A cliché about violent offenders is that someone often will say what a nice, quiet neighbor the person was before the eruption. A new study of mass attacks in America suggests quite the opposite – and that perhaps more of these rampages can be prevented.
The U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center studied 27 incidents in 2018 in which a total of nearly 200 people were killed or injured in public spaces, including Mercy Hospital in Chicago and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The findings don’t at all suggest that perpetrators had gone unnoticed by others, or that they had shown no previous signs of strain.
Rather, researchers found that most attacks were motivated by specific grievances. Two-thirds of offenders had histories of mental health symptoms, though mental illness alone is not a risk factor for violence. Nearly all were men, and nearly all had made threats, or said or done things that raised concerns in people around them.
Three-quarters had experienced a major stress event, such as a death, divorce or homelessness. They had gotten a divorce. They’d lost their job or been kicked out of school. The future, for whatever reason, looked bleak, and disturbing behavior was escalating.
Last February in suburban Aurora, Gary Martin killed five co-workers and injured five police officers at manufacturer Henry Pratt Co. He had a history of violent behavior going back 2 decades, including stabbing one girlfriend and threatening to kill another. On the day of the shootings, he warned a co-worker that “If I get fired, I’m going to kill every mother (expletive) here” and “I am going to blow police up,” according to the Kane County state’s attorney’s office.
That was an extreme example, and of course hindsight is 20/20. An observer might even think that if someone were really serious about wanting to commit a crime, he’d have the sense to keep quiet about it. But rather than plotting in secret, these perpetrators tend to strew around plenty of hints.
The need to pick up on those clues is not a license to report people to bosses, school officials or the police for no reason. Rather, it’s about understanding how to recognize and respond to red flags in family, acquaintances, co-workers or fellow students, and making it more routine to report behavior that seems truly out of line and escalating. Friends, neighbors and members of online communities can be more alert to who in their midst might be in real trouble. Workplaces and other institutions can build effective ways to respond. Law enforcement and other public officials can accept tips and connect dots whenever possible.
This isn’t a perfect solution. It echoes the advice for situations that could be precursors to terror assaults: If you see something, say something. If people on both ends of a tip behave with respect and resolve, a person who isn’t dangerous might at most get an alert that others are concerned about his well-being. And a person who is spiraling out of control might merit an intervention.
Very few people commit mass violence, and it can’t all be stopped by personal vigilance on the part of others. Many offenders are already under some kind of watch, and too many have illegal access to guns. But the picture forming here is worth understanding. Given the heavy toll of these incidents – 17 dead and 17 injured at Stoneman Douglas, most of them students – foiling even a single attack can save quite a few lives.