As humans, we are always seeking answers, and asking “why?” is part of our nature. In the event of any murder — especially a mass murder — we instinctively search for the motive. News anchors commonly report on whether the motive is known yet, or whether investigators are still trying to determine the motive.
Finding these answers helps us in our need to understand these horrors.
If we know the motive of one of these killers, does that necessarily help prevent the next mass murderer from killing? Does the motive actually matter?
Consider that motives in mass murders have reportedly varied from political animus (on both sides of the aisle), to misogyny, to homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism. Yet, not everyone with those attitudes — however abhorrent — turns violent, so what can be done to stop the next mass murder when the focus is solely on the motive?
There is no way to legislate the motives of the human heart, and society rightly shames all of those “-isms.” Killings throughout history have been motivated by a variety of depraved ideas, so perhaps the more important questions are what do mass killings have in common, and how can we address those factors, even if we can never extinguish all evil?
In 2018, the FBI published “A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” that, “examines specific behaviors that may precede an attack and that might be useful in identifying, assessing and managing those who may be on a pathway to violence.”
This study suggests we look for warning signs that a mass killing might be in the planning stages. In fact, the study says that 77% of the study subjects spent a week or longer planning their attack.
Where motive can only be guessed in cases where the killer never speaks about it, behaviors can be seen and reported.
In the 2018 shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., it was the killer’s behaviors that predicted the violence, not his motive. Two days after the shooting, the FBI acknowledged that it failed to act on a tip about the troubling behaviors of the killer. There are reports of school administrators not reacting properly to threats. Broward County Sheriffs Deputies had responded to calls at the killer’s house 39 times over the preceding seven years. He was cutting himself and posting pictures of self-harm.
All of these are instances of missed behaviors, not missed motives.
So, how do we examine and address root causes, to reduce and eliminate the incidence of these horrific events?
James Delaney and Jillian Peterson recently published their study on characteristics of every mass shooter since 1966. Their conclusion? “The vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence and/or severe bullying.”
Delaney and Peterson’s conclusion is further bolstered by a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente. This study examined those childhood stressors and traumatic experiences, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE. Higher ACE scores are not only associated with higher probabilities of diseases such as autoimmune diseases, emphysema and even some cancers, but higher ACE scores are a consistent attribute of mass killers. And those with higher ACE scores who become violent can have a variety of motives.
Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
While most people with a high ACE score go on to live normal, productive lives, there would certainly be significant societal (and individual) benefit from reducing the incidence of ACE. And the icing on the cake would be the reduction of — dare we hope for the elimination of — mass killings.
In those cases where someone has already been exposed to a high level of childhood trauma, the solution may be to foster resiliency skills in those children or adults. Toward that end, Florida State University launched its Student Resilience Project in 2018 to provide that type support in the areas of grief, loss and depression. FSU has received great feedback about its program, and has received inquiries about it from around the world.
Seeking answers is part of the human condition. But if we can shift our perspective on mass murders from the motive of the killer to what kind of a childhood he had, might we be closer to stopping the next one? Reducing ACE scores would have a positive impact for generations. Rather than focus too much on “why,” let’s focus on “how” to intervene.