Viewpoint: Stop Tearing Ourselves Up About Mass Killings

The search for motives in tragedies like the DC Navy Yard is pointless, argues an expert in mass homicide

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

People are evacuated from a building after the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16, 2013

Monday’s tragic events at the Washington Navy Yard is another heartbreaking example of America’s ongoing problem with mass shootings. The days and weeks following one of these incidents typically invites questions of why. Why did 34-year old Aaron Alexis do it? What was his motive? Was it a personal greivance, or political? But this is a fruitless endeavor.

All we really need to know is that, as with most mass murderers, the profile of Alexis that is taking shape is of a troubled man with a history of anger, violence, and mental health problems. Certainly it’s possible someone might have said something to trigger Alexis, or perhaps he had been having an issue with his current employer.  But if it had not been the one thing, it would have been another. His anger was free-floating, and had already landed in a variety of places.

(MORE: The Shooter’s Troubled Mind)

In 2004 Alexis reportedly shot out the tires of a car driven by construction workers he felt had disrespected him.  Afterwards, Alexis told police that he experienced an anger-fueled blackout.  He was arrested again in 2010 after discharging a pistol through his ceiling into a neighbor’s apartment, which he claimed was an accident.  Some reports have mentioned that Alexis was discharged from the Navy, where he was a reservist from 2007 to 2011, for misconduct. All of these early details easily place him into the mold of most other perpetrators: whether young, old, male or (rarely) female, they are inevitably angry, mentally unstable individuals quick to blame others for the failures of their own lives.

Since the attack took place at a government office, people searching for motive also weighed the possibility of political terrorism, although again this distinction has become less important since recent research has suggested that suicide terrorists in the United States are not so different from mass shooters in psychological profile.  We can expect the usual hand-wringing about guns, and if Alexis so much as played Pac Man we can expect the usual warbling over violent video games.

(MORE: Terrorists and Mass Shooters: More Similar Than We Thought)

But what we don’t realize is that society gives these individuals exactly what they want by tearing itself apart after each of these events.  People are too quick to capitalize on these tragic events to promote their particular cultural agendas.  Factions form, arguing that this or that is the real cause of mass shootings.  Sensible people get angry at each other, and begin to view each other as enemies.  Society turns on itself.  Arguments are raised about which amendment, the first or second, would be more palatable to sacrifice.  We begin to hate ourselves as much as these murderous individuals hate us.

Perhaps there are some sensible things we can do to make future events like this a little less likely.  If we’re intent on keeping our firearms, then perhaps a serious push to improve mental health care in the country would prove less controversial.  But in all our efforts to find what motivates these shooters, we’ve lost sight of the fact that there are simply some bad people out there who are filled with hate and who make the decision to express it with the most awful means possible.  Let’s look for ways to reduce the mental anguish that makes the vengeful more likely to lash out.  But if we’re looking for something to blame, blame them.