Revenge or Mental Illness? Inside The Minds of School Shooters

Bailey Gerhardt, 16-year-old Utah student at Roy High School, shared a suspicious text message with a school administrator that foiled the plans of two schoolmates who were plotting to set off a bomb during a school assembly (Two Teens Arrested In Alleged Roy High School Bomb Plot).  It seems, these teens were planning this attack for some time. The 16 year old juvenile involved in the plot was so fascinated by the Columbine shootings that, on December 12th of 2011, the boy visited the principle of Columbine High School to interview him about the 2006 shootings (Utah Girl Credited With Outing Pair’s Plans to Bomb High School). Also, both teens logged hundreds of hours on flight simulator software on their home computers, so that they could fly a plane for their getaway.

Do School Shooters Have a Cause?

There’s a long history of school shootings throughout the world that date as far back as 1966 (Timeline of U.S. School Shootings & Throughout the World). One of the worst in U.S. history took place in 2007 at Virginia Tech University by shooter Cho Seung-hui, a deeply disturbed young man who regarded Harris and Klebold of the Columbine killings as martyrs.

After Columbine, many people speculated that the impetus for teen killings result from outside stresses, like being bullied or a love breakup. Research, however, says, this isn’t exactly the case. For example, Peter Langman Ph.D. has studied school shooters for over ten years. He presents his findings in Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters. After considering thousands of pages of documents that included Harris and Klebolds’  journals, appointment books, emails, videotape and police affidavits and interviews with faculty, witnesses, friends and survivors, Langman found that Harris and Klebold were not bullied or loners, or members of subculture groups, like the Goths. In fact, much of what was first thought about the teens’ motives for the shootings at Columbine has been found wrong (Ten Years Later: The Real Story Behind Columbine).

What are the factors that motivate some teens to kill? Are they born with a capacity to murder or do outside stresses lead them to act out violently in this way? Since Freud, this nature versus nurture question has stimulated much debate, theorizing, and research in the fields of psychiatry and psychology.  The movie the Bad Seed, based on William March’s 1956 novel, highlights this debate. It’s a chilling look into the mind of an adopted, psychopathic 9-year old girl, played by Patty McCormick, who tortures and kills any child or adult who gets in the way of her desires. The Bad Seed underscores the position that murderers are born not made.

When I consider the many teens who endure tough circumstances without resorting to harming others, I fall more to the nature side of the argument. The stressful situations that teens face today have not changed much from when I was back in high school. Being bullied or socially ostracized by peers is not something new.

What is new to teens today that makes their lives more stressful than at any other time in history is the risk of public exposure. Their lives are an open book, out there for everyone to read about.  MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and text messages display their adventures, mishaps, humiliation, and pain and suffering for everyone to read about. The corner bully of yesterday is now on every cyberspace corner, with the internet as their weapon. Public humiliation is a very real stress for today’s youth. But, still, we have to keep in mind that bullied teens tend to deal with their suffering by harming themselves rather than harm others. There is something more than revenge for being bullied that motivates school shooters to go on a killing rampage.

Dr. Langman says certain types of mental illness predispose teens to kill. He distinguishes between three types of youths who commit murder, two of which are relevant to my post today: the psychopathic and psychotic killer. Psychopathic killers are individuals with antisocial personality disorder. Their lethal aggression has more to do with the way their personality is structured than it does with the environment. Those with antisocial personality disorder have little to no capacity to feel empathy, shame, or remorse, and are callous, highly self-centered and view people as objects. Hence,  their hostile urges are insufficiently counterbalanced by compassion and reason. Antisocial persons cannot control aggressive impulses, feel another person’s pain, or conduct themselves in moral and ethical ways.

In contrast, psychotic killers suffer from a very weak sense of self that makes them unable to establish meaningful relationships with others or identify with social norms and values. They are often ostracized and lonely because of this, resorting to a world of fantasy, odd ideas, bizarre behavior and illusions of martyrdom, which compensate for feelings of loneliness and worthlessness. It’s easier to hide this particular form of mental illness from others, because their behavior is more bizarre than overtly “crazy.”

What happens when a psychopath and psychotic personality befriend each other?

“Neither one of them would have done it alone. But together, they made a third personality. That’s the one that did it.” Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1965).

The psychopath and psychotic are potentially a lethal combination of mental illness states. The psychopath finds a patsy to help carry out his murderous rage, and the psychotic personality finds a fearless counterpart who will help him to carry out some mission of martyrdom. An In Cold Blood scenario can result, where a third personality, greater than the sum of its two parts, is formed. You find in more than one killing rampage two murderers who come together to form this deadly third personality configuration (the Smith and Hickock In Cold Blood murders of the Clutter family, Harris and Klebold of the Columbine Murders, the Komisarjevsky and Hayes Murders of the William Petit family, and the more recent Utah Teens whose plan to bomb Roy High School was thankfully diverted).

It’s hard for adult psychopaths and psychotics to hide within the normal population, as their non-conforming or criminal pasts often make known their mental illness. But, teenagers who have antisocial or psychotic personality formations are less easy to spot. By definition, teenagers are more self-centered, emotionally volatile, and aggressive.  Also, teens today speak more casually about games of killing. This is a normal part of the video-game culture. That being said, teens who are at risk for committing violence do show a different type of involvement with such games than others. They have difficulty distinguishing the boundaries between their virtual and real lives. Dr. Jerald Block, M.D. sees video-games as a double-edged sword. In moderation, they can be healthy and even help to lower participants stress and aggression. But, in the hands of personalities that have unbridled aggression and a weaker grasp on reality, like the psychopath and psychotic, these games can be isolating and turn a fragile situation to something dangerous (“Lessons from Columbine: “Virtual and Real Rage”).

Langman’s and Block’s research into the minds of teen shooters is important, as it dismisses hunches in favor of facts. More of this type of investigation needs to happen, so that we have a better understanding of the type of personalities that are capable of carrying out such violence, and the warning signs that they are about to act.

If you like my post today, please say so by selecting the “Like” link that immediately follows. I welcome your thoughts, comments, and experiences. Have a safe journey. Deborah





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4 Responses to “Revenge or Mental Illness? Inside The Minds of School Shooters”

  1. avatar Brenda Enck says:

    I enjoyed your article. Just finished reading the novel “Defending Jacob” and then watching the Tilda Swinton movie “We need to talk about kevin”. which put me on to the Columbine book by Cullen. As a Mom, Nurse and Daycare mom, I think killer children are both born that way genetically somehow yet to be understood and made by their environments. If some kids in terrible homes become normal adults while a sibling becomes antisocial it is understandable. The genetic makeup helps some to cope with adverse circumstances. But when you look at the Columbine boys they had very normal homes. Tho I’m not always happy with military type parents, Eric was a little off from the beginning. Amazing all the moving in his childhood didn’t make him shy and miserable. Dylan seemed to have typical teenage angst. Seems the only way the boys could have been stopped would have been friends reporting the guns. The pipe bombs were discussed by law enforcement and dropped early on. Should the parents have searched their rooms and spied on them? All parents wonder about this. So as parents do you freak if your toddler pushes another off the swing? Will your teen son kill someone if he doesn’t have a girlfriend and thinks he never will? Until we can genetically isolate something concrete (being sure not to label someone a potential killer on some “bad seed” tangent). I’m afraid we’ll just have to watch carefully, check computers and too much garage or basement time?? Same goes for predicting teen suicide.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Well said Brenda “born that way somehow yet still to be understood and made by their environments”. It is interesting how one can come from a terrible, harsh background and thrive, while others can come from a relatively normal background and kill another person. I appreciate your view Brenda; there does have to be something else that we don’t fully understand, as of yet.

      Also, to be a parent today is such a challenge. How do they strike a balance between respecting their children’s boundaries and knowing when it’s time to break them? But, it’s interesting to me Brenda how one of the boys (Columbine) had guns in the basement and the parents did not know. Although the boys were not abused and seemed to have a normal life. The extent of the parents’ denial as to what their children were up to may indicate a detached relationship to their children. You are so right, we will just have to watch more carefully, check computers and make our way down into the basement or garage more often. Thank you for stopping by Brenda and for your thoughtful comment. I hope you stop by again. Warmly, Deborah

  2. avatar Al Jewell says:

    Deborah,I`M READING YOUR POST FIVE YEARS LATER ON A DAY WHEN ANOTHER SCHOOL SHOOTING HAS OCCURED! I`m an ex classroom teacher and have had a few students in the passed whom I`ve often worried about. I believe there are kids that show signs of mental illness at a very young age. I feel these children are not receiving the help they need because families, caregivers, and school systems are not programed to think of children that young can be that troubled. No parent wants to believe there child could ever become such a sick person. At the very start of a young child`s school years no-one wants to think such a young child could be carrying the emotional strain of a school shooter. School systems do not want to think any of their youngest of students could be that sick at such a young age.
    The result of such a mind set is the continued development of someone that becomes a school shooter. In decades past when homes, communities, and schools all worked together in the process of child rearing. Information about children flowed freely between all of it`s parts. Families were stable and people communicated freely within the group, the person`s community felt free to share information about behavior with a family about it`s children, and schools, they were looked on with respect and listened when questions were raised and sent home. Yes back then people understood it took a village to raise a child. Today all has changed.
    The extended family for the most part does not exist today. A young set of parents are often left on there own. They are not able to call on the experience of elders. The community as a whole know nothing about the children that they inter act with, schools are swamped with the need to prove to the community they are doing there job with good results through state required testing. Good test results are what proves the quality of a childes educational training.
    The returning to a focus on our children is the one thing that going to get control over these horrible events we learn of all to often. Ringing our hands and saying this has got to stop is not enough. It will require the family, the community, and the schools all working together; recognizing the mental health of our children depends on all of us.
    God bless to all,
    An old classroom teacher

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Al. Thank you for your thoughts on this very sad situation in our country. You said it perfectly here: “The returning to a focus on our children is the one thing that going to get control over these horrible events we learn of all to often.“

      We must dedicate ourselves as parents and teachers to developing whole children into compassionate, thoughtful people who can problem solve without violence and turn adversity in their lives into opportunities for learning about themselves into positive growth.

      Serious mental illness can hide itself as an adolescent temperament that normalizes the behaviors of those persons who need special attention and care.

      Prayers to every person touched by this tragedy. Thank you for your wisdom Al. Warm regards Deborah


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