Mass killers can show indications beforehand

by Ken Ewing

The tragedy in Aurora, CO leaves us wondering what we can do to prevent such attacks.  Certain liberal leaders are demanding tougher gun control.  The media implies that sales of ammunition should be limited.  These are predictable arguments that cater to partisan politics.  Are these kinds of measures the best place to start?

When an event like this happens, I often hear people say that no one could have predicted it.  But this kind of behavior does not happen in a vacuum.  Violent actions of this type build up over time.  In our society, people tend to deny and discount the behaviors that serve as precursors of violent attacks.

I came across a well-written article on the CNN website by Dr. Charles Raison.  Dr. Raison articulates some very good advice on how to prevent incidents like this.  I will summarize his major points here and add my own comments.

Many people use the word “psychotic” to describe individuals who commit these heinous acts.  In Dr. Raison’s words, “to be psychotic is to have lost touch with common shared human reality.”  The vast majority of people with psychotic disorders do not commit violence.  But, that said, the people with psychotic disorders are much more likely to be the ones to commit violence.

So, a good way to reduce the risk of mass murder is to pay more attention to people who show evidence of psychotic disorders, and intervene before it turns to destruction.  As Dr. Raison says, “This is no easy task, or we’d be doing it already.”  But Dr. Raison offers a number of guidelines:

1)      Sometimes the onset of psychosis is obvious through indisputably bizarre behavior, such as:

  1. Talking to oneself
  2. Espousing clearly strange, untrue beliefs
  3. Not making any sense at all

2)      Sometimes the onset is slow and insidious, which is harder to notice but manifests in ways such:

  1. Someone becomes isolated and withdrawn
  2. Someone falls away from a previous level of functioning
  3. Someone changes his/her appearance in strange and disturbing ways

3)      Spoken threats or indications of violence.  These should always be taken seriously but especially so if observed along with other signs of psychosis.

4)      Though people who are planning violence are often secretive about it, it’s just as common that someone will tell you what they are planning if you ask them.

5)      If you are on a close basis with the person, check their living environment.  Besides seeing if they are adequately caring for themselves, you might find evidence of violent intent, such as:

  1. Accumulation of weapons
  2. Bomb- or fire-making materials
  3. Violent writings or art work

Based on what little has been reported about James E. Holmes, the alleged Aurora shooter, can we see any of these signs?  A few come to mind:

1)      He dropped out of graduate school.  No reasons have been cited.  Reports indicate that Mr. Holmes was an extremely intelligent student, the top of his class.  Why the sudden shift?

2)      He dyed his hair orange.  When did this happen?  I don’t know but it’s a relevant fact if it occurred in the last few months.

3)      He was denied membership at a local gun club.  The owner had returned Mr. Holmes’ phone call and was so disturbed by the strange greeting on the answering machine (and by Mr. Holmes’ refusal to return multiple messages) that owner denied him membership in the club.

So at least one person was watching and took appropriate action.  James E. Holmes had spent months preparing his attack.  Are we to think that no one else saw anything unusual?  I suspect that, when all the facts come to light, we will see that signs and symptoms were evident but no one took notice and acted.

Awareness is the gold coin of self-protection. The media may call for more gun control, but the best defense is to be aware of those around us and not be afraid to look closer if something doesn’t look right.

[editor’s note: as was noted in our July 28, 2012 article “A concerned parent had notified the sheriff’s office more than a year in advance, and the sheriff’s office had detailed information on one of the Columbine killers (including lists of targeted victims, a count of guns acquired, status of bombs built, etc.) well in advance of the attack, but did nothing – something which the sheriff’s office later tried to cover up.”]

[8/2 Update: Holmes’ psychiatrist reported behavior to colleagues on a “behavioral evaluation and threat assessment” team, saying Holmes could potentially be a danger to others – nearly six weeks before the July 20 killings inside a movie theater in Aurora] – source: CNN story