There Is No Such Thing as a Motive for Mass Killings

Trying to make ordinary sense out of these extraordinary crimes is fruitless—and ultimately only encourages more violence

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Michelle McLoughlin / Reuters

Lighted angels hang from a tree in Monroe, Connecticut, January 14, 2013, on the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary.

Why did the Newtown shooter do it? This is the question to which the media and the public anxiously awaited an answer before yesterday’s release of a report by Connecticut investigators. The report itself even notes this interest, saying, “The obvious question that remains is: ‘Why did the shooter murder twenty-seven people, including twenty children?’”

If we are looking for a reason to make sense of it all, the report leaves us disappointed—and the lack of motive figures in just about every headline covering yesterday’s report. But even looking for one is a futile act.

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Here is what the report does find: The shooter had mental health problems, including social dysfunction, anxiety, lack of empathy, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. But the shooter’s actions cannot be explained away merely by mental illness: although he was troubled, he was not psychotic or insane. Rather, he “had the ability to control his behavior to obtain the results he wanted, including his own death.” There is overwhelming evidence that he acted intentionally and planned his actions carefully. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Despite early speculation, there is little evidence that bullying or other personal grievances provided a motive. While a few teachers, friends, and relatives indicated that the shooter had been bullied as a child, none said that it had been severe, and a larger number said they had never seen him bullied or heard him complain of it.

But this line of questioning is peculiar to begin with. Even if evidence of bullying had been found, it could not possibly amount to a motive in any ordinary sense for a young man to murder people who had never victimized him—particularly not twenty children who had yet to be born when he himself was a child.

(MORE: Sandy Hook Shootings: Why Did Adam Lanza Target a School?)

When we search for a “motive,” we’re looking for things like self-defense, revenge, jealousy, or personal dispute. There are also motives in which the victim may be somewhat more arbitrary, such as robbery, sexual assault, or sadistic pleasure. But there is no evidence that any of these motives apply to the Newtown shooting, as there almost never is for mass shootings—which is why we speak of them as “senseless.”

The reason that we never find these motives is that the slaughter of random victims is what mass shootings are ultimately about. Indiscriminate targeting is the main criterion that criminologists use to distinguish rampage shootings from other forms of mass murder, like gang violence.

The best framework for understanding rampage shootings at Newtown, Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and many others is not bullying, mental illness, or gun violence, but terrorism, only without (usually) a political agenda. In terrorism, the true target is society itself; the people who are killed are, grotesquely, a means to this end. Likewise for mass shootings, as forensic psychiatrist Paul E. Mullen wrote in a 2004 article, “Vengeance usually directed against society at large is part of the motivation.”

MORE: Terrorists and Mass Shooters More Similar Than We Thought

The particular reasons that drive each shooter are idiosyncratic. The common element is that mass shooters suffer from some toxic, paradoxical mix of narcissism and weak ego that brings them to make a deliberate choice to blame their frustrations on the world as a whole rather than on themselves.

The mass shooting provides a means for the perpetrator to fulfill his unrequited grandiosity and hatred. The motive is not fame but infamy. Mullen writes, “they are eased towards their self-destruction by fantasies of how others will react and by the effects they believe their deaths will produce.”

Like political terrorism, the mass shooting is a crafted public spectacle, a theater of violence in which we are the unwitting yet compliant audience. The report describes the shooter’s obsessive interest in prior massacres. But among its many inconclusions is that it finds “no clear indication why Sandy Hook Elementary School was selected.” Perhaps the answer is too sickening to be sayable: the shooter deliberately chose a target that would maximize the horror and ensure his place in the pantheon of anti-heroes.

Trying to make ordinary sense out of these extraordinary crimes is fruitless. It leads reporters to broadcast the shooters’ manifestos and scribblings, to search for any scraps of frustration or injustice they suffered that might somehow explain their actions.

But this devoted attention is just what allows the shooters to control not only their actions but the meaning of them. Putting a stop to mass shootings begins by agreeing that, once a person has resorted to the mass slaughter of indiscriminate victims, speculating on his motives means spreading half-truths that might encourage others to follow in his footsteps.

Ari N. Schulman is the executive editor of The New Atlantis and the author of “What Mass Killers Want—And How to Stop Them.” The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter @AriSchulman.