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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.

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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.

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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.

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