Beyond Binaries: Shooters Aren't Just Politically Motivated or Crazy

ABC News did a really nice job with thoughtful, sober coverage of the Tucson tragedy on This Week on Sunday morning. But having spent a decade covering these sorts of attacks, I found two deeply unsettling moments in the show. 

In his very first statement, George Stephanopoulos said:

We don't know if this is more like Columbine and Virginia Tech—just a crazy person unhinged—or Oklahoma City, which was more politically motivated. He was very conscious of his political motivations.

Stephanopoulos was doing the right thing: framing the conversation on Jared Lee Loughner's Tucson attack with a warning against a rush to judgment. If we create the wrong narrative in the first 48 hours, we will be stuck with that myth indefinitely.

Unfortunately, Stephanopoulos illustrated that point by propagating a central misunderstanding of Columbine, rushed into existence by a hasty press in the first 48 hours. George Will repeated it emphatically later in the show.

Columbine was committed by two boys with completely different mindsets—and motives—and neither one was remotely crazy.

Stephanopoulos got two out of three right: Tim McVeigh had a political agenda, and Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho clearly suffered a deep psychosis—in laymen's terms, insanity. Columbine was masterminded by Eric Harris, a sane, hyper-rational psychopath who understood exactly what he was doing. His agenda was constructed as clearly as McVeigh's. Dylan Klebold was a clinical depressive. Eric's grand scheme made Dylan feel better about his misery. Dylan had been suicidal for at least two years, and Eric offered a glorious road out.

George Stephanopoulos fell into another trap here, which is perhaps even more significant at this moment. He offered two types of attackers for us to slot Loughner into: crazy or political. Essentially, Stephanopoulos is offering the terrorist/non-terrorist distinction: terrorists plot their attack ruthlessly but rationally, which leaves the other group of crazies.

George Will returned to that equation in the closing moments of the show, twice citing Columbine and Virginia Tech—"which seem to have arisen simply from madness"—vs. politically-motivated assassins like John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald.

The problem with those two categories is that they leave out one of the largest categories: the sane perpetrator with a personal agenda. This was the really disturbing aspect of Columbine. Eric Harris figured out that terrorist tactics didn't have to be confined to political disputes. He could and did build bombs and coordinate a full-scale attack that would feel like terrorism and dwarf the body count of Oklahoma City. Luckily the giant ego driving Eric got the best of him, and his big bombs failed.

Columbine shocked the country because Eric Harris took the personal attack to an unprecedented level: self-motivated terrorist attack. But we see less grandiose examples of the same instinct several times a year. A few shooters who "go postal" are nuts. Most are sane.

I'm not sure whether anyone has compiled definitive statistics for all types of attacks, because there are big questions of how you define them. But Gary Noesner, who created the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit, is probably the world's leading expert on hostage negotiation and hostage/shooting sprees by individuals or pairs. He described the major types of scenarios (including Waco and Ruby Ridge) in his excellent memoir last fall, Stalling For Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator.

Most of these people are neither nuts nor political.

I interviewed Noesner after the Marinette High School hostage standoff in Wisconsin last month, and he explained how most of these people have only a personal agenda, and they are typically not sure what it is. They are angry, frustrated and nearly always depressed. The vast majority plan their attack in advance, but few plan it well. They are not sure what they hope to accomplish—they are lashing out in desperation.

There are many scenarios, but this type is the most common: very sane, yet apolitical. 

The videotapes left behind by Seung-Hui Cho are burned into our memory as a clear nutjob. But he was an outlier.

It's too early to tell whether Loughner will join Cho in the insane category, but early indications from his web postings suggest it's likely. That is all the more reason to inform the public that these two are atypical.

Dave Cullen spent ten years writing and researching Columbine, a haunting portrait of two killers and eight victims. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Times of London, Slate, Salon, Daily Beast and the Guardian. Columbine won the Edgar Award, Barnes & Noble's Discover Award and was named to two dozen Best of 2009 lists.