March 5 2013

What Motivates Mass Murderers?

Charlotte Hays

We have developed almost a public ritual in the aftermath of mass killings. The ritual includes wall-to-wall coverage, followed by calls for more gun-control regulations.

But what if it is that ritual itself that prompts the next mass killing? John R. Lott Jr. writes today at National Review Online:

Why did a deranged man choose to kill 20 innocent young children in Newtown, Conn.? Immediately after the killing, some speculated that he was jealous of the Sandy Hook students because his mother spent time volunteering at the school.

However, new evidence shows the real motive was likely different: He wanted to try to kill more people than the current mass-shooting record holder, the 2011 Norwegian mass shooter.

Police have apparently discovered articles in the killer’s bedroom leading to this conclusion. USA Today writes that the school was picked “because it was the easiest target for an alleged attempt to outdo Norwegian mass murderer who killed 77 people in July 2011.” Likewise, the Hartford Courant reports that the Connecticut shooter “saw himself as being in competition with” the Norwegian killer.

Is this a believable motive? Unfortunately, it is. Indeed, the goal of a high body count is nothing new at all. Many mass killers are clearly vying for fame, and not just any shooting will do. They know very well that the more people they kill, the more the world will hear about their deeds. The Newtown killer presumably picked this target also because the horror of killing small children would further add to the media attention.

Lott notes that mass killers pick targets carefully, wanting a place that is easy to attack and will ensure lavish coverage. An elementary school such as the one in Newtown is both these things.

Lott also points out that mass killers have a sense of precedent: the Virginia Tech killer cited Columbine as a point of comparison.

I’ve often thought during the TV extravaganzas in the wake of these horrific events is too intense, distasteful, and, worse of all, an inspiration to the next killer. But it’s difficult to know what, if anything, we should do about this, especially if you believe that the First Amendment is numero uno for a reason.

One thing the public might consider is a bit more restraint. A friend of mine, an emotional liberal who specializes in strong feelings about public tragedies, told me she had been to an art show on the children of Newtown. Such events, in my opinion, not only intrude into the privacy of the families but may be inspirational to future killers.

Added to that, what can a trendy artist possibly add to the tragedy so soon after it has occurred?

While the First Amendment rules out censorship of the constant coverage accorded these killings, media executives might consider whether the public really wants this. I found myself unable to look at TV coverage of Newtown, both because of the intrinsic horror and because it was sickening to see people grasp the killings to promote their pet causes.

It would be interesting to compare ratings if networks refrained from round-the-clock coverage, however. The public might find it a relief, and perhaps there would be less inspiration for the next mass murderer.

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