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Anatomy of a Mass Killing
Seven factors to consider in preventing and responding to mass shootings and mass killings.
In last week’s newsletter, I laid out the unfortunate and tragic reality that mass killings are a consistent reality of the human condition. However, I pointed out that this assertion doesn’t mean that I see mass killings as the “cost of liberty.” I believe we can and should do what we can to push back against the kinds of criminals and predators who want to hurt others.
A good society exists at the intersection of liberty and order. Neither can truly exist without the other. An overly permissive and libertine society devolves into chaos. A security state stifles free agency and puts its citizens at the mercy of government intercession in their affairs. Liberty and justice for all exist at the balance of these concerns.
So, in this week’s newsletter, I’m going to lay out seven factors that I’ve observed constitute “the anatomy of a mass killing” and offer suggestions on how to mitigate and respond to each factor.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it now: The focus on legal gun ownership is a serious distraction and stumbling block towards true solutions. If we can shift the focus of the debate away from laws that impact the rights and liberties of the law-abiding and towards identifying and responding to those with criminal intent, we could forge a path that both protects the lives of citizens while also upholding, rather than infringing, on their natural rights.
Factor 1 — Initial Mindset
Most perpetrators who conceive or initiate a mass killing begin with a similar initial mindset. This mindset is one of ostracism, a sense that they stand apart from the rest of society, whether from actual social outcasting or self-banishment.
It’s important to understand that this is a mindset and very difficult to determine from outward presentation. For every perpetrator who “everyone saw it coming” because of their solitary lifestyle and odd behavior, there are just as many who proved to be excellent at hiding their inner turmoil and appearing normal. Some even appear to be thriving on life. This initial mindset is a dangerous foundation, not only because it plants the seed of resentment necessary to kill but because it begins the process of dehumanizing society.
Prevention of Factor 1
The initial mindset of a mass-killing perpetrator is not unlike that of someone who will eventually contemplate suicide. The main difference is that their emotional instability is projected outwards instead of inward. If left unchecked, it can lead them to a desire to hurt others instead of only hurting themselves.
Extending suicide watch programs and suicide prevention education to include prevention techniques for outward-projecting emotional instability may help prevent some individuals from continuing down the path towards contemplating a mass killing.
Factor 2 — The Justifying Catalyst
The majority of those who perpetrate mass killings are passive-aggressive and uncomfortable with (and sometimes afraid of) authority. They tend to hate themselves for their cowardice, and therefore hate others even more as they project outward with their resentment. While they may contemplate suicide, they will not go through with it because it would be conceding defeat to the society they hate.
But this outward projecting hatred can fester for years without action until the introduction of a justifying catalyst. Catalysts can be as varied as a similarly minded individual, such as the Columbine Shooters, or a radicalized religion or political organization that gives justification to the outward-projected hate. But there will almost always be a justifying catalyst that pushes the perpetrator over the edge of passive-aggressive resentment and into the realm of seriously considering causing others physical harm.
Prevention of Factor 2
Before and a little after the arrival of the justifying catalyst is when a possible perpetrator will lash out in a passive-aggressive manner the most. In the modern age of social media and the internet, it has grown far easier to spot passive-aggressive behavior. Both law enforcement agencies and everyday citizens can easily monitor public cyberspace for inflammatory and derogatory communication. A watchful eye and a culture of “see something say something” can spot those who may soon begin planning mass killings, especially in connection with other factors.
Factor 3 — A Target
While a perpetrator may consider other factors of a possible mass killing at any point of the process, it is usually the target that he considers with great seriousness first. Remember that the impetus of a mass killing is outward-projecting self-resentment. The society the perpetrator has come to hate must remain his key mental focus for him to go through with the attack. Because of this, they naturally gravitate towards obsessing the most about the target before all other considerations.
Prevention of Factor 3
This is the best possible chance to stop a mass killing before the perpetrator strikes. While training might be offered by radicalizing elements taking advantage of the perpetrator’s mental instability, this is not typically the case. The surveillance conducted by the perpetrator will be sloppy and awkward. Proper security of high-value targets and central areas of mass gatherings should be able to spot unusual behavior.
Factor 4 — A Casualty Causing Device
Perpetrators of mass killings have utilized numerous casualty-causing devices, including knives, semi-automatic weapons, bolt-action weapons, swords, handguns, fertilizer, pressure cookers, pipe bombs, pump-action shotguns, vehicles, tools for arson, etc. The highest consideration of most perpetrators is access. This is key to understand: rarely will a perpetrator choose the most dangerous option, but instead opts for the most accessible option because, at this point, they feel they’re close to actually committing the mass killing. They don’t want to be caught on the cusp of the attack.
Preventing Factor 4
Interestingly enough, while this is the factor most focused on by society at large, it is the most problematic factor to control and the most difficult to discern. The purchase of almost any item that can be utilized or manufactured into a casualty-causing device without the recognition of any previous factor is rarely enough to justify a thorough investigation.
Any attempt to simply remove items, objects, or weapons that a perpetrator could utilize as a casualty-causing device from society would have a doubtful impact because there are just too many ways for a determined individual to kill people.
Consider that removing semi-automatic weapons from society would do little to stop a perpetrator from rigging the front of a vehicle with sharp-blades and pointed objects and driving through a densely crowded area like Times Square or a college campus. The only way to understand Factor 4 and use it to prevent a mass killing is in conjunction with other factors.
Factor 5 — A Soft Target
Whether the perpetrator of a mass killing victimizes a handful of people or fifty people is not so much up to himself as it is to the factors present at the target when he begins his attack. Lack of security, gun-free zones, a sweeping field of fire that victims can only escape from through confined exits, the building’s integrity, the reaction time of first responders; all of these factors come into play when considering the lethal result of a mass killing.
Preventing Factor 5
Unfortunately, due to misguided fears, reactionary policies, and failure to plan for the worse, our society has been allowing for the creation of soft targets at an alarming rate.
Night clubs more worried about keeping non-paying customers out of the club than having accessible and frequent exits for patrons. Schools where the child-to-teacher ratio is often 30–1 with no armed security or police presence. Movie theaters that seat hundreds of people but only have two narrow exits. Restaurants, offices, warehouses, and recreation centers with huge plastered signs declaring “Gun Free” so easily translated by the perpetrators as “shooting gallery”. And no one with emergency plans that take into consideration police response time.
We design buildings in specific ways for earthquakes and fire and draw up detailed plans for every natural disaster contingency. Yet, because we refuse to face the possibility of mass killings, we don’t plan or prepare at all. If we’re ever going to stop most mass killings, we must stop over-focusing on Factor 4 and make Factor 5 our priority.
Factor 6 — Panic and Flight
When a wolf enters a flock of sheep, he is not expecting a fight. Remembering that the majority of these perpetrators are passive-aggressive, a mass shooting is essentially their debutante. For the first time, they are physically acting on the hatred that has smoldered quietly for so long. They are cowards and are expecting a free-for-all, a shooting gallery.
They have convinced themselves of their superiority over those they despise, and they expect to be able to kill and maim with impunity. Because of lack of training, fear sets in on the victims. They usually do exactly what the perpetrator wants them to: run in a panicked hysteria, making themselves the easiest targets possible.
How to prevent Factor 6
This is the most tragic factor of a mass killing and is the most preventable. Consider for a moment that a single man armed with a rifle can only threaten the life of one individual at a time. Consider that many of these horrific incidences are a single man against hundreds. In such circumstances, every time a mass shooter aims a weapon and kills somebody, there are hundreds of people the shooter wasn’t focusing on. Now, consider how fewer the number of dead would have been if those hundreds had fought back instead of fleeing in panic.
A careful study of mass killings shows that time and time again, whenever the perpetrator faces resistance he doesn’t expect, the loss of life almost immediately ends. In many cases, the perpetrator takes his own life.
To address a specific grievance I have, I’ve never been a fan of the “Run, hide, fight” mantra often utilized in training videos to prepare people to respond to an active shooting. If the first option you give someone who’s entering the flight-or-fight mentality is to run, then that’s what they’re going to immediately do. And, they won’t stop running.
I much prefer training that teaches people to “Stop, think, act.” This is a thought process that can mitigate the flight-or-fight instinct and allow people to consider their circumstances and take the best course of action. When people get trained to stop and think before they act, they can make a conscious choice to run, hide, or fight based on the actual circumstances.
Finally, even though it may be uncomfortable for businesses and individuals to face the possibility, active shooting response training should involve basic submission techniques, first aid, and the utilization of improvised weapons. We, ourselves, are the softest targets in society. The best thing we can do to prepare against the depraved individuals who perpetrate these crimes is to harden our own resolve.
Factor 7 — Time
Time is the most dangerous factor in a mass killing. Time is what kills people and is far more deadly than whatever the perpetrator brings as his casualty-causing device. As was demonstrated with the Virginia Tech shooting, two of the lowest powered pistols on the market were enough to kill 32 people because the perpetrator had the time to kill them. If anything can guarantee a lower loss of life in a mass killing scenario, it’s finding ways to lower the time available to the perpetrator.
Preventing Factor 7
Before Columbine, it was the typical police tactic to set up a parameter and wait for the arrival of a specialized unit, such as SWAT, to enter the building. Due to the loss of life that occurred inside Columbine High School while police sat outside the school watching and waiting, most police departments across the country have ended this practice.
It is now typical for police officers to ideally wait for backup and then assemble a four-man team but to stay mindful of the circumstances and, if they feel they can intercede to end the loss of life, consider immediately engaging the threat without backup.
However, there are still police departments using outdated tactics and techniques. And there is still a culture of over-dependence on specialized units in many first responder agencies.
The money that has gone to training for mass killing scenarios has predominantly gone to specialized units in Police Departments. It needs to be re-directed towards training patrol officers more heavily, so they don’t hesitate or “wait for the cavalry” before engaging the threat.
Remember, mass killings can easily be stopped without massive loss of life when the perpetrator is immediately engaged and his operating space is saturated rapidly by first responders.
A mass killing is an intricate and complicated devastating event. The factors and information I have presented only scratch the surface of the analysis needed to determine how to identify and prevent threats before they happen and the most effective means to end the situations rapidly with as little loss of life as possible. Our society needs to engage in a complete and honest study into the full range of causes for mass casualty events.
A Few Final Concerns
Before we can properly wage war against mass killings, we must understand a few hard truths.
First, we must recognize that we will never be able to prevent all mass killings and therefore cannot simply use their occurrence as a justification to “try anything until it stops”.
Second, we have to educate ourselves not to be pawns of politicians on the Left and Right who use these tragic events to push forward their agendas. We must resist political narratives and find real solutions.
And third, we must find a way to complete the grieving process before we begin lashing out at each other and trying to place blame. These tragedies take time to investigate and to understand. Too often, society begins searching for scapegoats as soon as the smoke clears.
We are not doing the victims of these crimes any favors by turning them into political pawns before they even have time to be mourned. We need to remember how to come together as a society and mourn for our dead. We need time to raise a candle in their memory and save the bickering for when our tears have dried and the facts are known.
When we refuse to shelve our politics in the midst of the crisis, it’s hard to hear the validity of others’ perspectives over the pain of our broken hearts.