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“Mass Murder” from the Encyclopedia of Crime & Punishment (Sage/Berkshire 2002)

(c) Berkshire Publishing Group 2002

@EH = Mass Murder
Criminologists distinguish between two types of multiple homicide based on their timing: mass murder, in which a number of victims are slain within a single event, and serial murder, in which a number of victims are slain, one at a time, over a period of weeks, months, or even years. Mass murder is exemplified by the case of Michael McDermott, the forty-two-year-old employee of Edgewater Technology in Wakefield, Massachusetts, who in December 2000 reportedly opened fire on his coworkers, killing seven. By contrast, serial killer Andrew Cunanan terrified the nation during the summer of 1997 by staying on the loose after he killed people in Minnesota, Illinois, and New Jersey. More than two months later, Cunanan committed suicide in Miami Beach but not before he shot to death his final victim, fashion designer Gianni Versace.
@H1 = The Relative Neglect of Mass Murder
In striking contrast to the expanding scholarly interest in serial murders, mass murders have received relatively little interest (Levin and Fox 1985; Leyton 1986; Dietz 1986; Holmes and Holmes 1994; Fox and Levin 1994a). A number of factors seem to be responsible for this uneven interest to one form of multiple homicide over another. First, unlike serial murders, mass murders do not pose much of a challenge to law enforcement authorities. Whereas serial murderers are often difficult to identify and apprehend (Egger 1984), mass murderers are typically found at the crime scene<M>slain by their own hand, shot by police, or alive and ready to surrender. Frequently, perpetrators welcome their arrest or suicide, having achieved their mission through murder. In some exceptional cases, however, an execution-style mass murder is designed to cover up some other criminal activity. For example, seven people were murdered in a suburban Chicago restaurant in 1993. Although the case remains unsolved, robbery is strongly believed to have been the motive (Fox and Levin 1994a).
Second, in contrast to serial murders, mass murders do not tend to generate the same level of public fear and anxiety. Until a serial murderer is caught, he or she may be on the loose for weeks, months, or years. Citizens are terrified; they want to protect themselves from becoming the next victim. Each newly discovered murder reenergizes the community’s state of alarm. However, a mass murder, although catastrophic, is a single event. By the time the public is informed, the event is over. There may be widespread horror, but little anxiety or panic.
Third, there is a limited availability of primary data for research. Many mass murderers do not survive their crimes. Although they may leave diaries or notes to help us understand their motivation, questions concerning motivation and state of mind often remain. Although the typical serial murderer may twist the truth if interviewed, he or she nevertheless yields significantly more information than we have on mass murderers.
Finally, perhaps the most prominent reason for the relative neglect of mass murder as a form of multiple homicide is that it cannot compete with the sensational character of serial murder. The public, the press, and researchers alike appear to be drawn to the sexual and sadistic proclivities of such predators as Theodore Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer (Dietz 1996). As further evidence that sensationalism plays a critical role in the level of interest, serial murders that do not contain elements of sex and sadism (e.g., slayings in hospitals and nursing homes or serial murder for profit) are all but ignored by some researchers (Holmes and DeBurger 1988).
@H1 = A Profile of the Mass Murderer
Why would a thirty-one-year-old former postal worker, Thomas McIlvane, go on a rampage in Royal Oak, Michigan, killing four postal workers before shooting himself in the head? Why would a twenty-eight-year-old graduate student, Gang Lu, execute five others at the University of Iowa before taking his own life? Finally, why would a fifty-five-year-old Missourian, Neil Schatz, fatally shoot his wife, two children, and two grandchildren before committing suicide?
An analysis of numerous case studies (Levin and Fox 1985; Fox and Levin 1994a) suggests a range of factors that contribute to mass murder. These factors cluster into three types: (1) predisposers, which are long-term and stable preconditions that become incorporated into the personality of the murderer, (2) precipitants, which are short-term and acute triggers, that is, catalysts, and (3) facilitators, which are conditions, usually situational, that increase the likelihood of a violent outburst but are not necessary to produce that outburst.
@H2 = Predisposers
These factors predispose the mass murderer to act in a violent manner. Included are frustration and externalization of blame. In his early book, The Psychology of Murder, Stuart Palmer (1960) studied fifty-one convicted killers, most of whom had experienced severely frustrating childhood illnesses, accidents, child abuse, physical defects, isolation, and poverty. The mass murderer similarly suffers from a long history of frustration and failure, concomitant with a diminishing ability to cope, which begins early in life but continues well into adulthood. As a result, he or she may also develop a condition of profound and unrelenting depression, although not necessarily at the level of psychosis. This, in fact, explains why so many mass murderers are middle-aged; it usually takes years to accumulate the kinds of childhood and adulthood disappointments that culminate in this deep frustration. For example, forty-one-year-old James Ruppert, who slaughtered his eleven relatives in Hamilton, Ohio, on Easter Sunday, 1975, had been extremely incompetent in school, friendships, and sports throughout his youth, lost his father at an early age, suffered from debilitating asthma and spinal meningitis, was so uncomfortable around women that he never experienced a sexual relationship, and was unable to hold a steady job as an adult (Levin and Fox 1985). By focusing on frustration, we do not rule out the possibility in a few cases that the depression may have a biological or organic foundation. For example, Joseph Wesbecker, who murdered eight coworkers in a Louisville, Kentucky, printing plant, was being treated for depression, which itself could have been linked to his own history of failure.
Many people who suffer from frustration and depression for an extended time may commit suicide without physically harming anyone else. Part of their problem is that they perceive themselves as worthless and as responsible for their failures in life. Their aggression is intropunitive, that is, turned inward (Dollard et al. 1939; Henry and Short 1954). Thus, mass murderers must perceive that others are to blame for their personal problems (Henry and Short 1954) in order for their frustration to result in extrapunitive aggression, that is, aggression turned outward. In a response style acquired through learning, mass murderers come to see themselves never as the culprit but always as the victim behind their disappointments. More specifically, mass murderers externalize blame; it is invariably someone else’s fault.
@H2 = Precipitants
As a second type of factors, given both long-term frustration and an angry, blameful mind-set, certain situations or events can precipitate or trigger rage. In most instances, mass murderers experience a sudden loss or the threat of a loss, which from their point of view is catastrophic. The loss typically involves an unwanted separation from loved ones or termination from employment.
In 1991, for example, thirty-nine-year-old James Colbert of Concord, New Hampshire, killed his estranged wife and three daughters. Learning that his wife had started a new relationship, Colbert had reasoned, “if I can’t have her and the kids, then no one can.” In 1975, James Ruppert, by contrast, was facing eviction by his mother from the only house in which he had ever lived. Either he stopped his drinking and paid his debts, or he would have to leave.
Employment problems even more frequently precipitate mass murder. In 1991, for example, postal worker Thomas McIlvane had been fired from his job and had lost his appeal for reinstatement just prior to his Royal Oak rampage, whereas Patrick Sherrill’s supervisor had threatened to fire him just two days before Sherrill’s mass murder at the Edmond, Oklahoma, post office in 1986 (Fox and Levin 1994b). In 1999, forty-one-year-old Mark Barton, though “bossless” as a self-employed day-trader, massacred nine fellow traders at two Atlanta office buildings as well as his wife and two children after losing a half-million dollars in technology stocks.
Although not as common as the loss of a relationship or employment, certain external cues or models have also served as catalysts for mass murder. According to Dietz (1988), a number of books, manuals, and magazines giving technical guidance in the use of product tampering and other poisoning methods are widely available to inspire and tutor those who seek revenge against individuals or corporations.
Although the so-called copycat phenomenon is difficult to document scientifically (Phillips 1983), the recent string of school massacres in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Springfield, Oregon, and Littleton, Colorado, among other places, illustrates the power of imitation to inspire mass murder. In the aftermath of each widely publicized school massacre, most children identified with the pain of the victims. They grieved for slain students whom they knew only through television reports, discussed their fears with parents and classmates, and prayed that history would not repeat itself in their own school. However, more than a few students who felt alienated and frustrated identified instead with the power of the perpetrators<M>the foundation for the copycat phenomenon. Not only did these young murderers even the score against the mean-spirited bullies and nasty teachers, but also they were celebrities, based on a superficial look at massive media publicity.
@H2 = Facilitators
The set of factors called “facilitators” tend to increase both the likelihood and extent of violence. With respect to likelihood, mass murderers are frequently isolated from sources of emotional support. Mass murderers are often characterized in the popular press as “loners.” It is indeed true that many of them are cut off from sources of comfort and guidance, from the very people who could have supported them when times got tough. Some live alone for extended periods of time. Other mass murderers move great distances away from home, experiencing a sense of anomie or normlessness. They lose their sources of emotional support. It is no coincidence that mass murders tend to be concentrated in areas where there are many drifters, newcomers, and migrants<M>individuals who lack family, friends, and fraternal organizations to get them through tough times. Many Americans have, for the sake of a new beginning or a last resort, migrated to such states as California, Texas, Florida, Alaska, New York, and Illinois. These states have had more than their share of mass murders.
Even when people feel angry, hopeless, and isolated, they don’t necessarily commit mass murder. In many cases, they simply don’t have the means. It is almost impossible to commit a mass murder with a knife or a hammer. Such weapons are potentially destructive but are not mass destructive. Mass murderers like James Ruppert and James Huberty were well trained in the use of firearms and owned quite a few of them. Ruppert often shot targets on the banks of the Great Miami River; Huberty practiced at the firing range in his own basement. Moreover, both men were armed at the very time they felt angry enough to kill.
Explosives are another effective means of mass murder, as was shown by Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people were killed. In reality, however, the lack of knowledge of the construction of powerful bombs has limited their role in mass murder in the United States. By contrast, in agricultural societies where dynamite is readily available and firearms are not (e.g., rural China), mass murders are usually committed by means of explosives, not semiautomatic rifles.
@H1 = Implications
Criminological research into the causes of mass murder is in its infancy. Little more than a decade has passed since scholarly publications first addressed this phenomenon. Moreover, most of the literature is anecdotal and speculative. There also remains a strong feeling among many criminologists that the study of mass murder is more popular culture than serious scholarship.
Notwithstanding the resistance to research, the study of serial and mass murder can contribute to understanding of criminal behavior. Although some critics may point to the relatively low rates of incidence of these offenses (especially in comparison to the crimes to which much research is devoted), much can be learned by studying them.
Multiple homicide is indeed atypical. But, of course, so are acts of genocide, such as the Armenian massacre of 1915 and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. Social scientists study these events not only to learn their historical significance, but also to learn about elements of hate crimes expressed in less hideous ways. In the same way we can learn much about the dynamics of ruthless inhumanity by studying serial killers; we can learn much about vengeful violence by studying mass murderers.
Even without these theoretical extensions, however, the study of mass murder would still have value. The number of perpetrators may be relatively few, but the degree to which they wreak havoc on their victims as well as anxious communities warrants the attention of students of crime.

James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

See also Homicide and Murder

@H1 = Further Reading
Dietz, Mary L. (1996) “Killing Sequentially: Expanding the Parameters of the Conceptualization of Serial and Mass Murder Killers.” In Serial and Mass Murder: Theory, Research and Policy, edited by T. O’Reilly-Fleming. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
Dietz, Park E. (1986) “Mass, Serial and Sensational Homicides.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 62: 477<N>491.
Dollard, John L., Doob, N. Miller, O. H. Mowrer, and R. R. Sears. (1939) Frustration and Aggression. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Egger, Stephen A. (1984) “A Working Definition of Serial Murder and the Reduction of Linkage Blindness.” Journal of Police Science and Administration 12: 348<N>357.
<3M>. (1990) Serial Murder: An Elusive Phenomenon. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1965, 1995, 1996) Crime in the United States: The Uniform Crime Reports. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
<3M>. (1981) Evaluation of the Psychological Profiling Program. Quantico, VA: Institutional Research and Development Unit, FBI Academy.
Fox, James A., and Jack Levin. (1994a) Overkill: Mass Murder and Serial Killing Exposed. New York: Plenum.
<3M>. (1994b) “Firing Back: The Growing Threat of Workplace Homicide.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 536: 15<N>30.
<3M>. (2001) The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Frazier, Shervert H. (1975) “Violence and Social Impact.” In Research and the Psychiatric Patient, edited by J. C. Schoolar and C. M. Gaitz. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Henry, A., and J. F. Short. (1954) Suicide and Homicide. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Hickey, Eric W. (1997) Serial Murderers and Their Victims. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Holmes, Ronald M., and Stephen Holmes. (1994) Murder in America. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Holmes, Ronald M., and James DeBurger. (1988) Serial Murder. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Levin, Jack, and James A. (1985) Mass Murder: America’s Growing Menace. New York: Plenum.
<3M>. (2001) Dead Lines: Essays in Murder and Mayhem. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Lewis, Dorothy O., Jonathan H. Pincus, M. Feldman, L. Jackson, and B. Bard. (1986) “Psychiatric, Neurological, and Psychoeducational Characteristics of 15 Death Row Inmates in the United States.” American Journal of Psychiatry 143: 838<N>845.
Leyton, E. (1986) Compulsive Killers: The Story of Modern Multiple Murderers. New York: New York University Press.
O’Reilly-Fleming, Thomas. (1996) Serial and Mass Murder: Theory, Research and Policy. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
Palmer, Stuart. (1960) The Psychology of Murder. New York: Crowell.
Phillips, David P. (1983) “The Impact of Mass Media Violence on U.S. Homicides.” American Sociological Review 48: 560<N>568.

One thought on ““Mass Murder” from the Encyclopedia of Crime & Punishment (Sage/Berkshire 2002)

  1. […] are likely to respond.” I’ll post a selection from Jack’s article on “Mass Murders” here, too, so you can see the kind of overview an encyclopedia article […]

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