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

Sunday, January 09, 2011 - 08:02 PM

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. 


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Comments [8]

Lynn Ochberg from Okemos, Michigan

Shame on you Dave, for sloppy use of the words, 'crazy, insane, & nut job'. They perpetuate the stigma of mental illness and serve only to delay society's recognition of mental illness as a treatable condition that health care plans should cover, like an illness of any other bodily organ.

Jan. 12 2011 12:06 AM
Rob W from Levittown, NY

Not sure if i should share this here, but i'm a little upset with the general sentiment that mentally ill people, even those who commit violent crimes, deserve to be looked down on and called crazy. Yes, i'd be angry too if i was a target or gave consideration to the targets. But I mean, when someone is in a coma do you call them lazy for sleeping all day? If the persosn in a coma isn't lazy, the person with the illness isn't crazy. It's a real illness that many people have, and is quite treatable.

Jan. 11 2011 08:24 PM
Rob W from Levittown, NY

I really don't like the wnyc writers calling mentally ill people 'crazies'.. The fact is this person had an illness, possibly induced by drug use (according to the forensic psychiatrist on wnyc this morning) which makes it more his fault than if it was just an illness he didn't bring on himself. The fact though is that he had an illness, and i have a similar illness and as long as i'm medicated i'm perfectly healthy there a many people like me. As the host lehrer said during the show today when psychotic symptoms are introduced we're "5 times as likely" to be dangerous violently, but he also pointed out that it raised the number from 1% to 5% which means 95% of mentally ill people are not a danger even when psychosis is a factor.

Jan. 11 2011 07:42 PM
Nanette from Illinois

Mr. Cullen has a vast knowledge and doesn't claim to be a psychiatrist.

Jan. 10 2011 11:37 PM
Nick from Jersey

I think it is also important to point out that the legal term "insane" is different from the household term.
Legally, the term "insane" per is "a disorder which impairs the human mind and prevents distinguishing between actions that are right or wrong."
In households, insane is a blanket, often discriminatory term. In some instances, someone who is eccentric will be called insane. So, remember that when you call someone insane that you should do so with the legal definition in mind, not just because their actions are outlandish, disturbing, and/or even murderous. Insane is also different from other mental illness.

Jan. 10 2011 01:37 PM
Michelle Tackabery from Durham, NC

Dave, I find your corrections necessary once again, so thank you for posting. On MSNBC within 1 hour of the shooting, a forensic psychologist, whose name I did not note, stated that Loughner might be "just like the Columbine shooters, who worshipped Hitler," a comment with absolutely no basis in fact. It serves nothing but false comfort to shove suspects into these convenient definitions. Reality is far, far more complicated than that.

Jan. 10 2011 11:44 AM
Michael Fullerton

Mr. Cullen's comments show an extreme paucity of psychological knowledge and investigative integrity. No competent psychologist or psychiatrist would ever state that a psychopath would experience depression or any other mental illness.

The psychiatrist Peter Breggin has stated that the two anti-depressants Harris had taken, Zoloft and Luvox, could have contributed to his violent actions. According to Breggin, side-effects of these drugs include increased aggression, loss of remorse, depersonalization and mania.

If you want to find psychopaths try looking at the bullying jocks and the people running the pharmaceutical industry. Their behavior is far most consistent with psychopathy.

Jan. 10 2011 11:02 AM
gm davis

Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in "Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the fateful day.
The Denver Post

Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

"Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
Wall Street Journal

Jan. 09 2011 09:16 PM

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