The frequency of psychosis among mass shooters was not clearly stated in an April 17th Style article. Psychosis is common among perpetrators of mass shootings as a whole. It is less common among shooters who are well organized and therefore kill more victims.
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2007; C01
We always want there to be an answer, except there never is. We always want there to be a solution, and there is never one of those, either.
Something like Virginia Tech happens, people want to know: Why?
Evil, that's what some call it; mass murder, mass shootings, serial killings. The shooter on the Texas tower, Charles Manson, the Green River Killer, the Clutter family killers. People search religious texts to divine the dark mysteries of man, looking for a spiritual answer to physical violence. Others delve into psychiatry, grasping for an answer Freud missed, something about childhood violence and sexual dysfunction and rage. Nowadays they trace neurons through the cerebral cortex with glow-in-the-dark chemicals and talk about brain injuries and paranoid schizophrenia and thorazine drips.
All anybody has ever found, in the research of evil, is shadows and darkness, misfiring neurons and reverberating psychic pain.
Michael Welner, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University, looking at it from the medical end, says, "There has never been a neuro-anatomical localization of mass shooting behavior."
Jack Levin, the director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and conflict at Northeastern University in Boston, author of more than two dozen books on murder and criminology: "We're still in the dark about where this comes from."
He co-wrote "Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace," in 1985. At the time, he recalls, "there was zero" research about mass killers, serial killers and the like -- the truly frightening icons of America's violent ways.
Since then there have been lots of books about serial killers, lots of brain research and many more mass shootings. There are MRIs and talk about high levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and plunging levels of serotonin. There's research into the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain that controls emotions and behavior. New medications have revolutionized psychiatric care for depression, even psychotics.
None of it really touches the psychology of mass murder.
"In mass shootings, the killer is often killed themselves, so we don't really have the ability to interview and analyze them -- all you can really do is work off their behavior," says Neil S. Kaye, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. "The problem with that is that mass killers do this for multiple reasons, and even when you develop a profile of people at risk, 99 percent of them never go out and do anything bad."
Some of the research tells us the obvious: About 95 percent of mass killers are men, they tend to be loners, they feel alienated. They look normal on the outside and are really, really angry inside.
And yet, there are some minor lessons to be learned from this grotesque taxonomy.
Mass murder -- like yesterday's -- is starkly different from serial killings, the other type of murder that fascinates and frightens.
Serial killers, forensic psychiatrists say, derive sexual gratification from their killings. The Ted Bundys, the Jeffrey Dahmers, the John Wayne Gacys -- they don't want to be caught. They often enjoy taunting police. The violence is, in its own perverse way, about pleasure.
"Serial killers are more like drug addicts than anything else," Kaye says. "They need to ramp up the excitement each time, they're getting reinforcement from their acts. They're running on the dopamine side of the brain. They're running on highs."
It's not that way for mass killers -- guys who take out a gun and try to kill as many people as possible. They're not looking for highs -- they're depressed, angry and humiliated. They tend to be rejected in some romantic relationship, or are sexually incompetent, are paranoid, and their resentment builds. They develop shooting fantasies for months or years, stockpiling dreams and ammunition. The event that finally sets them off, Welner says, is usually anticlimactic -- an argument, a small personal loss that magnifies a sense of catastrophic failure.
"But they don't 'snap,' as you so often hear people say," Welner says. "It's more like a hinge swings open, and all this anger comes out."
They plan everything about the killings, he says, except how to get away.
"It's about suicide," Welner says. "It's about tying one's masculinity to destruction."
It's also rare for them to be truly psychotic, he says. Psychotics hear voices and people from outer space and talking dogs. These are shooters like Russell Weston Jr., who ran into the Capitol building and killed two police officers. He believed he was being told to do so by alien radio transmissions.
Perhaps these sorts of taxonomies are the building blocks of actual knowledge, and someday they will matter.
For now, there are no real answers, no real solace, no real consolation.
The answers to heartbreak, to unending loss, are only what we make them to be. They are only the best we can do.