Each mass killer is uniquely evil, but they have common goals and characteristics.
Some seek revenge. Some seek fame—or infamy, its modern synonym. Some are sadists, others simply sad.
There are psychopaths, like Eric Harris, the torchbearer of the two Columbine High School killers, whose enormous ego left no room in his psyche for empathy. Others are reacting to trauma—a fractured or abusive home life, conflict with peers, a failed romance, like the growing club of spree killers motivated by the condition that has become known, unfortunately, as “involuntary celibacy.”
Still others are delusional, including Seung Hui Cho, the 2007 Virginia Tech rampage killer, who imagined himself a buddy of Vladimir Putin, bragged about a supermodel Martian girlfriend, and grandly compared himself to Moses.
In researching my new book, Mass Killers: Inside the Minds of Men Who Murder, I spent months exploring the written and recorded leavings of this growing apocalyptic sect.
Three factors turn up frequently: mental illness, easy access to firearms (especially assault rifles), and missed signals by parents, law enforcers, school officials, or other authority figures. Many seek to blame others and exact revenge for a history of personal failure. Socially and emotionally isolated, they strike out after an event that they blow out of proportion—a breakup, for example.
Nearly all mass killers are male. In the U.S., about one in ten is female, and just one woman turns up on the list of the 27 deadliest shootings in U.S. history. Many of these men and boys exhibit what has become known as “toxic masculinity.”
Researchers Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel explained:
What transforms the aggrieved into mass murderers is also a sense of entitlement, a sense of using violence against others, making others hurt as you, yourself, might. Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation…Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.
I looked at the writings of about 50 mass killers. Some are humble, some grandiose—from brief, introspective suicide notes to tome-like whines by sex-deprived men. A few left notes and journals that are poignant. Others are bloviated and narcissistic, like the ultimate selfie. They range in length from an eerie, five-word message left by a Michigan school bomber nearly a century ago—”Criminals are made, not born”—to the Mein Kampf-sized manifesto of Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, whose turgid dissertation goose-steps along for nearly a million words.
Many share what another academic researcher called “common psycholinguistic themes,” including a “pseudocommando mindset” and “heroic revenge fantasy.”
Very few high-casualty sprees are impulsive. Killers in this class do not “snap.” They plan their assaults for months or even years, drawing up detailed battle plans and accumulating expensive weaponry. For most, documentation of this process in journals or videos is an essential component; they are well aware that they are leaving evidence that will help the marquee lights of their crimes burn brighter and longer.
Some merely hint at violence, but many expressly threaten mass murder, sometimes spelling out where, when and how.
Stage Managers of Evil
A few young killers have used final notes to romantically stage-manage their own funerals. One example was Jaylen Fryberg, 15. Despairing over a broken romance, he killed four friends and himself in 2014 at his school near Seattle. Just before the shooting, he sent a text message to his parents directing them how to dress him in the casket (“brand new expensive-as-shit camo”) and what music to play (“poppin’ shit”).
Many mass killers treat their end-of-life messages as though they were dating profiles, including lists of favorite movies and music—even colors and snacks. Nothing about themselves seems too granular or extraneous to leave out.
At 3 in the morning on September 4, 2006, nine days before he shot 20 students at Dawson College in Montreal, Kimveer Gill posted this entry in his online journal:
I ate some cheesey poofs. Ya know, those cheese stick things, like cheetos. Ahhhhhh, now you see.The power of the cheesy poof can not be denied.
A few days later, he had progressed from snack-happy to Mr. Pitiful. He wrote, “Fuck people. Fuck life. Fuck god.”
How much do we really learn while trying to peer into these dark souls?
As Columbine’s Harris noted, “Sometimes we will spend an entire lifetime trying to figure out someone, and even after that length of time we still can’t possibly know everything about that person. The same goes for ourselves.”
Yet essential contours come into relief that may help unravel the mysteries of what experts view as a mass shooting contagion in the U.S., Canada, Germany and, to a lesser degree, Scandinavia and other European precincts. (To be clear: Mass murders happen in other countries, but the U.S. is by far the worldwide leader.)
“The phenomenon is feeding on itself,” warns Peter Langman, a Pennsylvania psychologist who is the world’s premier archivist of deep research on school shootings, which he generously shares at SchoolShooters.info.
Manifestos of murder were rare until the 1999 Columbine killings near Denver. We now presume that mass killers will leave an explanation, and it becomes news when they don’t. Stephen Paddock, the suicidal Baby Boomer who killed a record 58 people attending a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, was an outlier because he was determinedly mute about his motivations.
The vast trove of the Columbiners is easily accessed on the Internet, and several dozen derivative killers in the U.S. and abroad have culled and copied details pioneered by Harris and his beta partner, Dylan Klebold. They identify with Harris and seem to believe they are joining an eternal club of fist-bumping bros. (As Sandy Hook school killer Adam Lanza put it, “Everyone knows that mass murderers are the cool kids.”
Many declare themselves part of an imaginary revolution—a “war of vendetta,” the Virginia Tech shooter called it. The idea that these aggrieved males are world-changing revolutionaries might seem patently absurd, as it did to me when I began to study their macho rhetoric. But if the endgame of the revolution is repeated examples of mass murder, haven’t they succeeded in a sense?
“One way of understanding the concept of contagion is the possibility that the more the taboo against mass murder is broken, the easier it becomes for the next perpetrator,”
Langman, the school shooting expert, writes. “Each time that threshold is crossed may lower the threshold for people already on the path toward violence. Thus, the phenomenon may be feeding on itself, growing with each new incident.”
The message is foreboding, unfortunately.
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. Since 1999, he has written The Justice Story for the Sunday New York Daily News, the longest-running true crime feature in American journalism. His work has also appeared in Alternet, The New York Times, Columbia and Boston magazines, Slate, The Village Voice, The Manchester (U.K.) Guardian and Mother Jones.