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Experts Explore the Mind and Motivation of a Mass Killer

April 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: We turn to Stanton Samenow, a clinical psychologist based in Alexandria, Virginia. He’s the author of “Inside the Criminal Mind.” And Paul Viollis, he’s CEO of Risk Control Strategies, which provides security consulting for corporations and educational institutions. He’s the author of “Avoiding Violence in our Schools.”

Mr. Viollis, so we just heard in Gwen’s discussion raising the notion of a profile. Is there such a thing as a common profile for a mass killer or, more specifically, for someone who does it in a school setting?

PAUL VIOLLIS, Author, “Avoiding Violence in Our Schools”: Yes, Jeff, there certainly is. There’s absolutely no question about that. The behavioral characteristics that are typically associated with a person that perpetrates acts of violence at school are extremely consistent across all lines.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what would they be? How would you describe them?

PAUL VIOLLIS: Typically, this type of person is someone that’s found as a loner, more or less the quintessential outsider, someone that’s never accepted, someone who has a difficulty accepting criticism.

This person finds himself in a position where he’s constantly searching for attention, constantly searching for inner control. And if it escalates to the extent that he cannot find that, it builds to a sense of powerlessness. And when that happens, typically violence is imminent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Samenow, do you see a common profile here?

DR. STANTON SAMENOW, Author, “Inside the Criminal Mind”: There are features in common. And several of them are — this is a person who not only wants to be in inner control, but he tries to control other people.

These are people who are very difficult in interpersonal relationships, although to others they may appear accomplished, they may appear talented. And these are people who do not announce their intentions usually in advance.

Sure, after the fact, you may be able to find certain features, but these are people who think in extremes. They’re number one or they’re nothing. And any little detail of life that doesn’t go their way, it’s like sticking a pin in the balloon. Their whole self-image is on the line.

Thus, in a rejection, say, from a girlfriend, the loss of a job, you have anger that metastasizes like a cancer. And the one thing too much is that pin in the balloon, and the person is going to show he’s somebody rather than nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there anything we know about, in the cases you study, about common background, common experience, or is it completely an individual matter?

STANTON SAMENOW: Absolutely no commonalities in terms of ethnic group, education, socioeconomic background, family make-up. These individuals can come from all walks of life.

Triggering causes

Paul Viollis
Author
Typically, within the school violence offender, that particular person, the trigger there is found in more of condescending behavior and more chronic condescending behavior.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Viollis, what about the triggering cause that Dr. Samenow just brought up? What kinds of things usually cause someone to move to the extreme measures?

PAUL VIOLLIS: Typically, within the school violence offender, that particular person, the trigger there is found in more of condescending behavior and more chronic condescending behavior. That's why, if you were to draw a picture in picture about this person, and you date them back, let's say, to high school, they'd be described as the loner, the outsider, but someone that was constantly picked on, someone that was made fun of, someone that was searching for an identity.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Stan Samenow, is there often a history of mental illness?

STANTON SAMENOW: There's absolutely no reason to assume that at all. Many of these people are victimizers, in many ways. They oppress others; they try to control others.

But it's not mental illness unless you want to torture the definition of mental illness. These are not people who are psychotic. These are not people who have lost contact with reality.

They do have unrealistic expectations of other people. They have this all-or-nothing thinking, but that is not mental illness.

'Calculating' and 'deliberate'

Stanton Samenow
Author
They are able to shut off fear, the fear of consequences, the fear of what they do to others, long enough to do what they're going to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the question of planning for something like this? Is there typically -- again, in cases you've looked at, is there a lot of planning that goes into it?

STANTON SAMENOW: Such individuals are very calculating. They're very deliberate. And they have a chilling capacity to do something that most of our listeners cannot do and have no reason to do: They are able to shut off fear, the fear of consequences, the fear of what they do to others, long enough to do what they're going to do. And they're absolutely certain at the time they do it that they'll get away with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Viollis, what would you add to that question about planning, the ability to plan, how much planning goes into the cases you've studied?

PAUL VIOLLIS: There's absolutely no question that this is well-thought-out. There's a very clear violence continuum, as the aggressive behavior builds and builds to the point that the violent incident actually takes place.

The planning is clear. Once the person realizes and gets in their mind that there really is nothing to lose at this point, they start to identify those that they blame for their lot in life, plan the action itself, and then execute it.

Warning signs

Paul Viollis
Author
[I]t's extremely rare when you don't see the components of the violence continuum in place, that being typically indirect, starting out with indirect threats, more attention-seeking, moving towards things like loud outbursts...

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Paul Viollis, I want to go back to something that was raised earlier, the question of any early signs or overt behavior. We heard earlier in the program a discussion or mention of a teacher at Virginia Tech who had reported or read some creative writing that this student did, sent him in for some consultation. Is that normal, that you would see some kind of sign out there?

PAUL VIOLLIS: There's absolutely no question about it. I've been doing this for a long time, and it's extremely rare when you don't see the components of the violence continuum in place, that being typically indirect, starting out with indirect threats, more attention-seeking, moving towards things like loud outbursts, where an example of that could be slamming things, breaking things, setting fires, moving toward direct threats.

And that builds more into the escalation of overt signs of depression, substance abuse, and then finally withdrawal signs.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the question of a note, Dr. Samenow? We've now heard that there's some confusion about whether he wrote a suicide note or what that rambling note that people have been referring to is. Would such a note, kind of suicide or announcement of this, be normal?

STANTON SAMENOW: I don't know about normal. It happens sometimes; sometimes it doesn't.

But in terms of the actual suicide, I've actually had people tell me that they would rather kill themselves, go down in a blaze of glory, than submit to the control or authority of others. So actually committing suicide, in a way, is the ultimate way to defeat others, because you're not going to account to the police, the courts, or anybody in a prison. You're going to decide your own fate.

Indicators of violent behavior

Stanton Samenow
Author
I think that there really is a problem here of balancing...the rights of the individuals and leaping to conclusions. You don't want to swat a fly with a cannon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, staying with you, the harder question here. And it was raised in Gwen's discussion, as well. If you can look at a lot of common traits like this and study a lot of cases, is it predictive at all?

STANTON SAMENOW: You see, I don't think we're there. Again, after the fact, sure, we can put the pieces of the puzzle together.

But what are you going to do? Every time a student writes a troubling essay, something that is dark and violent, you're going to refer him to a counselor?

I mean, I think that there really is a problem here of balancing, and I think we are heard this earlier on your program, between balancing the rights of the individuals and leaping to conclusions. You don't want to swat a fly with a cannon.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that, Paul Viollis?

PAUL VIOLLIS: I would have to say that, yes, there are certain indicators that are extremely consistent, very reliable indicators from the behaviors of those that end up perpetrating acts of violence that, from a forensics standpoint, once an incident has taken place, and you interview those that are around them, you see that there are consistencies with respect to not just profile, but more so behaviors and actions sequentially that led up to that violent behavior.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Paul Viollis and Stanton Samenow, thank you both very much.

PAUL VIOLLIS: Thank you.

STANTON SAMENOW: Thank you.