Profiling, Mass Murderer

David R Champion. Encyclopedia of Race and Crime. Editor: Helen Taylor Greene & Shaun L Gabbidon. Sage Publication. 2009.

Mass murder refers to the slaying of a number of people at the same time, within the same event. This distinguishes mass murderers from serial killers, who murder a number of people over an extended period (perhaps months or years). Mass murder is also distinct from spree killing. Spree killers slay a number of people over a short period of time in a connected but separate series of events. Serial killers also tend to actively evade detection by law enforcement to operate over time, whereas mass murderers often die at the hands of police or by suicide during or immediately after the commission of the crime. Some scholars hold that mass murder should apply to the slaying of four or more people; others disagree and assert that two or three could also be considered mass murder.

Scholars also differ on the motivation and profile of the mass murderer. The term is wide ranging and can encompass terrorists, genocidal dictators, family annihilators, school shooters, workplace murderers, and other types identified by researchers. Whereas some researchers prefer to focus on the criminological aspects of the lone, socially isolated, private citizen mass murderer, others include the more institutionalized form of mass murder/ genocide when discussing the issue.

Organized Mass Murder

Organized, institutionalized, political genocide and mass murder are driven by racial, ethnic, religious, and intragroup conflicts. Examples include the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915-1917; the mass murder of Jews by Germans and their collaborators during World War II; the murder of intellectuals and potential dissidents by the Khmer Rouge communist regime of Cambodia in the 1970s, and currently the Sudan government and its allied militias in Darfur. These mass murders are orchestrated by organized factions and driven by political and ideological motivations. Systematic political genocide by governments or other factions include executions, starvation, mass rapes, and death camps. Racial and ethnic hatreds contribute greatly to this systemized murder of another culture. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda commit acts of mass murder to further a religious and political agenda, and they often use techniques such as remote explosions and suicide attacks.

The Mass-Murdering Individual

The mass-murdering individual also often commits suicide afterward, which is one reason why it is difficult to collect primary data about their motivations. Several motivations for the mass murderer have been offered by various scholars. These models include perverted love, revenge, sexual homicides, psychosis, and politically motivated hate. Other scholars have focused on school shooters, family annihilators, and revenge-driven disgruntled types such as workplace killers.

Perverted love murderers and family annihilated commit familicides based on their own ego-centrism, inability to perceive their family members as distinct people, and need for control. Like other mass murderers, they are almost always men and usually White. Revenge murderers, akin to the disgruntled types, harbor resentment and seek a sense of payback against others for real or perceived wrongs done to them. One type of revenge mass killer is the workplace murderer, who tends to also be male and older than other murderers. Workplace murderers are driven by work-related issues and social isolation, as well as the deperson-alization of the victims, who come to symbolize the work environment. These typologies may overlap, and it is important to remember that mass murder is a complex phenomenon involving multiple factors.

Mass murderers tend to use firearms, and the victims are deliberately selected. There is usually a precipitating event, such as a romantic or work-related setback. They tend to be male, White, and socially isolated; have poor coping skills; harbor rich revenge fantasies; and are perhaps socially and sexually inept and often suicidal. They tend not to be truly psychotic, in that they are usually oriented to reality and are not suffering hallucinations or delusions. One exception to the latter is the case of Charles Weston, a mentally ill man who fired shots at the White House in 1998.

Mass Murderers: The Role of Race

Compared with other homicides, mass murders are rare. The 2005 Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics indicate that of all homicides for that year, 4% involved two victims, and murders with three or more victims made up less than 1%. Still, there are demographic patterns that have emerged in multiple-victim homicides, including the role of race. In general, mass murderers tend to be White males of a broad range of ages (although there is a tendency toward middle age). Notable exceptions include the 2007 Virginia Tech killer (an Asian male), 1993 subway killer Jamaican-born Colin Ferguson, and Julio Gonzalez, the Cuban-born murderer who burned down a Bronx night club in 1990, killing 87 people. Mass murderers such as Pittsburgh lawyer Richard Baumhammer or Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh are examples of what may be the more familiar model of this offender profile: middle-class White males with intense grievances against either the government or some select group of people.

One source stated that mass murder, or “sudden mass assault by a single individual” (SMASI), broke down demographically as 77% White offenders, 15% Black, and 7% other, whereas overall homicide rates reported in a 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics 30-year study were 51% White, 47% Black, and 2% other. Data on the motivations of mass murderers are difficult to obtain, in part because, as noted earlier, the mass murderer often does not survive his rampage. Therefore, the reason behind the higher SMASI offense rates for Whites (compared to general homicide rates) remains unclear. One expert has stated that research into the dynamics of the individual mass murderer is in its very earliest stages. Further studies exploring this and other questions about the complex series of motivational factors behind this crime seem warranted.

Mass Murder and the Media

Scholars have noted the influence of media notoriety and attention that mass murderers seek (and often receive) through their actions. This was apparent in the Virginia Tech murders, in which the killer sent a package of self-interviews on CDs, DVDs, and other materials to NBC News. This act was reminiscent of the videos and other media materials released by Islamist fundamentalist terrorist groups and leaders. In this attention-seeking behavior and clear desire for notoriety and media coverage, the mass-murdering loner and the al-Qaeda terrorists may share a common trait.