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Mass Murder on Both Sides of the Atlantic--Politics or Psychopathology?

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On both sides of the Atlantic, last weekend was a particularly bloody time. In Isla Vista, near the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, six students were shot to death by Elliot Rodger, a young man who blamed everybody but himself for his inability to attract women. Hours later, a gun-toting terrorist in the city of Brussels opened fire at the Jewish Museum, taking the lives of four people

Both tragic incidents seem to have been motivated by intense hatred for an entire group of people -- Jews in Brussels and women in California. Still, the differences between the incidents are also profound, representing important characteristics that distinguish American from European acts of hate-fueled violence generally.

Massacres in European countries tend to be politically motivated. The killer has a cause. He seeks to change national policy regarding immigrants, Jews, Israel, Palestinians, or Muslims. His killing spree is designed to send a message of hate not only to each and every member of his victim's group but also to his like-minded compatriots. He seeks to emphasize through violence that "outsiders" simply will not be tolerated in his country.

The Brussels rampage was hardly the first in recent history based on hate. In 2012, a mass shooting occurred outside of a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, where a lone gunman took the lives of a rabbi and three young children. Earlier in the same week, three French paratroopers, all either Arab or Black, were shot to death in another terrorist attack.

American massacres tend to be motivated more by psychopathology than by politics. The killer fits a profile. He may be chronically depressed and unable to cope with the frustrations of everyday life; he is socially isolated, externalizes responsibility, and has access to and training in the use of firearms. Having never been hospitalized as a danger to himself or others, Rodger was able to secure his semi-automatic handgun legally. Not unlike most other rampage killers, he planned his attack for at least a year.

The American rampage killer's motive is pure and simple -- to get even with everybody he sees as responsible for his personal miseries. Depending on circumstances, the target group might consist of family members, co-workers, classmates, all members of a particular group, or all of humanity. The Isla Vista killer complained bitterly about being bullied during his earlier years in school, being a virgin at the age of 22, and being rejected by one girl after another during his teenage years. He blamed women but he also blamed popular boys who were so attractive to the girls.

The Isla Vista killer is not the only rampage shooter to target women for the sake of revenge. In 1989, 25-year-old Marc Lepine shot to death 14 female students at the University of Montreal's School of Engineering. Being rejected in his bid for admission, Lepine was convinced that a "feminist" had undeservedly taken his place in the freshman class. He decided to kill as many feminists as possible. In 2009, a 48-year-old gunman opened fire on people exercising in a suburban Pittsburgh fitness center, killing three women. In an online blog, the killer wrote a rambling statement about how he had developed a hatred for women after being rejected by them for almost 20 years.

Politically motivated rampage shootings are a tremendous challenge to European law enforcement. The terrorist who last weekend took the lives of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels has not yet been identified or apprehended. By contrast, rampage shootings committed out of psychopathology are usually no challenge at all to solve. The killer is on a suicidal rampage. Like Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, he eliminates those he holds responsible for his miseries and then takes his own life. Or, he plays "suicide by cop," refusing to drop his weapon and forcing the police to open fire. Or, he waits at the crime scene until the police arrive and he is able to surrender.

Prevention is another story. Whether European or American style, rampages are extremely difficult to prevent. Those massacres that are politically inspired might involve a member of a terrorist group, but more likely is committed by a single "lone wolf" or a small group of close friends. Law enforcement can no longer infiltrate the typical mass murder, when it involves a small number of perpetrators. To reduce the likelihood of another attack, Belgian officials immediately increased anti-terrorism measures and ordered police to raise security at Jewish houses of worship and schools. In reality, however, such procedures are simply inadequate to the task of protecting the local Jewish population from the scourge of anti-Semitism.

In the American version, massacres are almost impossible to prevent. In the case of the Isla Vista tragedy, the killer's parents had become concerned enough to phone 911 and then to drive in separate cars to the area near the campus of the University of California. Sadly, they arrived too late to prevent their son's 10-minute deadly rampage.

Behavioral science has not yet become sophisticated enough to predict rare events such as rampage shootings. Thousands of individuals have all the symptoms associated with mass murder, but they never hurt anyone. Once an individual has murderous intentions, it is all but impossible to stop him.

We should get involved in the lives of troubled people as early as possible, long before they become troublesome. Many vulnerable youngsters have major trouble making the transition into adulthood; many others are victimized by their classmates or their co-workers. Rather than wait for mental health practitioners to lead the way, we should intervene with assistance rather than punishment as friends, neighbors, teachers, and associates whenever we observe chronic bullying, isolation, and depression. This approach will improve the quality of life for numerous of our citizens, and it might also prevent a murder.