Why the San Bernardino shootings reveal a new kind of killer and what we can do to protect ourselves and our families.
Like most Americans I’m horrified by the violence we continue to deal with in our country and I’m concerned about the safety of my children and grandchildren and what we can do to reduce the threat of violence that we all face. According to Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD, Director, Forensic Science Program, George Mason University and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Violence and Gender, “The shooting in San Bernardino, California marked the 355th mass shooting in the United States in less than as many days in 2015.”
But what is even more frightening is that we are seeing a different type of killer that may be the harbinger of things to come. In a recent article, “The Mission-Oriented Shooter: A New Type of Mass Killer,” Dr. O’Toole, says that we have to understand the complexities of these mass shootings and the motivation of the shooters if we are going to have a chance of preventing future violence. “A number of years ago, I coined the term ‘mission-oriented’ shooter to describe a special type of mass shooter whose mission is to kill as many people as possible, or to achieve maximum lethality,” says Dr. O’Toole.
News reports continue to try to understand the motivation of the two shooters in San Bernardino. On December 4, 2015 CNN offered a quick description of the couple and the horrible results of their rampage. Syed Rizwan Farook, age 28, a U.S. citizen, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, age 27, a permanent resident, were a married couple who left their baby with grandma while they carried out the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since the December 2012 rampage at Sandy Hook. Syed and Tashfeen were later killed in a shootout with police.
Relatives and neighbors talked about how normal the couple seemed and like most mass killers they didn’t seem all that different than the rest of us, until the attacks. But if we learn more and are willing to look deeper we can begin to better understand what motivates these kinds of killers.
“Mission-oriented shootings are hardly impulsive crimes,” says Dr. O’Toole. “They are well planned and can involve days, weeks, months, even years of making preparations and fantasizing about the crime.” We need to ask ourselves what could have been going in on the minds of Syed and Tashfeen that would induce them to murder innocent people, commit suicide by shooting it out with the police, and leave their baby daughter orphaned.
We have to learn more about who these people were. According to CNN, the couple first met on-line and later face to face when Syed visited Saudi Arabia, where Tashfeen had moved from her native Pakistan around the age of 18 or 20. So we know that they had ties to a troubled part of the world.
Dr. O’Toole offers additional clues to what motivates these “mission-oriented” killers. She says, they often have experiences of being shamed or abused. As a result they develop a perception that the world is dangerous and they must get back at those who have shamed and humiliated them. She stays they often develop “perceptions of being mistreated or disregarded by others, followed by feelings of resentment and hatred, possibly even the development of a global outlook in which the individual perceives the world as an enemy.”
It’s unusual for a woman to be involved in mass killings or for two people to be involved together. Most of the mass killings are perpetrated by a lone male gunman. “Guns, clearly, are the elephant in the room,” says Dr. O’Toole. “But in addition, from a behavioral perspective, the ‘character’ and morality of people in this country appears to be seriously degrading. The lack of compassion, lack of guilt and empathy, an embrace of violence as a method to handle world problems, and a generalized world hatred push those people towards guns to carry out their desire for human destruction.”
In my own practice as a psychotherapist who has worked with violent offenders. Most of them come from backgrounds where they experienced abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Many grew up in chaotic and unsafe situations where their needs were not met. They may grow up to appear normal and put on a good façade, but deep down they often seethe with rage and are often so depressed they have given up on life.
James Gilligan, M.D. an expert in understanding what motivates violent offends and author of the book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, says, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.”
It’s not surprising to those of us who have worked with violent people that the violence they perpetrate on others is a reflection of the shame and violence they have experienced in their own lives. We can’t end violence by continuing to perpetrate violence on violent people. That approach, “fighting fire with fire,” is more likely to burn down all our homes than to keep us safe.
We need more empathy and compassion, not more rage and retribution. I find it encouraging and inspirational that the journal, Violence and Gender, which publishes some of the most authoritative articles on the causes of violence, is the official journal of the Avielle Foundation.
The Foundation’s mission is to prevent violence and build compassion in communities by fostering brain science research, community engagement, and education. It was founded by Jennifer Hensel and Jeremy Richman in honor of their daughter Avielle. In their own words they are models for the choice that we can make to turn towards love in the most horrendous and trying circumstances:
“Avielle loved school and was fiercely proud to be part of a community comprised of her classmates and educators. Avielle was murdered with 19 of her classmates and 6 of her teachers and administrators on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut. Our heartbreak and sadness are unfathomable. We started the Avielle Foundation to fund research exploring the underpinnings of the brain that lead to violent behaviors, and to foster the engagement of communities to apply these insights.”
What can we do? We can all have greater compassion for ourselves and each other. We can treat our children with love and respect and help support other parents to do so as well. We can treat others with respect, even those who we may disagree with strongly. We can reach out to those in our world who have been abused, neglected, and abandoned and offer them our love and support. Finally, as we move into the New Year and begin to decide on the candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties, we can ask who is the most empathic, compassionate, and caring? Who can be truly strong and decisive, not belligerent and blustering? Who can truly protect our interests? Who can lead us to a better, more humane, and more caring world?
Other articles you might also want to read include:
Originally posted on MenAlive. Reprinted with permission.
Would you like to help us shatter stereotypes about men?
Receive stories from The Good Men Project, delivered to your inbox daily or weekly.
Photo: Getty Images