Some things are known about Aaron Alexis, the man who apparently killed 12 people at the Navy Yard complex in Washington, D.C. on Monday.
History of anger issues, gun crimes, and possible mental illness? Check. Recent stresses? Check. Conflicts with authority? Check.
All of this is not going to explain the question that is being asked everywhere: why? We may never come up with a satisfactory answer.
Obviously, there are common threads linking many modern massacres, but we typically only recognize them in retrospect. How many
Americans match the profile of Alexis right now? Minor criminal record, frustrated, angry, and with access to firearms... that describes tens of thousands of people. Most of them do not go on killing sprees.
People have been puzzling over this behaviour since Captain James Cook wrote about a phenomenon called "running amok" in Malaysia. Some villagers, usually after a period of personal setbacks, would lash out with weapons, killing or wounding anyone who crossed their path, finally being killed, killing themselves, or being subdued.
Early proto-psychologists considered running amok to be a primitive mental disorder among people halfway around the world.
In the last two hundred years or so, every society on every continent has seen some version of these outbreaks of violence. Killers have used knives, guns, cars, grenades, and swords.
Aside from the goals of the perpetrators - kill many people, without any concern for their own lives - there are wide variations.
Andrew Kehoe was a middle-aged, middleclass, well educated American who had lost a local election and was facing the foreclosure of his farm and the lengthy illness of his wife. In 1927, he spent months secretly packing an elementary school with explosives, and killed 45 people, including himself, in two blasts.
Martin Bryant was an Australian man of very low intelligence who inherited a sizeable sum of money from a lottery winner. Lonely and depressed - probably because he terrified his neighbours by shooting at them with pellet guns - he killed 35 people, mostly at the Port Arthur prison colony, a historic site in Tasmania, in 1996.
In 2006, Jennifer San Marco was a woman with severe mental illness who murdered a
neighbour and five co-workers, apparently because she believed she was the target of a conspiracy at her workplace. Spree killings have been blamed on violent video games, violent movies, violent music, bullying, a lack of gun control, too much gun control, low selfesteem, and megalomania. There certainly seem to be ways to reduce the frequency of mass murders and to mitigate their impact. Canada, Australia, and Great Britain all imposed stricter gun laws in the wake of massacres. Gun crimes of all types are notably lower than in the U.S., and its gun culture is also quite different from its neighbours. Better mental health services probably wouldn't hurt, nor would reducing bullying in schools and workplaces.
That said, in a world with seven billion people, some people will inevitably feel persecuted and angry, and want to lash out. For decades, the mass murder has been a script they can latch onto and follow.
In Malaysia, running amok declined over time. The culture changed.
When people want to lash out, they follow particular cultural scripts, and if we want to know why massacres happen, we need to understand what makes that course of annihilating violence attractive, and what we can do to provide an alternative.
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