08/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Adkisson's Assault on a Unitarian Church Stirs Memories, Raises Questions

Last Sunday Jim David Adkisson, a 58 year-old unemployed truck driver from the town of Powell, Tennessee, entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville with a 12 gauge shotgun and began firing at parents and friends who had come to see their children in a church play. The news set off a chain of associations for me, because I am a Unitarian-Universalist, and, like those parents in Knoxville, I had often sat in the sanctuary of our church, the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut, watching my children, clad in makeshift costumes cobbled from old curtains and junk jewelry, struggling to remember their lines and overcome their shyness as they tromped across the stage, acting out some parable they had cooked up with the youth advisors, celebrating themes dear to their heart such as social justice, love, and respect for all people of all kinds and shapes and colors. Today my children have grown and moved away, but I still find solace in a Unitarian Universalist church, this one in East Greenwich Rhode Island. My wife is pastor there.

The shooting also drew my attention because, as a professor at a school of social work, I devote much of my time to the study of violent incidents. Having recently completed a book about school rampage shootings, I found myself, like so many others, trying to understand what had driven Adkisson to perform such a desperate act. While this had elements in common with "workplace shootings," it also resembled many of the school shootings I write about in my book. Others might categorize it as the work of a "Home grown terrorist." Perhaps these categories have more in common than criminologists have supposed.

I argue in my book that because the school shooters were adolescents, they were involved in that psychosocial crisis which the psychoanalyst Erik Eriksson referred to as "identity formation versus identity diffusion." They decided to commit an act of violence against themselves (and others) because they saw no future in the adult world. Adkisson was 58, in the middle of the stage which Eriksson called "Middle Adulthood," whose psychosocial crisis he defined as "generativity versus stagnation." By generativity he meant not simply having children but contributing to the establishment and guidance of the next generation. Such work might involve teaching, leading a youth group, or serving on the board of a not-for-profit. Stagnation might refer to a worker who remains in a job that has lost all meaning, or a wife trapped in a loveless marriage. The next stage in Erikson's schema, the crisis of old age, consists of "integration versus despair." Erikson made the point that all these crises are occurring at every age, but some take precedence during certain periods of a person's life. According to some sources, Adkisson was alcoholic and subject to lingering dark moods. Alcoholism is often associated with getting developmentally "stuck," at the age when the drinking began. Was he an adolescent walking around in grown-up cothes?

News reports suggest that Adkisson was a man for whom life no longer seemed worth living. School shooters reach this state after years of being bullied, abused physically or sexually, and rejected by peers and girlfriends. Social awkwardness, psychiatric problems and learning disabilities further aggravate the situation. Adkisson had failed in relationships (he had recently been divorced by his fourth or fifth wife) and failed vocationally (he had lost his job and could not find another.) His food stamps had been terminated, making survival difficult.

Second, he wanted revenge against those who had deprived him of his work, his social stature, his means of survival. School shooters long to get back at the kids who tormented and excluded them, and teachers who treated them unjustly. The eminent criminologist Park Dietz has spoken of the danger inherent in this situation:

When somebody has so little to lose, so that it all seems meaningless to them, then they're likely to consider revenge as having considerable value. They may think of suicide as an escape from it all. That's a terrible combination, being suicidal and wanting revenge. That's at the heart of most of the workplace and school mass murders of the last 20 years. (Park Dietz, as quoted in The Hook, December 4, 2003)

Third, Adkisson had created a "sham ideology," a theory to support the violence he was prepared to commit. For school shooters, this usually consists of some garbled "philosophy" justifying homicide. It is usually compounded from a misreading of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, and too many viewings of the Oliver Stone film, Natural Born Killers. Adkisson's manifesto, a four page letter left in his SUV, blamed Liberals much the country's woes. Those of us who have followed the Bush administration's unraveling of the safety net and re-allotment of the Federal budget to corporate welfare and the war in Iraq found ourselves scratching our heads. The news that Adkisson's most recent ex-wife had once been a member of the congregation he had attacked provided a clue to how these antithetical ideas might have become conflated.

Black and white thinking oversimplifies the world in dangerous ways. Clever spin doctors have been driving a wedge into our body politic for decades, convincing us that Liberals think about everything one way, and Conservatives another, and there is no overlap. But this is a lie designed to polarize voters. Even within Unitarian-Universalism, the religion Garrison Keillor evokes every time he wants to make a joke about Lefties gone wild, people hold views that range all across the political and cultural spectrum. There are pro-life atheists, and theists who support assisted suicides. Many of the school shooters were raised in bible-belt communities where behavior was similarly divided into extremes. You could be good or you could be evil. You could join Team Jesus, or play for Satan.

One more factor motivated Adkisson: the hope that he would be killed by law men during his Sunday morning assault. He said in his letter that he hoped he would not leave the church alive. In other words, where we see a tragic, meaningless murder of the innocent, Adkisson, beneath the brittle shell of his narcissism, saw a suicide attempt. Some of the school shooters committed suicide after completing their shootings while others hoped the police would do the job for them.

Suicide by cop.

When men who derive their self-respect from being able to provide for their families are deprived of the privilege, they often question the meaning of their lives. Sometimes they contemplate suicide. A falling Dow-Jones historically correlates with a rising suicide rate, and vice-versa. A recent Huffington post by Barbara Ehrenreich investigates the problem of suicide and the current financial crisis in depth. Between unemployment, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the weakened dollar, a swelling national debt, a vanishing safety net and a costly war, the outlook is grim.

While these problems will take time to address, there is one thing that we can do right now: urge our legislators to pass laws that will help keep guns out of the hands of people who might behave irresponsibly because of age, lifestyle, or psychiatric problems.