history of violence, loner?]

So, what do these incidents have in common, if anything? Is there a pattern? Here are some factors that are associated with mass murder:

  1. Male. Mass killers are usually male. Men also commit more acts of violence in general.
  2. They are not all white. That is a myth.
  3. Most are socially isolated, alienated.
  4. Many are single men who have a hard time relating to women. Sometimes divorced, occasionally married with kids.
  5. They are losers or underachievers. Frustrated.
  6. Young or middle-aged. Young men who feel like losers, or middle-aged men who are going nowhere.
  7. Many have a military background and/or familiarity with weapons.
  8. They are often suicidal. Many want to die or are indifferent to their deaths.
  9. A history of mental illness or strange behavior. Psychosis, depression, psychopathy, Asperger's.
  10. Antidepressant or steroid drugs in some cases. 
  11. Hatred of some identifiable group or category of people (co-workers, the govt., other races, women, etc.)
  12. Ideological or religious justification for hatred.
  13. Fantasy world, sometimes involving violent video games and "dark" or "gothic" music.
  14. Despair, hopelessness, frustration, anger.

None of these factors is present in all cases. None is a predictor of mass murder. Mass murderers are likely to have certain characteristics, but people with those characteristics are not likely to be mass murderers.