I could sure use some help understanding “active shooters.” Does anybody know why they kill?
What makes a teenager into a mass killer? How can you get that angry in just a few years after being born? Why would anyone want to turn an outdoor concert into a killing field? A garlic festival into a bloodbath? A school into a slaughterhouse?
What goes through the head of a person while he’s planning to turn a shopping center in El Paso into a shooting gallery? Makes someone don military gear and weaponry to wage war on civilians in Dayton, Ohio?
Two decades after the massacre at Columbine High and hundreds of mass killings later, I know nothing useful about these attackers. In the Washington region, which is on perpetual terrorist watch, all I know about the culprits comes from a sketchy profile of who commits the most attacks: a white male with a grievance and a gun. Even in the active-shooter videos it’s always a white male.
That’s about as useful to me as a police APB for a black youth with a hoodie.
We talk a lot about white men in the aftermath of these killings. But does anybody talk to them?
Here’s what we’re told:
A 2018 FBI analysis of 63 active shooters found that the youngest was 12 and the oldest 88. The average age was 37. About 63 percent were white, 16 percent black, 10 percent Asian and 6 percent Hispanic. And 3 percent were Middle Eastern.
The group was 94 percent male.
Also, 5 percent had master’s or doctorate degrees, 7 percent had a bachelor’s degree, 11 percent had attended some college, and 20 percent had graduated from high school only. The 12-year-old had never been to school.
The report noted that 44 percent were employed while 38 percent were unemployed.
Interesting tidbits, but this still doesn’t tell me why.
The active-shooting videos encourage us to be on the lookout at our jobs and schools for odd behaviors — actions and attitudes that indicate a colleague is on the path to violence.
Dennis Cobb, a law enforcement official featured in the Department of Homeland Security video, says that “the people most likely to recognize that are the people who are most tuned in to what is normal behavior for that area.”
So we watch our co-workers and our classmates and our family members, and we look for what?
“What we are asking people to do is share observations about relatively small subsets of behavior because we’ve learned from experience that it is unlikely that one person will be in a position to know everything,” said Gene Deisinger, a behavioral psychologist also featured in the Homeland Security video. “We are asking people to share information about things that will not in fact turn out to be highly problematic, and we need for people to know that’s okay and will not result in adverse actions that are not merited.”
That could look like someone constantly complaining about the job or school.
“What we are looking for is the unreasonable griever, the person who won’t let go and engages in behavior to take harmful action in response to that grievance,” Deisinger said. “Ofttimes people that come to our attention are referred to as ‘injustice collectors.’ It’s not just one grievance, it’s a series of grievances over time.”
But what if that person doesn’t complain, doesn’t say anything at all? How often are official complaints made warning that someone may be an active shooter? And if one is made, how often is it taken seriously? How are we to know when one man keeping quiet and staying to himself will lead to mass murder?
Of course, many people are most interested in getting rid of the guns so often used in these mass attacks. Fine, but I suspect that someone who’d shoot in a classroom full of first-graders or a store filled with people shopping on a Saturday afternoon would find another way to kill.
“What we find is that active shooters will adapt their tactics to whatever changes law enforcement makes,” said Al Phoenix, a law enforcement officer featured in the Homeland Security video. “At Columbine, they used explosives in addition to firearms. At the Aurora theater, the attacker used ballistic gear. These attackers learn from the past. Law enforcement does the same.”
Let’s hope so, because knowing more about why these men kill would help develop better intervention. You might stop an attack — regardless of the weapon. And this time, we may have an opportunity to learn something.
Unlike in so many mass shootings, the suspected killer in the El Paso attack was apprehended alive. So often, these men kill themselves or are killed by law enforcement trying to stop them. But in this case, he’s alive, and there are reports that he is talking.
Maybe we’ll get some answers. Maybe we won’t like them.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.