Cognitive Daily

How can something like this happen?

Today at least 31 people were killed by gunfire at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, in senseless violence. Early reports suggest that the perpetrator was a boyfriend of a Virginia Tech student who was “looking for his girlfriend.”

But whatever the proximal cause of this tragedy, the larger question is how we can prevent such incidents in the future. In the wake of the Columbine shootings, one report (PDF) from the National Institute of Justice suggests that as many as two-thirds of these seemingly random occurrences are preventable. Large attacks are planned, and attackers reveal their plans to others. In one case an attacker had told so many friends that 24 fellow students gathered to watch the planned confrontation.

The report found that profiling students was not effective: there was no common profile of the “school shooter.” More important is looking for the warning signs:

In more than half the cases, the attacker’s behavior caught the attention of more than one person. Behaviors that led others (e.g. school officials, police, fellow students) to be concerned included those related to the attack, such as efforts to obtain a gun. But they also included behaviors not clearly related to the attack. More than three-fourths of the attackers threatened to kill themselves, made suicidal gestures, or tried to kill themselves before their attacks.

So, it seems, that efforts designed to address suicidal behavior and prevent suicide attempts may have the added benefit of protecting others from the senseless violence of those whose mental problems have led them to contemplate killing themselves. The number of suicides in the U.S. each year is nearly double that of homicide, so addressing the suicide problem is no less urgent than the homicide problem.

Comments

  1. #1 Roy
    April 16, 2007

    Nobody tries to prevent suicide attempts, they only try to foil them, and, if successful, they can legally punish the person for trying, and the punishment can be a lifetime of torture by drugs, shocks, brainwashing, caging, endless interrogation (lasting decades), and torment.

    This seems to me to parallel society’s treatment of criminals.

    Maybe we just like punishing people who are not us.

  2. #2 allison
    April 16, 2007

    Mental health issues in general seem to really flumux our society. I work in the Oregon state legislature and the last few sessions, we have tried to address this topic by requiring insurance companies in Oregon to cover mental health care at the same level as medical care. But with so many people uninsured and so many more underinsured, is it helping? And people who have coverage don’t make use of it – it’s still pretty shameful to be crazy.

    Imagine your acquaintance at work had always had a temper, but they seem to be seething more often. They seem very upset and angry most of the time and at some point a light goes off in your head – you believe they’re a danger, either to themselves or to another. What do you do about it? I honestly do not know. I know what to do if there’s a bomb scare, I’ve been trained what to do if someone is waving a gun (we’ve got a pass phrase we tell the state police, who have a precinct office downstairs) but I have no idea what I would do well before the fact when I just thought someone was going insane.

    I think rather than considering our difficulty with the concept of mental illness as a function of our desire to only interact with people who are like us, I think it has more to do with walking that line between paternalism and a person’s right to be weird or different. Although when you’re under 18 and see another child acting funny, you can tattle, we don’t really have a mechanism for tattling on adults. And I think any such mechanism would be extremely problematic.

    Dave, you say these are preventable, but tell me what the people who heard about the plans to buy a gun, for example, were supposed to do? Call the police? Guns are legal. How can I prevent other people’s suicides any better than I can prevent other people’s unwanted pregnancy?

    I don’t mean to sound so negative. These aren’t really supposed to be rhetorical questions. I’d like to know. I’ll help any way I can.

  3. #3 D
    April 16, 2007

    Well, obviously it is important to prevent suicide and all, but I’m not sold on the mechanism here…if this guy had committed suicide, wouldn’t these ~30 students still be alive?

  4. #4 jimm
    April 16, 2007

    stop selling 9mm and .22′s to every
    tom,dick and harry who wants to purchase one legally.

  5. #5 Tina
    April 16, 2007

    The report you cite states,

    “More than three-fourths of the attackers threatened to kill themselves, made suicidal gestures, or tried to kill themselves before their attacks.”

    Is it not true that such suicidal thoughts and actions are not uncommon in people across the total population? If so, this report’s findings have little predictive value. You seem to imply that attempts to prevent suicide may have an impact on the occurence of homocide in general, and mass homicide in particular. Has there been other work in this area?

    It seems there are apples among the oranges…

    Discussions of how to prevent such a tragedy seem premature to say the least. It is likely that the situation is much more complex, necessitating more that stock answers and readymade solutions.

  6. #6 drrobert
    April 16, 2007

    While mental illness, gun control, and government-sanctioned violence certainly play a part in violence like this, there is one issue that most people don’t talk about — the overwhelming problem of male violence.

    This is profoundly a man’s problem. All of the shooters are men, yet that often gets ignored in the face of comments like “kids killing kids” and referring to the murderer as a “shooter” not a man. If even one of these school shootings were committed by a woman, it would be what everyone was talking about.

    And thus, we need to start talking about how notions of masculinity in our culture perpetuate this sort of atrocious violence. Men are overwhelming the ones who commit violence, and while there is a horrendous problem of violence against women, the victims of male violence are most often other men.

    School shootings are merely the highly sensationalized, tragic tip of the iceberg. For a non-violent culture, we must find ways to construct a non-violent, less aggressive masculinity, and raise and support non-violent men.

  7. #7 Stephen Downes
    April 16, 2007

    Get the guns off the street.

    Without that, your efforts to psychoanalyze it are actually enabling it.

  8. #8 Mostafa Hussein
    April 16, 2007

    I am sorry for the deaths of the 31 persons. It is a tragedy and a tragic event for their family and friends.

    I am not an American citizen and I have been in the US and Canada for only a month. So I am not in a postition to add a constructive comment and probably I don’t understand things fully.

    Aggression is common between young people around the world. In Egypt we have aggressive young men in schools (rich or poor), in slums and literally everywhere. I have no statistics, but I think I have read that it is more in the city than villages. Specially Cairo where more than 20 million people live. We also have a police that is perceived to be very lousy, that many of those young people think that the only way to settle a disagreement is by fighting. It is in fact the only manly way to do so. Even it is random purposless aggression, it is by hand, a sharp knife but rarely a gun.

    But we don’t get shooting incidents like Columbine or this tragic one. And I think it is because people can’t buy firearms as easily as the US. You either have to smuggle it or buy it with a permit (which is very hard to obtain).

    I am not sure that societies could find any benefit from having an easy access to firearms.

  9. #9 sasha
    April 16, 2007

    Tina, maybe suicidal thoughts are more common than we think among the general population, but this report is saying that they’re much much more common among school shooters. I doubt 3/4ths of the general population has threatened to or attempted to commit suicide. I also think it’s a little unfair to accuse Dave of reacting prematurely, or of providing readymade/stock solutions. First of all, I think one of the most natural responses to a tragedy like this is to think, “How could this have happened? How can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?” so to call thoughts like that premature is to disparage people for reacting normally. Second of all, what this blog does really well is provide new and unusual ways of thinking about problems. This post wasn’t meant to solve school shootings everywhere, just to get people thinking about them in a different way. I think it did that quite successfully.

  10. #10 Crispin Bennett
    April 16, 2007

    It’s hardly a great mystery. The United States has a love affair with violence at all scales.

    Individual gun use is at an enduringly horrific level (way off the scale for comparable countries), and there’s never a time when the US isn’t fighting a war with someone. The US even finds a need for ‘wars’ against inanimates (drugs etc).

    My own view is that history just doesn’t record as happening the kind of swift and massive cultural transformation that would be needed to substantially reduce in the near-term the amount of killing, at home and abroad, that Americans do. Am I being pessimistic or extreme?

  11. #11 hibiscus
    April 16, 2007

    and how many times has this taken place already this year in iraq? and how many times last year? and how many times was it our kids doing the shooting?

    and will we take the same measures here as there to prevent it? will we invade the university with our military, overthrow the university administrators, break into dormitories and apartments at night to search the other students for weapons? will we claim that technical students are naturally violent, and that we need to control and reform virginia tech to show other students at other virginia universities the dangers of violence?

    1 kid with a gun is a tragedy, a disaster, 100,000 kids with guns is a “mistake”? 10,000 times as many people have died this way in iraq as were just killed in that school. nobody has to ask how do we stop this in the future. there’s a perfectly good opportunity right in front of us.

  12. #12 naomipaz
    April 16, 2007

    This can most easily be prevented by outlawing the manufacture of ammunition.
    Perhaps not the answer you were looking for… but this would really work.

  13. #13 bigTom
    April 16, 2007

    Better treatment for suicidal people would probably help a little bit. But this sort of prevention is likely to be about as efficacious as most new drugs for treating terminal illnesses, an improvement of 10-20% is usually announced as a breakthrough. Additionally we need to rethink the issue of how much firepower we should allow an individual to have. Perhaps the number of shots before a time consuming reload process is required should be limited. As long as a person who has lost it can fire many-many shots in seconds, and put in a new clip in seconds, the ability to limit the damage they can do is severely limited.

  14. #14 Dan S.
    April 16, 2007

    This is profoundly a man’s problem. All of the shooters are men

    In addition, often – though not always – the victims are overwhelmingly or only women or girls, as in the ‘Montreal Massacre’ or the Amish school shooting.

  15. #15 ivan
    April 16, 2007

    It’s been ages since the Columbine and everybody can still carry the guns around. That’s why it happens, if you dont learn from the history, you are deemed to repeat the lesson as many times as needed.

  16. #16 Epictetus
    April 16, 2007

    It’s already illegal to be a pathetic loser seeking relevency by means of mass murder. Anyone hell bent on such an act will find a way to pull it off. Guns, legal or otherwise were not the cause here. The criminal element will always possess them if outlawed. Anyone with a shred of intellect should find that blatantly obvious. The perp’ could easily have taken out just as many with a single pipe bomb in a backpack, a device any Jr. High kid could toss together in 5 minutes. But I would venture to guess that he wanted to take his time, to savor his last moments by reveling in the power of his cruel distruction, until putting himself to rest with the satisfaction that the complicit media outlets will glorify his deeds through weeks of saturation, inspiring all the more would-be loons to act on their deviant impulses.

  17. #17 DavidD
    April 17, 2007

    Epictetus, there’s nothing like killing someone with a gun to feel power over them. It’s so personal. It’s so quick. I doubt mad bombers would replace mass murderers with guns if the US got serious about keeping guns away from casual users.

    Those intent on mass murder/suicide seem mentally ill to me, but how deviant is it? The cat’s out of the bag as far as the media paying a lot of attention to this. How could it be otherwise? Yet one of the early incidents, the one involving Charles Whitman in 1966 wasn’t copying school shootings from TV. He did what he knew how to do to exorcise whatever demons he had. Someone else might have been satisfied with verbally insulting people and joining some like-minded political or religious group. Strife in our society is not deviant. Neither is violence. Extreme violence is odd, but I think understanding it comes from trying to understand strife in our society in general rather than the specific appeal of mass murder/suicide.

    I found a lot of interesting details in the Wikipedia article on Charles Whitman.

  18. #18 Robert Pare
    April 17, 2007

    Arm everyone.

  19. #19 Victor
    April 17, 2007

    Ban the guns, problem solved.. Hello, common sense?

    If i’m an angry lonely person (do you know any ugly males with poor social skills?) and society tells me it’s not ok to vent my anger, it will stay with me. If i keep it inside and nourish it long enough, it will pop and then i will find a way around the law to get a gun, build a bomb, and generally take revenge on the world. By the way, knowing that most people will be defenseless against a gun (they don’t have one) will help me with that power thrill which for whatever reason i feel i’ve been denied.

    Anger is a natural emotion, and the more society tries to suppress its expression, the more shootings like that i’m afraid there will be. Sure it’s characteristic of males – but we can’t just jail half of male population. I think the answer is in finding less damaging ways to vent anger and teaching people to recognize and control it.

  20. #20 Andrew Dodds
    April 17, 2007

    The generally American mythology of the Lone Hero who strikes out from the rest of the crowd – wether as a lone entrepenur, warrior, rock star, whatever – is hardly entirely negative, since it leads to a lot of what America has achieved. The problem is that the same mindset, when it goes negative, leads to your misguided individualist deciding to go down in flames.

    Of course, it would help if said individualist didn’t have access to automatic or semi-automatic weapons, but there you go.

  21. #21 Mukit
    April 17, 2007

    Of course open arms selling has a great negative impact on such school shooting incidents, I beleive. But, to my opinion that’s not the only only big reason.
    For example, in my country, you could easily manage arms if you wanted for the last 20/25 years (now the situation is better I guess), cuse bribing to police is a great open secret.
    However, we never witness such sick killings, where people who aren’t related to the killer by anyway get shot. Gangsters, who use arms freely there, use it when they go for extorsion, or some kind of gang fighting. In addition, it’s also true that general people do not bother those arm-holding people on the streets or anywhere. Even in such situations, you don’t have to worry about being killed when you have no reation to unhappiness of some arms holder. Things are not indiscriminant.

    But the shocking fact is today’s incident is totally indiscriminant. There is no assurance that my son will go to school and comeback alive. Even for me, who knows! who can guarantee me that I don’t get shot while taking coffee at starbucks or somewhere else. THIS IS ALRMING.

    This is 100% mental problem of the people who do such heinous act. There are indeed lots to do with the mental health of people, especially in rich countries, where children are brought up getting every single thing they wish for. In Japan also, the situation is same. Lots of sick killing, random/indiscriminant killings are reported.
    This is a serious problem.

  22. #22 Crispin Bennett
    April 17, 2007

    Epictetus, if the problem is just down to individual differences, the question needs to be answered: why do Americans kill each other at such a high rate compared to other OECD countries? Why does it produce so many ‘losers’ (a charming term) of this and other types?

    Agricultural civilisation is, in its fundamentals, a machine for making more people than could live under pre-agricultural economies. What kind of people we choose to make (they don’t make themselves) matters a great deal.

  23. #23 Margaret
    April 17, 2007

    The reports say the guy was not an American Citizen. If so that blows some of those theories out of the water doesn’t it?

  24. #24 Jenny
    April 17, 2007

    Take away the video games from the South Koreans!

  25. #25 Rob
    April 17, 2007

    Actually you picked one of the most meaningless “warning signs” to highlight Dave. Suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide) is increadibly common – most studies suggest at any given time about 5 to 10% of the population are having thoughts of suicide. High end estimates for lifetime prevalance (the total number across the lifespan) are about 40% of the population, I have never seen a low end prevalance estimate below 15% of NA population (rates vary considerably across countries).

    Luckily the vast majority of people who think about suicide never go on to make an attempt. But a substantial portion of those with thoughts do make some kind of attempt of gesture – For example I think most of the studies suggest about 5% of adolescents (usually girls) have made a suicide attempt during their time in high school.

    Even luckier the vast majority of people who have thoughts almost never take their lives as the average suicide rates for many populations are usually around 10 to 15 per 100,000. Different populations have higher rates but even very high risk populations i.e. white senior males (I think 60 per 100,000) or aboriginal adolescents (120 per 100,000 depending on the reserve) are still far far far more likely to not take their lives. As for the number of mass murderers in North America, one is too many, but I don’t even know if it happens often enough that someone has calculated a rate – 1 per 1,000,000 would be my guess but that may be too high.

    The shootings at VT are absolutely tragic but highlighting something found in 5 to 10% of the population as helping us identify the 1 in a million person who will become mass murderers is a bit silly. Still if it led to better treatment and quicker identification of suicidal ideation I will play along.

  26. #26 Dave Munger
    April 17, 2007

    Good points, Rob. Working to prevent suicide might not help stop cases like this — it’s too big a problem. But as you said, the point isn’t necessarily just to decrease murders, but also to decrease suicides.

    While we’re at it, we might work to improve mental health in general.

  27. #27 Tina
    April 17, 2007

    You said it better than I did, Rob. As more evidence becomes publicly available, we can have a better sense of what, if anything, can be generalized from this case. Actually, with mass murder, we’re probably better off thinking about individual cases, with all their particulars.

    To take a random example, what should a student or teacher do when a student submits work like this: http://news.aol.com/virginia-tech-shootings/cho-seung-hui/_a/mr-brownstone-title-page/20070417141309990001 ?

    Apparently there was some referral to counseling…

  28. #28 Sandra
    April 17, 2007

    “if this guy had committed suicide, wouldn’t these ~30 students still be alive?”

    He DID commit suicide. Murder-suicide, as most of these shootings are.

  29. #29 agoodspellr
    April 20, 2007

    Roy said:
    Nobody tries to prevent suicide attempts, they only try to foil them, and, if successful, they can legally punish the person for trying, and the punishment can be a lifetime of torture by drugs, shocks, brainwashing, caging……

    ———-
    I do not quite get this comment. Perhaps the grammar is misaken somehow – many people are professionally employed trying to prevent suicide by helping people who are depressed, and who may be considering suicide as a way out of their suffering. It is surely relatively rare to foil suicide at the last minute; it is quite common to intervene after unsuccessful suicide attempts, some of which are exactly that, while others are desperate cries for help when other avenues do not seem to be working; and it is obviously common to be too late to help. Many people I know have undergone temporary treatments of antidepressants and none of them were the worse off for it (though some worrisome cases of suicide after beginning treatment do exist). Certainly virtually no antidepressant users describe them as torture, or they would have been rapidly removed from the shelves. People take them because they help, and if they do not help, they usually stop (one way or another). Electroconvulsive shock treatment is sometimes used as a treatment of last resort for depression, and it is very successful as such (65% success rate). The person does not normally convulse and it is not painful.

    Lest you think that I am speaking only in theory, I myself have prevented more than one suicide, without using any of the methods you mention – but rather largely through taking the time to offer my help when they seemed to need it. I have taken many hours of time to talk to several students of mine who displayed serious signs of depression. I once intervened with a friend who was severely emotionally disturbed as a result of drug abuse, spending most of the day with him when he approached me to discuss his problems. He thereafter recovered with the help of a psychologist, thanking me for unquestionably saving his life because he was secretly planning on killing himself the next day.

    I have also foiled two suicide attempts. The first was a teen girlfriend who swallowed a bottle of drugs to get my attention, whom I brought to the hospital in time to have her stomach pumped. She spent two weeks in the hospital and was much better for it, choosing to break up with me as part of her plan to develop more self-worth. The second I also intervened with through a method you mention, by “caging” the person. After a desperate phone call, I spent the night with him on the day he was preparing to commit suicide, then asked him to go to the hospital with me. At first he refused, and then volunteered himself for admission (while I was being treated for a broken neck that I acquired in a car accident while bringing him to a movie the next day). He spent a week in the hospital of his own volition before they released him, and he hanged himself that night. He was my best friend for most of my life.

    I am not bringing these things up because I am trying to guilt you out. I am bringing it up because it the attitude you present can prevent people who desperately need a lot of help from seeking it. Many are too hopeless or embarrassed to ask for help in a timely manner, and suffer more as a result. I suspect that you are unfortunately unexperienced and ill-informed on this issue, and would suggest that you engage in some research, and perhaps personal experience by visiting a psychologist with an open mind, before making this kind of extreme comment. I sincerely hope that no person has declined to seek help or felt more hopeless as a result of your post.

  30. #30 rAGAv
    May 6, 2007

    There’s only one way to stop all this( i mean pluck the root of the cause)

    Stop spitting at people you think are of inferior race and stop insulting on a racial basis( or just about any other basis!), stop cornering people and stop calling names.

    things like this happen only in the US and that’s why massacres like this happen only in the US

  31. #31 Mike in Canada
    May 7, 2007

    The topic is posted as “how can something like this happen?” but I’m going to go with “what is the solution to this problem?”

    A rather famous quote attributed to Einstein, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.”

    People who commit heinous acts such as the Virginia Tech killings have problems that they don’t understand or know how to deal with appropriately. If the killer had come to some enlightenment regarding his problems and so overcome them, he would not have committed the crimes he did.

    How is this a solution? I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not quick, and it’s not easy.

    We need to raise our consciousness – awareness – our level of thinking – our understanding of ourselves and our lives. We need to reach a level of understanding where this kind of “solution” – violent acts – is no longer acceptable, or appealing, or even considered. We need to do this as a culture, as a people (humanity, globally) and we need to teach it in our schools. Yes, we need to teach about life and living and self-awareness and understanding in our schools! Facts are easy to come by. We need to teach people to think properly, to understand themselves, to be self-aware. To not continue a cycle of dysfunction and destruction and unconsciousness.

    Like I said, not an easy solution. Banning guns? Sounds like a good start (yes, it really is more difficult to get a gun and shoot people if guns aren’t commonplace). Putting systems and policies in place to officially recognize and respond to warning signs? This could help too. But really we need to reach a certain level of awareness and mental-emotional-spiritual maturity as a culture. We need to know how the self works, and how to effectively deal with mental dysfunction. Then we need to make that part of the fabric of our culture as common knowledge – from the very start, in our schools.

    It’s called enlightenment. “How could this have happened?” Have you looked into the shadow inside yourself? Has it ever disturbed you? It’s only a difference of degree. The same mental dysfunction we all need to deal with and grow beyond. Am I calling myself enlightened? No. But I’ve been waking up over the years. Realizing that I am not my mind, and that there’s some pretty vicious machinery behind the curtains.

    I’l tell you something about myself. Ten or eleven years ago, in the height of my “teen angst”, I seriously considered both suicide and violence against others. A friend stopped me from taking a knife to my wrists. I hated much of the world, and much of myself. In light of the “school shooting” phenomenon that’s gone on since then, I’ll say now that people would have been entirely justified to view me as a threat in that state of mind. I was largely unconscious as to who I was beyond thoughts and feelings. I was unconscious to the machinery driving my anger and upset. I’ve learned a lot since then, and made a lot of peace. I’m now happy, healthy, generally fulfilled and very satisfied and thankful for the life I live, have reached goals that inspire me, and continue to move forward towards others. It’s a journey that takes real inner work – but, the information, the knowledge, the guidance to grow beyond that level of consciousness – it’s all out there – pretty simple lessons, too. We just need to recognize it and implement it.

    We need to grow up and wake up as individuals and as a culture.

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