Sandy Hook was in the news this week. How does someone become a murderer?
|A 20 year-old man murdered 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, USA, on December 14, 2012. Then he shot himself dead. Earlier that day he had shot and killed his mother with whom he lived. His older brother, a certified public accountant, is devastated. How can two young men with the same parents and raised in the same family and hometown turn out so differently?
What makes the difference between persons who develop violent behaviors and persons who do not when they have similar backgrounds? In a few words, the difference is the existence of protective factors. Many people have risks for violence, but those who don't commit violent acts have protective factors that immediately spring into action. Protective factors are processes that help us to cope with, adapt to, and overcome risks.
This is how protective factors work. Many people have spontaneous outbursts when angry, such as "I could kill you" and spontaneous thoughts about hitting, kicking, and punching others. Just as spontaneously dire consequences for others and the self come to mind. They stop. Some even laugh at themselves for being so ridiculous. Thoughts of consequences stop them in their tracks. These are protective factors.
Some people think their thoughts of violence are great ideas. Thoughts of dire consequences for others and the self do not come to mind. Rather thoughts of the delights and satisfaction of violence to themselves spring up, spurring them into action. Violent people enjoy thinking about hurting others and believe they have good reasons for doing so. They often experience satisfaction and gratification, even chills and thrills.
People who don't stop themselves consider short-term consequences for themselves. If they think about longer-term consequences for themselves and consequences for others, they immediately dismiss them. The consequences that matter to them are their own gratification, satisfaction, thrills, chills, and a sense of accomplishment. If they think about the harm they cause, they may feel even more thrilled or they may not care.
Some tell themselves the consequences are worth the price of the thrill and satisfaction of violence. They have tunnel vision. They only consider one part of a large picture. They do not think about how their violence will affect those they target or themselves in the long run.
Glee as a Risk
Survivors of mass murders are shocked to see the gleeful manner of the murderers. Crystal Woodman, a student at the Littleton, Colorado, USA, High School, where student gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher, reported about the gunmen: "every time they'd shoot someone, they'd holler, like it was, like, exciting." Nick Foss, another student, reported, "They were laughing after they shot. It was like they were having the time of their lives."
Fourteen year-old Barry Loukatis, killed a boy who had teased him. He also killed two other boys. He said, "It sure beats algebra, doesn't it?" as he stood over a dying boy who was choking on his own blood. According to an accomplice to five of his murders, Genildo Ferreira de Franca, a Brazilian who killed 15 people, laughed after each murder. Not only are protective factors missing at the time of the violent acts, but the thrill of the kill is an alluring and satisfying risk factor.
Factors in Personal Histories
At look at the personal histories of people who commit violent acts shows that risk factors are not only present at the time they commit violence, but they are also present over their lifetimes. From interviews I have done with about 150 people who committed serious violence such as murder, attempted murder, physical assault, armed robbery, rape, and child sexual abuse,
I have identified three risks that are consistently present in the life stories of persons who commit violent acts. Persons who commit violent acts have
poor relationships with others,
difficulty managing their emotions and behaviors, and
beliefs that hurt others.
Furthermore they enjoy thinking about violence and committing it, sometimes to the point of bliss and ecstasy. I have seen these patterns over many years of talking to people who have committed serious acts of violence.
People who do well are the opposite. They have good relationships with others, regulate their emotions and behaviors in appropriately, and have beliefs that promote the well-being of others and of the self. These are protective factors. Protective factors are associated with resilience when persons have risks for poor outcomes, such as acting in antisocial ways. Persons who are resilient use these protective factors to cope with, adapt to, and overcome risks. I have seen these patterns over many years of talking to people who had risks for committing serious acts of violence and did not. The following provides detail on these three factors.
People who have risks for violence but who do not commit violent acts have people they can talk to about personal, sensitive matters. These people can be peers or adults, inside or outside of the family or both, and with whom the at-risk person reciprocates a sense of closeness, seeks support and counsel during times of stress and fear, and freely shares painful personal issues. Typically persons who show resilience have these kinds of confidant relationships of more than two years with both peers and adults, who can be parents, siblings, peers, coaches, teachers, and parents of friends.
Supplements to talking to people they trust are journals or diaries young people keep, or other forms of verbal expression such as writing poetry or stories. Playing musical instruments, drawing, and sculpture are also avenues of emotion expression. Physical activities and recreation offer constructive ways of expressing emotions.
As they talk through issues that bother them, they feel better and they develop strategies for dealing with the difficult issues. Confidants serve many purposes such as provide comfort, validation, and opportunities to problem-solve, which involves consideration of a range of responses to issues and thinking through consequences of various responses.
In addition, individuals with risk for violent acts but who do not commit them work hard at being like the people they admire. When they admire prosocial persons, they learn through observation the value of prosocial actions.
People who develop violent behaviors are closed off from other people. They do not confide personal, painful issues to others. Instead of finding relief through talking out their issues and of identifying constructive ways of dealing with their issues, they are on their own to figure out what to do. Unfortunately, they find plenty of material that encourages them to hurt others with little thought of consequences. They become self-centered, where what matters is what they want. Other people become tools or objects to make them feel good.
People who have low risks for violence know what they are feeling, express these feelings in ways that do not harm self or others, and understand and respect how others feel. When they are confused, hurt, or angry, for example, they know this. They also know they need to do something about these emotions. Typically they talk to others about their feelings and feel better afterward. Sometimes they will do other things to help themselves feel better, such as meditate, go for a run or walk, listen to soothing music, or do something enjoyable and affirming.
They do not get drunk, beat someone up, or cut themselves. Beating someone else is obviously a violent act and could be a factor in even more dangerous forms of violence. Getting drunk or self-harm are not in themselves risks for violence toward others, but they could be factors, along with other factors, associated with potential for violence toward others. Self-destructive behaviors are of concern and can be thought of as violence toward the self, bringing their own kinds of satisfaction that are not antisocial but they are harmful.
In summary, confidant relationships lead to emotional expressiveness, which is emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). Emotionally expressiveness or emotional intelligence means that individuals can identify their own inner processes and express them in appropriate ways. They also connect to and have empathy for the emotions and situations of others. When individuals have emotional intelligence, they may think about doing something hurtful, but they immediately consider consequences for themselves and for others. They then think of other more constructive actions to take to reach their goals that typically are related to efforts to self-regulate or help the self feel better.
Newspaper reports describe the gunman in the Sandy Hook killings as quiet with few or no friends. He lived with his mother in a lovely home that was so far away from the road that it was difficult to see. A week before he killed the children, the teachers at the elementary school, his mother, and himself, his mother told a friend that she was having trouble reaching her son and was afraid she was losing him.
A man who babysat the gunman ten years ago said the gunman's mother had given instructions never to turn his back on the boy and never to go to the bathroom in order to keep the boy in his sight. The babysitter thought these instructions were odd. Neighbors said the gunman was quiet and kept to himself and never got in trouble. This portrait of the gunman suggests that he did not talk to trusted others about sensitive, personal information. Whatever issues he had, he appears to have kept to himself.
Through close, confidant relationships with others over time, individuals develop capacities for self-regulation. Self-regulation means persons express their emotions and engage in behaviors that do not harm others or the self. Individuals with good self-regulation think about the consequences of their actions for themselves and others in the short-term and the long term. They consult with others to consider alternatives and to think through consequences. Thus, self-regulation and close personal relationships are linked not only in terms of the development of self-regulation but also in its maintenance.
Self-regulation is part of executive function, which stands for many related capacities that are composed of judgment, problem-solving, anticipation of consequences, emotion and behavioral regulation, problem solving, and following rules and directions.
Problem solving involves strategies that include seeking to understand issues from multiple points of view, the consideration of various types of actions when actions are called for, and the consideration of a wide range of consequences for others and the self. When persons perform actions, they then evaluate the actions for their consequences. They continue actions that enhance others and the self, and they modify their actions to avoid negative consequences for others and the self.
People who have good self-regulation skills also engage in constructive behaviors when they are stressed. For example, to soothe themselves they may listen to music, engage in affirming self-talk, watch a funny video, go for a long walk or other enjoyable activity, and make plans for a fulfilling future. They typically talk to trusted others. They may read books related to their issues. Some seek professional counseling and therapy or join self-help groups.
People self-regulate in four general ways. One is prosocial as already described. A second in antisocial which is what I described earlier. To elaborate further, antisocial self-regulation involves individuals who harm other people as a way to regulate their emotions and make themselves feel better. They may kick dogs, drive aggressively, make derogatory comments on the internet, be verbally abusive to family members and friends, and think of raping and/or beating others. Some men go to bars and pick fights because when they do they get a high.
Raoul, 42, a man I interviewed and who was in prison for life for three murders told me
It might have felt good at the time, but after I got busted it didn't feel good. I wasn't thinking about prison. I blocked everything out. I don't know what it is. When I think about it, there was always a couple I thought about hurting. It was always, 'I'm going to kill him. I want to kill him.' I didn't realize that prison was there. I wasn't even looking at prison. If I would have been thinking about prison, I never would have offed him. I think I would've walked away from it. I hate prison with a passion.
The gunman in the Sandy Hook obviously used antisocial methods of self-regulation. Thinking about and planning the killings probably were sources of satisfaction and shooting his way into the school and shooting little children and women also provided him with great satisfaction. He may even have enjoyed pulling the trigger while aiming the gun at himself because he knew in doing so he would escape the shame of punishment and public exposure. He only anticipated consequences he valued. He apparently got exactly what he wanted.
A third means of self-regulation is self-harm, where individuals think they will feel better if they overeat, take drugs, use alcohol, go on a shopping spree, and cut or burn themselves, among other self-destructive acts. They typically do feel better for a short time. Then they return to their usual miserable state. They get to a point where they want to feel better and once again do something that harms themselves in the long run but provides temporary relief.
More than a year before the killings, the Sandy Hook gunman burned himself with a lighter his mother told a friend. He may have done other self-destructive things, but the available information is scanty.
The fourth means of self-regulations is inappropriate behavior. Examples include not following simple rules like turn-taking in conversations, making jokes at serious occasions, humming during a quiet period when with a group, and walking around a room with no apparent goal in mind when everyone else present is engaged in a task.
The man who babysat the Sandy Hook gunman said as a boy the gunman was withdrawn and preoccupied with particular tasks. He also sometimes had tantrums that the babysitter had only seen in toddlers. These behaviors appear to be inappropriate for a ten year-old boy. He continued to be withdrawn until his death, which suggests a long-term set of inappropriate behaviors.
The Sandy Hook gunman appears not to have used prosocial means of dealing with things that bothered him, given the evidence that he kept to himself and his mother felt she was losing him. He obviously used antisocial means of dealing with issues. He also used self-destructive strategies such as burning himself. These self-destructive patterns may have been apparent for years. to keep his eye on the boy at all times, not even to take the time to go to the bathroom. His behaviors may have been inappropriate as well, such as his frequent withdrawn behaviors when in social situations.
Some newspaper reports stated that the Sandy Hook gunman had a mental disability, and used this to explain why he killed children, adults, and himself. This observation overlooks the fact that most people with mental disabilities do not harm others. They are no more likely to act out in violent ways than people who do not have mental disabilities, or mental illnesses, or brain conditions such as autism or bipolar issues.
The same principles hold true for persons abused and neglected in childhood. Many believe that being abused and neglected is the reason people commit violent acts. This belief ignores the fact that most persons who have experienced abuse and neglect do not go on to be abusive and neglectful. The use of alcohol and drugs also is used to explain why people commit violence. Yet, most people who use drugs and alcohol do not commit violent acts. Other factors are at play, and the chief factor appears to be belief systems that overpower any protective factors that individuals may have.
Beliefs may be the central issue in the commission of violent acts. Research on persons who commit terrorist acts, feminist research, as well as the research I have done with men who commit interpersonal violence show the importance of belief systems in the perpetration of violent acts.
Beliefs may be so powerful that the over-ride common sense, decency, and the influences of long-term supportive relationships and otherwise prosocial ways of self-regulating. In fact, sometimes self-regulation is not an issue when people commit violent acts. They commit violence because violence serves their purposes and has nothing to do with self-regulation. This appears to be the case for Raoul, quoted earlier. This is what he said about murdering another man.
At the time, I thought that was the right thing to do because of the life I was living and the rules of the street. He stole something from me. I felt that he had to pay for it. If I let him get away with it, that would mean other people would want to try it.
Earlier, he had called this murder "a business transaction." He also thought he would get away with it because his father used to say that people get away with the murder of black people. Raoul himself was African American.
Individuals who feel some connection to others often contact people they love before they commit violent acts. For instance, after Omar Thornton, 32, killed six people at work, he called his mother to say goodbye. He asked her to tell "everybody" he loved them. Then he shot himself. His beliefs that murders and suicide were the right things for him to do over-rode the love and potential comfort he might have received from talking to his loved ones about what was on his mind.
Other beliefs may also be at issue in Omar's case and in many others, such as the Sandy Hook gunman. Omar and almost all mass murderers are men. Beliefs about what it means to be a man may prohibit some men from discussing personal, sensitive issues. Thus, their stress builds and they seek ways of feeling better. Ideologies of violence may become their solace.
Beliefs that I have often found in my interview research with persons who have committed violent actions are of several types.
Persons who commit violent actions may be getting back at others or doing unto others what they believe others have done to them, which is often the case with mass murderers. They may want to show others that you don't mess around with them. They may want to teach a lesson. They may feel depressed and thoughts of violence lift their mood. They may want to prove they've got guts. Violence may sometimes solve a problem, or at least perpetrators think so.
People who do not commit violent acts live by such values as dignity and worth of other persons and themselves. They respect the self-determination of others and their own innate right to make decisions that affect themselves. They, therefore, believe that acts that harm others are wrong. They do not believe there is justification for hurting others. They have developed a strong will not to harm others and often want to promote the well-being of others and of the self.
Other beliefs of prosocial people are the following.
o Living well is the best revenge;
o Negotiation is the way to redress wrongs, not betting back at others;
o Masculinity involves respect for women and girls, other men and boys, and the self; and
o Equates masculinity with expressing emotions directly & empathically expressiveness.
These ideas are starting points. They can be the basis of a wide range of types of actions, programs, and policies that promote individual and common good and that diminish the likelihood that persons will use violence to serve their own short-sighted ends.
Three factors that are present in persons who do not commit violent acts: affirming relationships with others, self-regulation, and prosocial beliefs. These three factors are absent, or largely absent, in persons who do commit violent acts.
No matter what pressures people experience, the tipping point toward violence occurs when persons make a decision to act on their ideologies of violence and no thoughts of dire consequences come to mind. The brother of the Sandy Hook murderer undoubtedly has had violent thoughts, but like everyone else who does not behave in harmful ways, automatic activation of thoughts of dire consequences dispelled the violent thoughts.
The Sandy Hook gunman, had no such protective processes. He thought about violence. No thoughts of consequences deterred him. He acted out his violent thoughts, took the lives of 27 people and then himself, to great long-last grief of many people and to his own great satisfaction and gratification.
Prosocial responses to stress and prosociality in general are related to capacities for emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995), both in terms of knowing and expressing one's own emotions in appropriates ways and also connecting to and having empathy for the emotions and situations of others. No one, however, is prosocial all of the time.
Even children and adolescents who actively use protective processes and demonstrate their pro-social resilience in a variety of situations over time have vulnerabilities. Coping with the effects of adversities may be life-long, although as time goes on such coping may become more automatic and the sting of the vulnerabilities may lessen. Persons with emotional intelligence actively seek ways of coping positively with things that bother them.
Some persons dig deep into the thoughts of violence. I have. I realized that these thoughts puff me up and give me momentary lift or thrill, until my protective factors kick in and consequences stop my thinking about violence. I didn't realize I have these experiences until I was years into my interview research with persons who have committee violent acts. Conversations with trusted others jogged my hidden thoughts about violence into awareness. There's something about how we function that helps us to push down thoughts we are ashamed of.
What's amazing about the prevention of violence is that so many people in so many walks of life are already making major contributions. Parents who model concern for the well-being of others and of themselves, who have affirming relationships with others, and who have good self-regulation model for their children ways of conducting themselves in prosocial ways. They also teach values such as dignity and worth of persons, social justice, and fairness to their children.
Teachers, early childhood educators, social workers, people in other helping professions, people in medical fields, and elected officials who act to promote the common good are already contributing to the prevention of violence and a social contract that promotes the common good. Leaders of religious institutions dedicate their lives to promotion of individual and social good.
More, however, needs to be done. If the contributing factors are relationships, self-regulation, and belief systems, how can we as individuals and as groups acting together promote them even more than we do now? National and even international campaigns to help adults become better at connecting with young people might be helpful. The advantages of talking to people about what's troubling you can also become part of this campaign. Efforts can be at the national, regional, state-wide, and local levels by people from all walks of life.
Campaigns of this sort to educate people about how to cope with issues that bother them and about the dangers of taking on beliefs that violence is the answer could also have benefits.
I hope this article shows that two brothers, who have the same parents, who grew up in the same family, and who lived in the same neighborhoods could have different outcomes. Like the Sandy Hook gunman, the Unabomber, who killed three people and wounded many others had a law-abiding brother who turned him in. The Unabomber's brother ran a shelter for runaway youth who had been abused and neglected.
One brother dealt with issues that troubled him in prosocial ways, had affirming relationships with others, and reject beliefs about violence and espoused prosocial beliefs. Each of us individually and collectively have responsibilities to promote the common good and to protect others and ourselves from harm. Thinking in terms of these three factors may clarify goals and strategies and lead to informed violence prevention efforts.
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