Editorial: How can we tell?
Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes. Sandy Hook school attacker Adam Lanza. And now Elliot Rodger, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who killed six and wounded 13.
Is there any way, any way at all, to predict such terrible events ... and prevent them?
Those listed were young loners with no criminal history who went on shooting sprees. But there may be tens of thousands — or hundreds of thousands — of such people in the U.S.
Mass murderers tend to have pent-up frustration and failures, are socially isolated and vengeful, blaming others for unhappiness, according to experts quoted by the Associated Press.
“They all display deluded thinking and a lot of rage about feeling so marginalized,” James Garbarino, a professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, told the AP.
But those who study these events were unanimous in saying that there’s no good way to predict who has deadly intentions, let alone who will reach a breaking point and take action.
Past violence — on a smaller scale — is a clue, but it’s rarely something that police can act on, let alone detain a person on the suspicion that they might harm others.
Before Rodger stabbed three roommates and cruised in his black BMW firing at sorority girls and strangers, he left a trail of YouTube videos and a 140-page manifesto ranting against women and couples and lamenting his lack of a sex life. Then, as is often the case, he shot himself.
But the vast majority of lonely and angry people don’t commit violence, which makes it difficult to know who will snap, experts told the AP.
“We can point to all the warning signs we missed. But they’re yellow flags. They’re not red flags until blood is spilled,” said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, who has written several books on mass murders.
And that’s a problem that we simply don’t have the answer to.