Some years ago, as part of the very broad range of work which has come my way by virtue of being a psychologist, or being thought to be a psychologist, two Police officers came to my office with a complicated problem.
An armed man had taken two women hostage. I will draw a veil over the details of the case, for fear of anyone being identified. A siege ensued, and a policeman was given the task of building up a negotiating relationship with the hostage taker, by chatting to him on a telephone link. Although the policeman had probably received some training, he was not experienced in these matters (protracted sieges are relatively rare in the UK). After some days of companionable conversation the perpetrator asked his police contact what was the record length of a domestic siege. Without much thought the policeman gave him the then current record, which led to the man holding the women for an extended record number of days, during which they were badly abused by him.
An anthropology professorial colleague later questioned me about it, and was glad to find that his theories were confirmed: criminals are as much in need of recognition and as bound by theatrical traditions as any other performer, particularly the duller ones without any other options and incapable of innovation.
The hostage taker knows that he has to keep things going until the TV vans arrive. Then he has to make protestations of innocence, describe a grievance, request special privileges, have specific people brought in to plead with him (priest, schoolteacher, celebrity, former spouse), require special foods and finally demand that his manifesto be published. Then he can concede and be led away to a police van, shouting his final demands, or repeatedly fire his weapons out the window and then storm out of the building into a hail of bullets, according to preference and accepted conventions.
Mass shootings in the US now have a gristly ritual to them. One is under way at North Arizona University as I write this, and there is no need for news outlets to explain what “lockdown” means. On later investigation it will probably turn out that long justifications and opaque warnings were made on social media, with coded farewells, then ritual dressing for combat (in a variant of the kamikaze tradition), gathering the arsenal of fearsome weapons, the highly symbolic choice of target, and in the US cultural setting, the hail of bullets finale, leading to posthumous publication of The Statement.
I quail from giving a list of these mass killings but some of the worst are: 21 killed, 19 wounded; 22 killed, 20 wounded; 32 killed, 17 injured. 7 killed 7 injured seems to be a rough median, and they would not have been achieved without guns.
Can one detect such killers beforehand? The usual answer from psychiatry is “not without locking up much of the population”. I have some sympathy with this view, though it is more of a judgment about psychiatry/psychology than it is about criminality. Murder is rare, and mass murder much rarer. (The likelihood of a subset should not be greater than the likelihood of the set from which the subset has been derived.) Rarity might help in detection, but usually doesn’t, unless the rare behaviour has a strong link with something, like narcolepsy often has with orexin. Steve Sailer wonders what the credit scores of mass shooters are. This could be fertile ground. Credit card companies claim to be able to predict divorce better than spouses (but it probably takes only a few hotel bills in out of the way places to reveal an affair). Certainly the credit card records of Islamic terrorists are often very illuminating. As a rule of thumb, it is very unusual for extreme behaviour not to have a precursor, though some come out too late to be of much use. A sudden change in appearance (change of hairstyle; change of clothing from casual to devout, or less often the reverse; or from functionally sociable to taciturn) in the weeks and days before an event are usually seen only in retrospect. In UK policing a good way of catching criminals is to have spot checks on cars. Those who haven’t bothered to insure them contain a higher than usual proportion of people who haven’t bothered to return “borrowed” property, to attend court hearings, and to observe other, more major, laws. The sieve of minor transgressions reveals the richer soup of criminal noodles.
An impossibly disorganised credit history might be an indicator of a disorganised life, but the regression equation would probably have to include 5 or 6 predictors. What would they be if one was trying to predict US mass shooters? Guns might be a poor predictor (too widespread); multiple arms purchases perhaps somewhat better; internet viewing and postings a good predictor; social isolation a fairly good predictor, but by far the largest category seem to be workplace grievances, followed by school/college arguments and marital disputes involving prior threatened or actual violence. Vengeance is served hot.
Each of the indicators might have a hit rate of barely 1 in 50, but carefully combined they might might have some predictive value. What then?
However, one general facilitator of these crimes might be a general un-willingness on the part of neighbours, work mates and fellow students to regard threatening and violent behaviour as reprehensible if it is classified as “mental health issues” and psychologists are involved, and to be too embarrassed to say: that person scares me, and I want them kept at a distance.
Perhaps if some behaviours go beyond the usual norms they need to be stigmatised again.