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Are We There? Are America's Mass Shooters Just Our Version of Suicide Bombers?
It's time to call them what they are. There's nothing noble about mass murder...
Imagine how the GOP would react if there was a religious sect within the country that kept blowing themselves up to kill as many Americans as possible. Like in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Israel.
If they were brown-skinned Muslims — or lefty leftovers from the Weather Underground — strapping on suicide vests and exploding themselves in schools, malls, or places of worship, you can easily anticipate the Republican reaction.
Trump and the GOP would be full-on hysterical, beside themselves with rage, foaming at the mouth after the first one blew himself up. And imagine what Republicans would demand after the second, and third, and fourth suicide bomber went down in public places, killing dozens or even a few hundred people. Particularly if they killed white children in the process.
They’d stop calling to de-fund the FBI and instead increase its budget. They’d support money for suicide prevention programs that could include people thinking of becoming suicide bombers. They’d do whatever they could to outlaw suicide vests, plastic explosives, and other means of mass destruction that could be used that way.
Well, we’re there. America now officially has its own suicide bombers.
When the man with the Proud Boys’ “Right Wing Death Squad” (RWDS) banner stitched to his bulletproof vest went on a shooting rampage in Allen, Texas last Saturday, he knew he was going to die before he walked out the front door.
He was there to commit suicide and take as many people with him as he could.
That’s exactly what radical Islamic suicide bombers do; they just use explosives instead of guns. They strap on their suicide vests wholly willing to die, sometimes claiming it’s for a “greater cause” and sometimes just because they want to commit suicide in a way that their subculture considers acceptable.
We see the same thing with America’s suicide shooters. They have support groups just like the Islamic suicide bombers do, most located online but some in their own lives. They see themselves as heroes, turning boringly routine suicides into media events. They have easy access to a means for their suicide that simultaneously kills many others.
Psychologist and professor of criminology Jillian Peterson and sociologist and professor of criminal justice James Densley run the Violence Project. There are few people in America who’ve done a more exhaustive study into the psychology of mass shooters.
As they noted:
“For two years, we’ve been studying the life histories of mass shooters in the United States for a project funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. We’ve built a database dating back to 1966 of every mass shooter who shot and killed four or more people in a public place, and every shooting incident at schools, workplaces, and places of worship since 1999.
“We’ve interviewed incarcerated perpetrators and their families, shooting survivors, and first responders. We’ve read media and social media, manifestos, suicide notes, trial transcripts and medical records.”
Their findings prove America has a suicide shooter problem. Looking specifically at school shooters the trend was unmistakable:
“Our analysis found that about 80% of mass school shooters were suicidal, based on records we have gathered thus far. …
“Almost all of them die at the scene of the shooting, often by their own hand. Our analysis shows that 52% of mass school shooters killed themselves, while 15% were killed by police and [only] 30% were apprehended.”
Criminologist Dr. Scott Bonn has also been examining mass shooters in the United States and came to similar conclusions, which he wrote about for Psychology Today. While the number of homicides in America has been steadily declining since the 1990s, suicide has been on an upward trajectory.
Including — especially — self-annihilation performed by suicidal mass shooters. He writes:
“Absent from public discussion is the fact that the steady rise in suicide is contrasted by a steady decline in homicide in the U.S. These unusual and conflicting patterns have co-existed for a number of years. Incredibly, there are now more than three suicides for every murder committed in the U.S.” (emphasis his)
So, should we call mass shootings homicides or suicides? Dr. Bonn argues the vast majority are explicitly suicidal in their primary intention, and only incidentally homicidal: the murders are a secondary consequence of the method of suicide the shooter chose. Which is made easy by America’s permissive access to mass slaughter weapons of war.
“The only category of homicide that has been increasing over the last ten years is mass murder, specifically mass public shootings…
“Mass murder is frequently a form of suicide in that the perpetrator of such atrocities is often an enraged and fatalistic individual who intends to die at the scene of the massacre. In fact, more than 50% of mass shooters die at their crime scene. From this perspective, the increase in mass public shootings over the last ten years is very consistent with the increase in suicide.”
Because of the social contagion effect, people who otherwise may have quietly shot themselves in their own bedroom or taken a fatal overdose of prescription drugs are, instead, strapping on tactical gear and grabbing as much firepower as they can get.
And, in America, getting all the firepower you want — including military grade weapons, magazines, and ammunition — is easier than trying to buy Sudafed.
The more often these mass shootings happen, the more other suicidal people get the idea that killing a lot of other people “on your way out” is a socially acceptable (within their own circles) way to die.
“And what a way to die!” these suicidal and grievance-saturated individuals think, “going out in a blaze of glory” so their names will be splashed across newspaper front pages, their pictures on nationwide evening news, their stories told for all posterity.
Entire message boards and online sites are dedicated to lionizing mass- and school-shooters as heroes, holding them up in the pantheon of other suicide shooters as people who are owning the libs (Anders Breivik), killing Blacks (Buffalo supermarket, Dylan Roof) or Jews (Tree of Life Synagogue), all while making an unmistakable political statement (the Texas “RWDS” shooter, along with all of the above).
One of the consistent precursor behaviors Peterson and Densley found was that before committing these atrocities the suicide shooters typically spent a lot of time on these boards, marinating in the online adulation they believe will follow their “heroic act” and become their own personal legacy.
Heidi Bierich, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project told the local newspaper after Dylan Roof murdered nine Black people at Mother Emanuel Church in Columbia, South Carolina:
“[M]ost white supremacist killers spend a long time indoctrinating in the ideas. They stew in it. They are members of groups. They talk to people. They go to rallies.”
But they’ve also reached the point on their path toward suicide where they crave the feeling of personal importance.
Steeped in Fox News’ theory that Jews are funding and supervising the “Great Replacement” of white people with people of color, these white men (or Hispanic men who identify with white supremacy) feel that their death will not only end their own personal suffering but will also, even if in a small way, change the course of history.
As Peterson and Densley noted:
“Once someone decides life is no longer worth living and that murdering others would be a proper revenge, only means and opportunity stand in the way of another mass shooting. Is an appropriate shooting site accessible? Can the would-be shooter obtain firearms?”
They will die for a cause, meaning their death won’t be in vain. They’ll be remembered as a champion, a warrior, a defender and standard-bearer of that cause. A martyr.
So, pursuing martyrdom, they strap on a vest, in this case a bulletproof vest rather than a suicide vest, and march themselves onto their own personal battlefield knowing they will never return, but will have died a glorious death if they can just take enough people to the grave with them.
There are, of course, some mass shooters who aren’t suicidal: they tend to go after close family or co-workers and have a specific grievance. But these days they’re the minority.
We must stop treating suicide shooters as if they’re in the same category as grievance shooters.
History and experience with internal cultural and political crises in other countries suggests these things tend to go in cycles that are roughly generational. Moral panics like the McMartin Preschool back in the day, and today’s Republican hysteria around Black History and trans people, typically don’t last more than a quarter to a half generation.
They burn hot and bright for a short time, then fade out because their own success allows them to act out their extremes, which are repellent.
Then, society turns against them. Mass outbreaks of of behavior that deviates so far from the norms of mainstream society — from religious revivals, to the “moment in the sun” of breakout-and-fade political demagogues, to crime sprees like the famous gangsters of the 1930s — typically just last in very high profile for just a few years.
I suspect we may be near a peak in the cycle with mass shooters, as society is rapidly turning against them and seriously questioning the weapons of war that allow them to easily and even casually cause such death and pain as part of their suicide process.
Suicide mass shooters are America’s version of radical Islamic suicide bombers and should be seen as such. Nothing heroic here. Just cowards who couldn’t handle their own lives and so hid their gutlessness under the blood of their victims.
Suicide is also socially contagious, so identifying mass shooters as suicides has its own risks. But at this moment — as you’re reading these words — there are literally hundreds of thousands of sites and messages on the internet and social media directly encouraging this kind of suicide (often by name) as they eulogize its past honor roll.
Almost without exception, experts in the field point out, suicide shooters begin by finding these sites and immersing themselves in their grand rhetoric of cause and self-sacrifice.
Lowering suicide shooters from celebrity or hero-of-the-movement status among their peers to that of lowly cowards could discourage some. Identifying their behavior as suicidal may cause them to seek help from the well-established network of suicide prevention hotlines and programs across the nation.
Republicans have been dancing dangerously close to supporting suicide shooters, as we can see by their tight embrace of Kyle Rittenhouse, their general and institutional failure to condemn mass shooters who seem politically or racially motivated, and their absolute unwillingness to support the FBI in its efforts to stop rightwing death squads here and abroad.
Reframing rightwing mass shooters as cowardly suicides instead of villains may cause the GOP to reconsider actual solutions, like rational gun control and a clampdown on the incitement of hate.
We could separate suicide shooters out from the statistics and name them as such in the news, to tar them with the social stigma associated with suicide. It could diminish their brief burning moment of fame in the public’s eye.
Ripping away the patina of martyrdom and the rationalization of a “just cause” will expose them for the run-of-the-mill suicides they really are. And, hopefully, discourage others from following in their footsteps.