James K Crissman & Sandra Burkhalter Chmelir. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Editor: Robert Kastenbaum. Volume 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.
When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, it was not the most extensive example of mass murder ever committed, but it did have a great impact on the world, launching an extensive “war on terrorism.” This incident is just one of thousands of examples of mass murder perpetrated throughout human history.
Mass Murder Defined
Murder is the killing of one person by another person with “malice aforethought”; there may or may not be premeditation. Generally, a person who murders restricts his or her act to one victim. A mass murderer, however, slays three or more victims over a short period of time. The duration is typically hours but can be days. If the act takes place in one location, it is usually continuous. Murder spree is a term that criminologists use if the victims are killed at more than one location. Michael Kelleher, in his 1997 book Flashpoint, also adds the phrase “mass murder by intention,” providing the 1996 example of Larry Shoemake in Jackson, Mississippi, who killed only one victim even though he fired more than a hundred rounds of ammunition and torched a restaurant. Mass killers differ from serial killers in that serial killers murder their victims separately and over a period of time, with a cooling-off period between murders. Serial killers may slay victims for years until they are caught or turn themselves in to the authorities.
The site and time of the first mass murder is unknown. The Bible delineates numerous examples of mass murder including Samson’s slaying of the Philistines (Judges 16:27-30) and King Herod’s order for the murder of all male children who were two years old or less in the region of Bethlehem while trying to kill Jesus (Matt. 2:16). The thanatologist Panos Bardis notes that in ancient Greece it was common to cremate a fallen Greek hero with several enemy soldiers who were still alive. Archaeological excavations have revealed the murder and burial of a royal court with a deceased king. The purpose was to serve their leader in the afterlife. One of the earliest examples of mass murder in the United States took place on August 10, 1810, at Ywahoo Falls, Kentucky, when racist whites murdered over 100 Cherokee women and children. Since the Ywahoo Falls incident the number and examples of mass murders in the United States and other parts of the world have been numerous and varied. Perhaps the most extreme example of late-twentieth-century mass genocide occurred in 1993 when nearly 1 million Rwandans were slaughtered over a period of 100 days by the Presidential Guard, elements of the Rwandan armed forces, and extremist military.
Psychological Profiles of Mass Murderers
One of the difficulties in gathering data on the mass murderer is that he or she often commits suicide. The terrorists involved in the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies died when the planes they hijacked hit their objectives. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris committed suicide after their mass murder at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Therefore some information about types listed in this entry is limited.
Kelleher outlines seven categories of mass murderers who have somewhat different motivations and profiles. These categories include perverted love, politics and hate, revenge, sexual homicide, execution, psychotic, and unexplained. Ronald and Stephen Holmes, in their book Mass Murder in the United States (2000), provide a different typology. Holmes and Holmes use some types from Park Dietz, including the family annihilator, the disgruntled type, and the set-and-run type. The authors then added the disciple killer, the ideological mass murderer, the disgruntled employee, and the school shooter. Both Holmes and Holmes’ and Kelleher’s typologies were created before the attack on the World Trade Center and the rash of suicide bombings; however, the string of early-twenty-first-century events falls under Kelleher’s category of politics and hate.
Kelleher’s first category is defined by the concept of perverted love, with an example being the family man who kills his entire family out of his own depression or pathology. Perverted love killings may be either of two types: family murder/suicide or a family killing. In the first category, more commonly done by males, the individual commits suicide by proxy, a term from the psychiatrist Shervert Fraser used by James Fox and Jack Levin in their book Overkill (1994). The families of the offender are seen as part of the self. If there is no happiness in life for the self, then, he reasons, there is no happiness in life for the extended self. He views himself as saving his family from future suffering. The egocentrism of this individual does not allow for his family to have a different opinion on life.
The individual who engages in a family killing without suicide is demonstrated by the example of Ronald Gene Simmons, the father of his daughter’s son, who killed fourteen members of his family on Christmas in 1987 when his wife threatened to divorce him. Mass murderer Julio Gonzalez became jealous of his girlfriend in 1990 and torched the Bronx’s Happy Land Social Club, killing nearly all ninety-seven persons inside. There have been other instances where a mass murder has been committed to protect a family member or members. During the Allen-Edwards feud in Hillsville, Virginia, on March 13, 1912, feudists entered the courtroom where a family member was being tried, and killed the judge, sheriff, commonwealth attorney, a juror, and an innocent bystander.
Politics and Hate
The second type of mass murder involves politics and hate. Adolf Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s problems, and the result was genocide. The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and other suicide bombers perceive the victims as violating one of the terrorists’ political or religious goals. From his or her perspective, the death is viewed as for the greater good because the individual has eliminated a number of people whose views differ from his or hers. Even this minimal expectation may not always be true due to the randomness of the victims. Galvanizing the alienated opposing side into political action and a cycle of revenge is also an obvious and frequently counterproductive consequence of such a terrorist choice for mass murder. According to the September 24, 2001, issue of Time, the profile of the suicide bomber before September 11 had been of a young man, aged eighteen to twenty-four, who had been born in poverty and was full of both despair and zealotry, having nothing to lose. But the suicide bombers of September 11 showed a shift in profile. These men were older and had the option of middle-class lives because of their education and technical skills. One of them left behind a wife and children.
According to the April 15, 2002, issue of Newsweek, there have been 149 suicide bombing attacks against Israel since 1993, with the perpetrators being most often single (87.2%), from Hamas (47%), residing on the West Bank (59%), between seventeen and twenty-three years of age (67.1%), and possessing some or a full high school education (37.6%).
A differing example of mass murder involving politics and hate includes Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, because they were angry at the federal government over the 1993 Waco, Texas, raid against the Branch Davidians. They are classified as set-and-run murderers in the Holmes and Holmes typology, for this type of killer sets the killing device in motion, then leaves the location, as McVeigh did before killing 168 people, including twenty children.
Revenge killings involve a murderer who gives “payback” to someone who is perceived to have humiliated him or her. The killer’s own personal responsibility is rationalized away and blame is conveniently placed on others. One subtype of this motivation is the Holmes and Holmes type of disgruntled employee, the workplace murderer. David Burke, a fired airline employee, followed his boss onto a plane on December 7, 1987, shot him, and caused the plane to crash, killing forty-three people. Pat Sherrill, fearing that he might be fired from his postal job, killed fourteen coworkers and wounded six others in the Edmond, Oklahoma, post office on August 20, 1986. Mark Barton, a day trader, became angry after losing a great deal of money and on July 29, 1999, killed his family and entered two brokerage firms, slaying nine and wounding twelve.
Though innocent victims are frequently killed in this type of assault, workplace mass murderers typically plan the assault and are selective in their hunt for particular prime victims. The depersonalization of others is viewed by Kelleher as symbolically eliminating the whole organization or school and is called murder by proxy by Fox and Levin. They also point out that murderers in general have an average age of twenty-nine, but workplace mass murderers have an average age of thirty-eight. While a younger man can still see opportunities in the future, the older man sees his salary and/or status disappearing, with no satisfactory substitute in sight. Although many people experience job loss without becoming mass murderers, workplace murderers have frequently experienced chronic or recent social isolation. The only factor in their lives that is meaningful to them is their job or career, and they are incapable of coping with their problems in adaptive ways by changing their behavior. Interestingly, the workplace mass murderer will often have no significant criminal record, and others will perceive him or her to be reasonable or at least harmless. Typically, many years of frustration have occurred before the fatal event.
Fox and Levin’s analysis of workplace killers also showed that 93 percent were male and more than 70 percent were white. Female mass murderers in general are less likely to choose guns or bombs, leaning more toward poison or accidents. Even in suicide, females are less likely to use firearms and more likely to use drugs, indicating that males are more acculturated to lethal mass weapons.
Some individuals, whatever the source of their frustration, lash out at random victims, such as the case of Thomas Hamilton. Upset at losing his volunteer position as a scoutmaster in Dunblane, Scotland, he entered the Dunblane Primary School twenty years later and killed seventeen children on March 13, 1996. James Oliver Huberty, after losing both his job with Babcox and Wilcox and his job as a private security guard, entered a McDonalds restaurant on July 18, 1984, and over a period of one hour and fifteen minutes killed twenty-one victims and wounded twenty. Holmes and Holmes categorize him as a disgruntled citizen because his victims were complete strangers.
A second subtype of revenge killer identifies his or her problems as coming from a particular “target group” in society. The target group killer may have a vendetta against the persons killed and/or blame the group for personal or societal problems. Marc Lepine, an avid woman hater, slaughtered fifteen “feminists” studying engineering in a Montreal, Canada, school in 1989, then committed suicide.
A third subtype of revenge killing is the school killing. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered their thirteen victims at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, in response to societal hatred, a search for fame, and revenge resulting from ridicule by fellow schoolmates. The researchers J. Reid Meloy, Anthony Hempel, and their colleagues analyzed a sample of thirty-four adolescent mass murderers whose median age was seventeen and who had killed alone or in pairs between 1958 and 1999. They divided the sample into five types, as follows: the classroom avenger, the family annihilator, the bifurcated killer (family and classroom), miscellaneous, and the criminal opportunist. The criminal opportunist simply commits a mass murder during the course of another crime and falls into Kelleher’s execution classification.
Meloy and Hempel found that 70 percent of their sample were termed “loners,” 62 percent abused alcohol or drugs; many were preoccupied by violent fantasies; 42 percent had a credible history of violence against a person, animal, or property; and 43 percent were bullied by others. Forty-one percent had a history of at least one sexual-affectional bond with a female. Only 23 percent had a history of psychiatric hospitalization or at least one visit to a mental health professional, and only 6 percent showed evidence of psychosis.
The authors cite the researchers McGee and DeBernardo’s 1999 study of fourteen cases of mass murder, with the murderer profiled again as a “loner or outcast” with no violent history and a middle-class suburban or rural family. According to their study, this type of mass murderer had many violent fantasies, and there was a precipitating event of peer rejection or authority discipline. They showed atypical depression or mixed personality disorders.
The authors point out several differences distinguishing adolescent from adult mass murderers. First, adolescents experience a high rate of bullying, even compared to a baseline of most students, who report being bullied at least once, and a baseline of 14 percent of both boys and girls who say they suffer severe trauma from bullying abuse. When the killer reciprocates that violence with lethal violence, he or she shows identification with the aggressor, now reversing roles and assuming the aggressive posture.
A second difference pointed out by the authors is that one out of four mass killings by adolescents involve killings in pairs. The authors view this as seeking approval from a peer, which is part of adolescent development. In each of the seven pairs in their sample, one perpetrator was dominant.
A third difference among adolescents is discussed by the scholars George Palermo and Lee Ross, who note that there are few suicides of adolescents after their murders. The authors hypothesize that adults have a higher level of moral conscience and recognize in some way the horror of their behavior on a conventional level and the subsequent social and moral consequences. Juveniles feel that because they were wronged it is acceptable to behave at a level of reciprocity, which is a premoral level in the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.
A significant number of killings have been perpetrated by a desire to achieve sexual gratification through inflicting pain on the victims (sadism) and/or receiving pain by being kicked, scratched, pinched, or bitten by the victim. Richard Speck was influenced by drugs and alcohol when he killed eight student nurses, raping some of them in the process, on July 13, 1966, in Chicago. Numerous mass murderers such as Peter Manual and “sex beast” Melvin Rees were sadists and derived sexual pleasure from killing their victims and mutilating the corpses. The ultimate pleasure for some masochistic killers is being executed.
The execution mass murderer kills for greed and personal gain and may engage in either cold-blooded killing for profit or the unplanned execution of witnesses. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 was a result of turf rivalry between Al Capone and “Bugs” Moran concerning the whisky business. William Burke and William Hare, Irish laborers and body snatchers living in Edinburgh, Scotland, killed approximately eighteen persons in 1829 and delivered their bodies (for dissection purposes) to medical schools, impelled by a desire for money. Jack Gilbert Graham, irritated at his mother when she came to visit him in Denver Colorado, in 1955, decided to murder her for insurance money. He presented her with a bomb wrapped as a Christmas present to take home with her on the plane. It exploded, killing forty-three people on board. Belle Guinness, America’s most notorious murderess, killed several people on her Indiana farm in 1908, including her husbands (and potential husbands), adopted daughter, and biological children for monetary reasons.
The psychotic type is a category used to describe a murderer who has a significant mental disorder. Charles Whitman was suffering from a brain tumor when he randomly killed eighteen people at the University of Texas on July 31, 1966. Martin Bryant was suffering from a mental disorder when he went on a rampage on April 28, 1996, in Port Arthur, Tasmania, killing thirty-five people. Howard Unruh, a World War II veteran suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, became upset with his neighbors in East Camden, New Jersey, and went on a murder spree in September 1949, slaying thirteen individuals. Mental disorder has been an issue in numerous cases in the first two years of the twenty-first century, when a mother has slain her dependent children. Examples include Marilyn Lemak in Naperville, Illinois, who killed three children and Andrea Yates in Houston, Texas, who killed five. Although only a minority of mass murderers are actually severely mentally ill or psychotic, many have other psychological disorders, according to Kelleher. These include clinical depression, as well as antisocial personality disorder, paranoia, alcohol and/or drug abuse, and obsessions of control. Kelleher points out that these types of murderers frequently have a childhood that includes separation, physical or sexual abuse, and family violence.
Those murders that cannot be explained fall into the unexplained group. For example, authorities could never figure out why Thomas Eugene Braun went on his killing spree in 1967. While several hypotheses exist, there is no definitive explanation of why Charlie Lawson, a North Carolina farmer, killed his wife, six children, and himself on Christmas Day, 1929.
Weapons and Media Influences
Influences on mass murder that come not from the individual’s personal life but from society include media news or motion pictures about mass killers. Adolescent murderers mentioned Natural Born Killers (1994) and The Basketball Diaries (1995) as movies that had influenced them, according to Meloy and Hempel. The copycat effect is a term that criminologists use to describe society’s increased rate of a low-probability event—such as a suicide, skyjacking, or suicide bombing—after such an event is publicized in the media. This phenomenon was clearly operating when James Wilson shot children at a Greenwood, South Carolina, school in September 1988. He had been saving a photo of Laurie Dann, who had appeared on the cover of People magazine after committing a similar crime. On May 20, 1988, Dann entered a classroom in Winnetka, Illinois, carrying three pistols, and began shooting children—killing one and wounding five others before killing herself.
Mass murderers have used a variety of weapons. Anton Probst and Lizzie Borden used an axe to slay their victims. Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Jack Gilbert Graham, and numerous suicide bombers used explosives to perform their acts of murder. Most contemporary mass murderers in the United States employ automatic weapons, particularly hand guns. Males in many parts of the United States feel comfortable with guns as a part of the gun culture; men have been hunting together for both food and recreation since the days of the early republic.
The future for prevention of mass murder is somewhat pessimistic. As long as there is a gun culture or a means for mass destruction, there will be mass murder. As long as the mass media exists, there will be examples for copycat killings. However, the less publicity, glamorization, and reward these actions receive, the less likely it is that individuals will choose such actions in the future.