Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Calming the Storm That Spawns School Shooters

• March 11, 2009 • 4:00 PM

In his new book, professor Jonathan Fast describes the similar cultural factors that create the rampage killer.

School shooters, the author of a new book argues, are driven by a toxic mix of adolescent angst and personality disorder. Easing the pain and spotting the warning signs offer the best hope for preventing the next tragedy.

School rampage killings are not a uniquely American phenomenon (Finland has had two horrific cases in recent memory), but the complex set of psychological and sociological conditions that spawn such events are far more likely to spring from the modern suburban landscape in the U.S.

Though ultimately rare, cases of school shootings are on the rise, says Yeshiva University’s Jonathan Fast, whose new book, Ceremonial Violence: A Psychological Explanation of School Shootings, offers a theory to explain the mind-set of the adolescent who carries out a meticulously planned mass murder of his (or, much more rarely, her) classmates. Fast, a professor of social work, painstakingly dissected 13 high-profile school shootings dating back three decades, searching for similarities. He found a bunch, deflating the myth of the single cause — say, antidepressant use, Internet and video game violence, frontal lobe damage or genetic predisposition — so often pushed by pundits and the news media.

Instead, Fast explains the confluence of events and personal circumstances that prompt such extreme deviant behavior: neglect or abuse in early childhood; adolescent trauma, such as bullying or peer rejection; a support system that encourages violence as a remedy; and, perhaps most important, a form of clinical narcissism that hardens the perpetrators to the suffering of others. Fast calls this a “dangerous cocktail of factors.” And while school shootings can never be predicted, he says, parents and school officials can do much to deter them.

Evidence suggests that the psychosocial basis for school rampage killings, as described by Fast, “has always existed.” What’s new is the easy access to semiautomatic weapons, which can transform a small subset of angst-ridden adolescents into suburban terrorists determined to convey their message of anger and alienation with extreme violence.

The condition is a rare one, Fast is quick to note, a perfect storm of personal events and cultural forces that culminate in premeditated mass murder.

Book Review

Click here to read more Miller-McCune book reviews.

Take the case of Evan Ramsey, who shortly after his 16th birthday in 1997 killed two students and injured two others at Alaska’s Bethel Regional High School. Like all school shooters in Fast’s study, Ramsey was an unhappy child, in his case shuttled from one foster home to another after his father went to prison and his mother battled alcoholism. He was abused and suffered depression at an early age. By high school Ramsey was a “slight, goofy kid” and despite a long disciplinary record was “more an object of ridicule than a source of fear.”

Fast argues that such ridicule, in the form of teasing, bullying, name calling or other social derision, is a potent ingredient in the making of a school shooter. Adolescence is a time when group identification and acceptance trumps many other bedrock urges. Rejection can produce anger, self-destructive behavior and a profound sense of hopelessness. Not surprisingly, the “outcasts” of modern youth culture find refuge among societal fringe groups promoting a doctrine of fear and persecution, such as Satanists, Skinheads, neo-Nazis and other hate groups.

The relationships within these fringe groups, Fast discovered, often provides the impetus for violence as the solution to their unhappiness. In nearly every incident, Fast says, the shooter received encouragement from what some researchers call a “violence coach” — a moral enabler who rationalizes the act of murder as fair punishment or retribution. In Ramsey’s case, that role was filled by a 14-year-old fellow outcast who helped plan the murders — but had no intention of taking part — and furiously argued in favor of a far deadlier attack.

But the world is filled with angry adolescent misfits who dream of killing their tormentors, Fast says. Few actually do, and given that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among youths aged 15 to 24, he wonders why there aren’t more school shooters than there are.

In his view, the key variable is a hazy personality disorder known as malignant narcissism. Sufferers crave attention yet are entirely oblivious to the emotions and feelings of others. They can be cruel and even sadistic yet lack empathy. When those afflicted are also grappling with the anger and isolation of adolescent abuse or trauma, Fast believes, the outcome can be explosive. “This narcissism is what turns the private act of suicide — a far more common event in adolescence — into the very public act of mass murder,” Fast said.

As such, he draws a distinction between school shootings and other rampage killings, such as workplace killings. While these killers too are suicidal people intent on “revenge for their unhappiness,” their acts of violence do not display the “ceremonial” qualities of the adolescent school shooter — the elaborate planning and rehearsal, the costumes and, most important, the attention-seeking component. Workplace shooters walk in and start shooting. School shooters almost always tell their friends and promote it as a kind of “social event,” as Fast put it. This is the narcissism at work, which leads him to suspect it’s not as much a factor among adult killers.

The pathological desire for attention explains the propensity of school shooters to document or publicize their rampage. Ramsey boasted of his plan to dozens of classmates, many of whom gathered at a safe distance to witness the murders.

Another shooter, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer, granted a phone interview to a local newspaper in the midst of her attack at San Diego’s Cleveland Elementary School in 1979. And Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and wounded 24 others at Virginia Tech University in 2007, paused during his murder spree to FedEx a press kit, with photos and DVD, to NBC news.

The narcissism triggers the elaborate preparation, the painstaking detail and the rehearsals that precede the killings. “It is all very much a dramatic act,” Fast said, “a grotesque going-away party for a kid who’s had a terrible life and wants to end it — and he wants to end it in public and with some significance.”

School shooters often wear combat fatigues or symbolic uniforms; they may rehearse what they’ll say to their victims. And thus, Fast argued, the violence can be described as ceremonial — “very ancient and primitive, where the supplicant plays the part of a god and indulges in a forbidden or privileged activity prior to his own execution or banishment from the tribe.”

Viewed as such, in anthropologic terms, school shootings are a tribal failing as much as an individual one. And the remedy, Fast believes, requires communities becoming more sensitive to adolescent abuse and trauma and the anger it foments.

For starters, mental health screenings can help identify at-risk students suffering from depression, disorders or other illness. Schools should encourage mentoring or role-modeling opportunities to ensure that even low-status students have access to positive support systems.

Fast also recommends that schools implement anti-bullying programs (fairly painless) and work to redefine their school cultures, insisting that all students are treated and valued equally (not so simple).

Many schools across the country, Fast says, still cling to old traditions that reward athletes and other adolescent A-listers while marginalizing the less talented and less popular. Fast also encourages schools to strengthen community bonds, sharing ideas and information with families, churches, youth organizations and law enforcement. School shooters, Fast says, are never good kids who suddenly snap. All of the school shooters Fast studied exhibited a variety of dysfunctional behaviors, yet parents and school officials failed to act. One shooter, Fast recalls, had carved an inverted cross into his forehead. His parents insist they never noticed anything afoot because the boy wore his hair long.

Fast’s school-shooter profile seems to have passed an early test.

In late October, a 20-year-old Tennessee man and his 18-year-old co-conspirator were charged with plotting to assassinate Barack Obama as the culmination to a murderous rampage at a predominately black high school in Arkansas. Word leaked, law enforcement authorities say, that the pair was planning to kill 88 students (the number 88 is significant in Skinhead culture) while wearing matching white tuxedos and top hats. Officials say the two accomplices believed they would die in the attack.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

David Villano
David Villano is an award-winning, Miami-based journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Newsweek, Mother Jones and the Columbia Journalism Review.

More From David Villano

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.