Inside the minds of mass killers

Is the Colorado shooter delusional, depressed, or psychotic? And why does this type of tragedy keep happening? Dave Cullen, author of ‘Columbine’, searches for clues in the latest research on mass murderers

FROM the moment news broke of a shooting in Colorado, the question reverberated: why? As the tragedies continue, America’s collective national frustration has boiled over: Aurora, Columbine, Tucson, Virginia Tech... Why does this keep happening? In the interim, there has been another shooting, this time when a white supremacist opened fire at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin: Six people died.

In the 80 interminable hours it took to get a glimpse at the suspect in the Aurora shooting, a second question emerged: What was a look at James Holmes going to reveal?

Holmes is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 others at a shooting in a cinema. He is charged with 24 counts of first-degree murder and 116 counts of attempted murder.

When he walked into court, one thing was immediately obvious. Something was wrong with this guy.

The obvious explanation, which many viewers and commentators embraced, was that he was out of his mind or, medically speaking, undergoing some sort of psychotic break. But a minority view pushed back, and hard: The hair, the eyes, the sensational getup for the attack were a little too cute, a cold- blooded killer playing crazy.

Forensic psychiatrists are not baffled by these tragedies. One drive will never explain them. Instead, experts have sorted them into types, which bring the crimes into remarkably clear relief.

These researchers find that aside from terrorism, most of these mass murders are committed by criminals who fall into three groups: Psychopaths, the delusionally insane, and the suicidally depressed. Look through these lenses, accept the differences, and some of America’s worst recent tragedies make more sense: Seung-Hui Cho, who opened fire at Virginia Tech, was delusionally insane; Dylan Klebold, at Columbine, was deeply depressed; and Eric Harris, his co-conspirator, was a psychopath.

Occasionally, there are combinations, or rare exceptions, involving brain tumours or substance abuse.

Mass murderers do share a few common traits. The best meta-study on the subject is an exhaustive report by the US Secret Service in 2002, which studied all school shooters for a 26-year period. In this cohort, all the shooters were male, 81% warned someone overtly that they were going to do it, and a staggering 98% had recently experienced what they considered a significant failure or loss.

Despite this last fact, the ubiquitous question “what made him snap?” leads us astray. The Secret Service found that 93% planned the attack in advance. Hardly spontaneous combustion. Rather a long, slow, chilling spiral down. James Holmes apparently spent months acquiring the guns and ammunition he used, and it’s likely his descent began much earlier. What set him down that path?

Psychopaths are the easiest to explain. They seem to be born with no capacity for empathy, a complete disregard for the suffering of others. The sadistic psychopath, a rarity, makes a cold-blooded calculation to enjoy the pain he inflicts. Killing meant nothing to Eric Harris at Columbine — humans were as disposable as fungus in a petri dish. “Just all nature, chemistry, and math,” he wrote.

For those bandying about terms like “evil”, “bad seed”, or “born bad”, this is who you have in mind. Sadistic psychopaths are callous, vicious creatures, probably born that way, with cruelty to animals and a fascination with fire typically showing up by grade school. There is no known effective treatment or cure.

Can we spot these killers? Of the three types of mass killers, psychopaths leave the fewest warning signs. They are master manipulators who delight in deceit. People see them as kind, trust- worthy, and endearing. But it is an elaborate ruse. Harris bragged that he deserved an Oscar for duping his parents.

Those who saw Holmes’s bizarre courtroom behaviour as a calculated ploy to appear insane are describing a psychopath, also called a “sociopath” by clinicians. Psychopaths are not crazy in the sense that they don’t know what they are doing. They are hyper-rational — they just don’t care about our pain. Psychopaths are remarkably like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, if you strip away the costume and theatrics. But psychopathic killers have one achilles’ heel: They revel in glory and like to brag. Look for clues as James Holmes’s history comes to light.

While psychopaths kill for their own amusement, severe psychotics — a very different category of sufferers — are driven to slaughter to extinguish their torment.

Their agony is typically apparent to everyone. The official report on the Virginia Tech killings documented Seung-Hui Cho’s steady disintegration, beginning in at about age eight or nine and reaching homicidal ideation by eighth grade, when he was about 14. It listed a dozen pages of “aberrant behaviour”, from “pathological shyness and isolation” to stalking women in the dorm.

Since the tragedy, Cho was widely diagnosed as psychotic.

Severe psychotics like Cho are delusional, way out of touch with reality. And yet most who suffer from psychotic mental illnesses — such as schizophrenia and paranoia, even some severely — pose no threat to anyone but themselves. So how does a mentally ill man like Cho make that awful journey to the trigger of a gun? Slowly.

Days or months of planning are preceded by years of mental unravelling. As the disease sets in, the victim is typically perplexed and then distraught by the alarming thoughts ricocheting around his brain. Occasional flutters build to a chorus of angry chatter. “Schizophrenic delusions are usually grandiose and persecutory,” says noted psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg. “There can be terror as a teen or young adult feels he is losing his mind.” Cho was flying red flags. Everyone around him could see. He even checked himself in for a psych evaluation.

What we fail to grasp about killers descending into this kind of illness is the fear. Picture yourself waking up this morning, coherent enough to see that yesterday you were off your rocker. Likewise, three days ago. And two days last week. In and out, but drifting deeper into what you see quite clearly as the crazy pit. Could you get help? That would require confessing. Too dangerous. If you shared what you were up to yesterday, you’d land in a padded cell, electrodes attached to your head, medications administered to obliterate your personality. No way.

Most schizophrenics survive the internal terror, but for future killers, the delusion can be a coping mechanism: I’m not losing my grasp, you people are just out to get me. Arm yourself. Oh God. Which way to point it? Me? Them? For most mass murderers, it will end up being both.

Cho said in his manifesto before killing at Virginia Tech: “I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.” Cho found a way to help everyone. He would be the hero of this tragedy.

These tortured minds can lurch momentarily from one extreme to the next. Ochberg says the flat affect tends to be rather constant, while the bizarre impulses and behaviour tend to come and go in bursts. It can puzzle the untrained observer.

It’s unclear whether Holmes is schizophrenic, but his behaviour would fit neatly with the profile if he is.

The third type of killer is the hardest to fathom: The depressed type. We’ve all tasted depression, or so we think. But it’s not even close.

Klebold, before his rampage at Columbine, felt his soul dying. Hopeless. Helpless. Unrelenting despair. He documented it in a private journal for two years. He also left telling school essays and notorious videotapes.

“Such a sad, desolate, lonely unsalvageable I feel I am,” Klebold wrote in his journal. “not fair, NOT FAIR!!! I wanted happiness!! I never got it!!! Let’s sum up my life. the most miserable existence in the history of time.”

Other days, Klebold’s spirit soared. He dreamed of a blissful world, with himself vaguely superhuman, “this tranciever of the everything”. “OH MY GOD,” he gushes between suicidal gasps,

“I am almost sure I am in love. Hehehe.”

The despair returns. His writing grows erratic, fevered all-caps: “FUCKIN DUM-ASS SHITHEAD…FUCK!”

He grows quiet, returns to his tidy penmanship to close out the entry: “No emotions. not caring. Yet another stage in this shit life. Suicide.”

A startling wake-up call came three years after Columbine. The Secret Service found that 78% of shooters had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Some 61% had a documented history of extreme depression or desperation.

The difficulty is not in recognising a problem, but its severity. An angry, moping teenage boy? That describes much of the high-school population. Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, wrote movingly about her experience in 2009: “I believed that if I loved someone as deeply as I loved him, I would know if he were in trouble.”

She saw only sadness. “He did not speak of death, give away possessions, or say that the world would be better off without him.”

She used the piece as a plea to other mothers to take what appears like recurring sadness seriously. Good advice. The US Preventive Services Task Force estimates that 6% of American adolescents — about 2m children — suffer clinical depression. Most go undiagnosed.

With one quick skim of Klebold’s journal, suicide is easy to understand. But why take others with you? Murder instead of suicide comes down to whom you blame. Through much of his journal, Klebold blames himself (he talks about suicide on the very first page). Sometimes God. But slowly, gradually, he focuses the blame outward.

Most vengeful depressives blame their girlfriend, boss, or schoolmates. Some just aim to kill those targets. But the eventual mass murderer sees it differently: It wasn’t one or two mean people who drove him down, it was all of us.

“In 26.5 hours ill be dead, & in happiness,” Klebold finally wrote. “The little zombie human fags will know their errors & be forever suffering & mournful. HAHAHA.”

Two months before Columbine, he wrote a chilling short story for a creative-writing class — after Harris had already assembled the guns and some of the explosives. The story involved a single killer very much like Harris shooting down random “preps” in cold blood. The first- person narrator, apparently a stand-in for Klebold, is just an observer. He watches the gunman intently, and in the final moments, gets a good look and sees right into him. “I not only saw in his face, but also felt emanating from him power, complacence, closure, and godliness.” Sounds pretty appealing. Especially compared to “the most miserable existence in the history of time”.

These seem strikingly similar to Cho’s rants, but Klebold understood what he was doing. Cho had lost touch with reality. In his reality, he was helping the world. Klebold was just getting even.

Most mass murderers intend to die in the act. And most do. James Holmes was an exception, meaning a trial, a psychological evaluation, and answers about why it happened this time.

If Holmes is a psychopath, he probably had a ball on the day he opened fire. He would have been gleeful through the months from conception to planning and attack. If he’s not a psychopath, he may have spent months or years descending into his own private hell. But which hell?

Insanity or suicidal depression? Anyone who claims they can answer these questions this early is ignorant or irresponsible. But we will learn.

* Dave Cullen is the author of the award-nominated book Columbine.

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