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Shooting Spree: A Response to Constant Humiliation?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why do spree shooters kill? Why did Nidal Malik Hasan and other spree shooters murder their victims? One approach would concern the cybernetics of emotion involving recursive loops of shame and anger.

Self-generated loops of shame alone are commonplace among those who blush easily. They report that the awareness of their blushing generates embarrassment, that in turn generates further blushing, and around and around, sometimes leading even to paralysis. Since normal emotions are extremely brief in duration, a few seconds, the idea of a feeling loop opens up a new area of exploration.

Emotions that persist over time have been a puzzle for researchers, since most emotions function only as brief signals. Yet emotion feedback loops, whether, anger, fear, or shame, can go on for a long time, and in doing so, gather incredible force.

Rather than only being ashamed one is ashamed, one can also become ashamed when angry, and angry that one is ashamed, round and round, resulting in "humiliated fury." A person who does not have a way of stopping the spiral can get caught up in a feeling trap.

Emotion Spirals

The idea of humiliated fury as a feeling trap might be a first step toward a theory of the emotional origins of extreme violence. Such a process would be a doomsday machine of interpersonal and inter-group violence.

Some emotion sequences may be recursive to the point that there is no natural limit to their length and intensity. In reviewing the news reports of many spree shooters, I found they had in common a history of being humiliated and excluded by others, or at least feeling that they were. When these feelings are allowed to continue, they can result in loss of control.

Perhaps collective panics such as those that take place under the threat of fire or other emergencies are caused by shame/fear spirals. One's own fear and shame about fear, and that of others, reflecting back and forth can cause still more fear, leading to loss of life. It is possible that the shame/anger spiral might be a basic cause of violence to the extent that it loops back upon itself without limit. A person or group caught up in a shame/anger spiral might be so out of control as to be oblivious to all else, whether morality or danger to self or others.

Recursion of Emotions and Alienation in Shooters

It is still too early to assess the background of Major Hasan. But the idea of isolation and shame/anger spirals seems to fit most of the recorded cases of shooting sprees: the shooters were not only isolated but also many have been in shame states. In a spree at the Red Lake Senior High School, in Minnesota, Jeff Weise killed 7 people and himself. In one of his many postings on the web, he stated "I have friends, but I'm basically a loner in a group of loners...I'm excluded from anything and everything they do, I'm never invited, I don't even know why they consider me a friend or I them..."

This boy seems to have been without a single friend, rejected continually and relentlessly by everyone around him, including his mother and his so-called friends. It is little wonder that his writing contains many clear indications of shame; for example, "I really must be fucking worthless..."

The Columbine spree has evoked the largest amount of research. It is quite clear that the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were isolated from others. In the writing they did in secret, it is also clear that they both felt humiliated by the treatment they received from the high school cliques that rejected them.

Medications may be involved to cut down on self control. It appears that many of the rampages shooters in the last twenty years have been on antidepressants, especially the SSRIs. I will take this issue up later.

This column has outlined a causal model of spree shooting: isolation and shame, combined with anger, can result in a feedback loop ending in unlimited violence. My next column will discuss steps that might be taken to decrease the danger of spree shooting and other kinds of violence.