The Common Good

What Makes a White, Middle-Class Man Kill?

James Eagan Holmes. Image via the University of Colorado.
James Eagan Holmes. Image via the University of Colorado.

Like many others, I was shocked to hear this morning about the mass killing in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater at the hands of (according to law enforcement authorities) suspect James Eagan Holmes — a 24-year-old California native and neurosciences graduate student at the Univeristy of Colorado in Denver.

Having recently moved from Colorado to Oregon, the Aurora shootings tapped into old feelings as I recalled the Columbine High School killings in 1999. My wife, Amy, was a youth minister at the time, and one of the girls who had previously been a part of her group had helped the Columbine killers buy their guns.

Then there was the attack at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. And now this.

It got me thinking about what all of the killers have in common, and for that matter, what they seem to have in common with many of the mass murderers at the focus of such tragic stories. I found this excerpt from David Lohr, a writer known for his interviews and write-ups about notorious criminals:

Typical mass murderers are usually conservative, middle-aged, white males from relatively stable, lower-to-middle-class backgrounds. These individuals usually aspire to more than they can achieve, and when they see their ambitions thwarted, they blame others for their failures. They feel exclusion and develop an irrational, and eventually, homicidal hatred of anyone they consider a hindrance to their own aspirations. Quite often, they choose to die in an eruption of violence directed at these perceived oppressors.

There are three common types of mass murderers: family annihilators, paramilitary enthusiasts, and disgruntled workers. Social areas of dysfunction, such as unemployment, loneliness, a family breakup, or an argument with a supervisor, can trigger their deadly rage.

Though much of what Lohr says makes sense, it still doesn’t explain, for me at least, why so many white, middle-class men seem to be the perpetrators of these particular crimes.

What’s more, I’ve found it difficult to track down any research seeking an answer to this question. It may be out there, but I’ve had a hard time finding it.

We have all kinds of theories about inner city violence, gang murders and the like, but what about these “lone wolf” killers, many of whom have no prior record of criminal behavior at all?

But based on my own amateur research, here are some things that may contribute to this curious and disturbing pattern.

Propaganda: Often times, mass murderers have collections of literature from “hate groups” such as white supremacy organizations, separatist groups and other politically extreme networks. Though these groups are generally wary of ordering adherents to exact violence on others, the foundational hatred, militaristic aggression and ideological zealotry are a volatile mixture that far too often can lead to deadly outcomes.

Role Models: Consider the profiles of the most notorious mass killers in history – Hitler, Stalin, John Wayne Gacy, Lucky Luciano, Jim Jones, Charles Manson…all white men (i.e. of European descent). In selecting role models, we tend to look for a bit of ourselves in the people we look up to. Granted, these are stomach-turning role models, but like it or not, some people do look at them as such. So in a sense, it’s a pattern because history has established precedent.

Isolation: It would be hard to plan a mass killing spree in a more communal living space; such planning requires a fair degree of isolation. Generally, people from middle income families can afford to have their own apartment, or at least their own room that is closed off from others. And consider that suburban life is, in many ways, constructed upon the value of privacy while being surrounded by thousands of people. We can go from our home to our car in the garage to our office and back again without having much, if any, contact with anyone else. This kind of privacy can be fertile ground for unchecked aberrant behavior.

Access: Combine extreme isolation with being inculcated with extreme propaganda, a litany of murderous role models with a healthy disposable income and
lots of free time, and you have someone who can frequent gun shows, pawn shops and the like to collect supplies. These things are expensive, and to be able to buy up so much of it without raising any eyebrows, you have to have access to a good deal of disposable income. Plus, they don’t look “suspicious,” according to the profiles we maintain for what a terrorist is supposed to look like.

Shock and Awe: If someone is a paranoid narcissist with a victim mentality and a longing to be noticed, they’ll likely go to extremes to get the reaction from society they seek. And although there is this time-tested pattern of white males as mass killers, we still hold up the middle class white male as the archetype of normalcy in the United States, particularly in suburban culture. So for one who is intent on personal and societal destruction, blowing up such archetypes serves their end as well.

No Hope: In a way, it seems absurd to suggest that middle class suburban white men are more susceptible to hopelessness, despair and depression than others. But for those in an oppressive, violent environment, the source of distress is fairly evident. But if you live in an environment where you’re supposed to be happy and content about your life, and yet you’re not, who is to blame? Such internalized hatred can turn into internalized violence which, then, can be expressed outwardly.

So what is our collective responsibility in all of this? We are charged with recognizing and addressing the systemic and individual brokenness all around us. Who do you know that seems isolated, hopeless or in despair? Who among us is at risk of falling through the cracks, their pain and sickness going unnoticed until it’s too late?

This isn’t to say that anyone in these circumstances is at risk for such violent outbursts. Hardly. But aren’t the conditions themselves in which this type of personality germinates, and the pain that accompanies it, cause enough for attention, concern and action?

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."

Images: Collage on right - Eric Harris and Dyland Klebold, killers in the Columbine massacre. Collage on left bottom - (top row, L-R) Charles Manson, shooter in the 2011 Arizona killings (where Gabby Giffords was injured) Jared Lee Loughner, the Rev. Jim Jones, (bottom row, L-R) L.A. Fitness massacre shooter George Sodini, John Wayne Gacy and Northern Illinois University shooter Steven Kazmierczak

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