After July 16, tragedy became politics

Hindsight is 20/20, but experts say heading off mass murder is harder than it seems

People react to events in this combination picture.

  photo  People react to events in this combination picture.

Even before the dead servicemen were buried, there was a cognitive rush for reason.

The brains of the survivors and families and bystanders and public onlookers both in Chattanooga and abroad were filing the details and accounts of July 16, trying to make sense of the attack, condensing and folding information to complement personal bias, experts say.

The pioneering British psychologist Frederic Bartlett once called the phenomenon, which is so much more obvious in the era of social media, an "effort after meaning," the unconscious work the mind does to fit recollections neatly into how an individual understands the world. And it explains, in part, why people can digest the same information, yet come away with completely different conclusions about what an event actually means.

People are "often unable to escape the pull of their prior attitudes and beliefs, which guide the processing of information in predictable and sometimes insidious ways," wrote two researchers from the University of Kansas, who studied the public response on social media after three recent mass shootings in the United States.

In Chattanooga, there seemed to be the same script.

To many, Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez's actions prove the need to arm the military.

"Our military personnel have become targets They must be given the tools to defend themselves," said U.S. Rep Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.

A week after the shooting at two Chattanooga military sites, DesJarlais introduced a bill that would reverse Department of Defense regulations that restrict who can carry guns in military buildings.

"I don't call for a disarming of Americans. Instead I call for the full institution of the Second Amendment so that we may defend ourselves as a country from all threats both foreign and domestic. The threat is real. This is real, and this will not be the end of it," Dakota Meyer, a former Marine and Medal of Honor winner, wrote on Facebook after the mass shooting in Chattanooga, spurring thousand and thousands of reposts and tweets across the country.

The sentiment has now been made into T-shirts and has become the battle cry of a movement called Never Outgunned. The belief has also been expressed by many civilians who armed themselves and guarded military recruiting sites across the country in the aftermath of the attack until the Pentagon asked them to stand down because of safety concerns.

To others, the shooting in Chattanooga is another case that highlights the urgent need for gun control.

"This is another reminder of the work that needs to be done to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people," read a statement from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which has called for tighter restrictions on online gun purchases and more thorough background checks to prevent the seriously mentally ill from purchasing guns, both factors in the July 16 attack.

"Another horrible act of gun violence in US - like thousands of others. But officials will make this about Islam, not guns," wrote the Center for Constitutional Rights on Twitter.

To others, the story points to the need for improved mental health services.

"Chattanooga shooting is raising red flags about untreated mental health," The Watershed, a drug and alcohol treatment company with sites across the country, wrote on Twitter.

"More reason we need affordable mental health care in this country," wrote Kate Blanchard, a professor at Alma College in Michigan.

"Rather than look at Abdulazeez's issues with depression, his mental health, and the fact that he was allowed access to assault rifles, certain politicians and members of the media have chosen to focus on an assumed affiliation," wrote Justin Salhani on Think Progress.

And still, to others, what Abdulazeez did speaks to the threat of his Muslim faith and the link between that faith and terrorism.

"Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized-and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad," Franklin Graham, the famed pastor Billy Graham's son, posted on Facebook after the attack. "During World War II, we didn't allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we've got to put a stop to this and close the floodgates."


The same claims on tragedy occur after so many of these very public, very widely broadcast killings, experts say.

  photo  Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Sophia Ensley, right, and Barbie Branum hug in front of an Amnicola Highway memorial for victims of the July, 16 shootings. Youssef Abdulazeez shot and killed four U.S. Marines and a Navy petty officer in the attacks.

"There is an epidemic of epidemic thinking," said Jack Levin, the Betty Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology Emeritus at Northeastern University in Boston, who has authored 31 books on mass murder, serial murder, hate crimes and prejudice and has researched the topic for 35 years.

For one, there is a sense, because half of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history have occurred in the last decade, that there are more mass killings and murder than ever before, which isn't necessarily true, said Levin.

Violent crime has fallen 51 percent since 1991. According to the FBI, the number of violent crimes per 100,000 people fell from 758 in 1991 to 367.9 in 2013. Property crime has declined 43 percent in the same time period. Homicides dropped by 54 percent, according to federal statistics.

A mass murder is defined as a single criminal event that takes the life of four or more people. And every year there are 20 to 25 mass killings that involve between 100 to 150 victims, Levin said. In 30 years, mass shootings have claimed the lives of 547 people and 476 have been injured, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

It seems like there are more because there are more killers that appear to be politically and ideologically motivated to murder strangers in public places, but there have always been many instances of mass murder that never reached a national audience. Forty percent of mass killings happen in homes, between friends and family, he said.

"There is no evidence at all that mass shootings have been on the rise since the early 1970s," Levin said. "One year we may see a spike. The next year we see a decline, but there is no trend up or down."

Yet, the appearance that America has been thrust into an era of mass killing, drives a ferocious desire to find workable, large-scale solutions, particularly because so many of these instances seem, on the surface at least, to have been preventable.

In the aftermath, friends, family, teachers, co-workers, law enforcement and psychologists share details in the media that seem to indicate there were clues that didn't register until it was too late, another psychological phenomenon called hindsight bias. Still, experts say this is often a false sense of inevitability. Millions of American's may exhibit strange behavior and millions of Americans may ignore said behavior, yet mass murder isn't an outcome.

Research shows, like serial killers, mass murders are often methodical and planned carefully so as not to be thwarted. They are not deranged or insane individuals who just snap, and they don't typically have violent criminal records. But a 2001 Safe School Initiative report by the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education did note that in 81 percent of the cases reviewed, the school shooter told at least one person they were either thinking about or planning an attack. In the case of the Columbine school shooting, police knew the two killers were making bombs and even were issued a search warrant but never executed it. In the Aurora, Colo. shooting the killer had told his psychiatrist that he had homicidal thoughts. Hours before the attack he mailed her his plan, but she didn't receive it in time to call the authorities.

The problem is that all these situations end up being extremely complicated and they are born from unique individuals and unique circumstances, Levin says. And despite attempts, researchers haven't been able to find either a silver bullet solution or a workable profile for the types of people who will become mass murderers.


People argue that tougher guns laws or looser gun laws would stop these atrocities, but research doesn't give a clear answer.

A study in the Journal of Trauma and a paper in the American Journal of Criminal Justice cite the fact that the United States does have a high homicide rate compared with other high-income countries, driven, in part, by high rates of gun homicide. Among 23 countries, 80 percent of firearm deaths occurred in the United States, according to the study by Erin Richardson, who was researching for the UCLA School of Public Health. And research into Australia's very tough gun restrictions, which were triggered by a mass shooting, suggest some laws could help.

"In the 18 years before the gun law reforms, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia, and none in the 10.5 years afterwards," wrote researchers from the University of Sydney in the academic journal Injury Prevention.

Yet, in 2007, the country's leading researchers in the field concluded, in a report for the National Academy of Sciences, that no conclusion could be drawn.

"Considerable gaps in research and data make it difficult to draw cause and effect relationships between firearms and violence. Further, methodological problems hamper efforts to evaluate policies and to gain consensus on effective strategies to lower gun crime and violence," the report states.

Other studies have shown that, despite the fact that gun carry permits have increased in recent years, the prevalence of guns doesn't seem to lead to an uptick in murder, or mass murder.

"Despite a large body of research, the committee found no credible evidence that the passage of right-to-carry laws decreases or increases violent crime," according to a critical review of research published by the National Research Council of the National Academies.

Mental illness is pointed to as a contributor that should somehow be mitigated, specifically with laws that keep guns from people with mental illness and allow parents to more easily commit their adult children for mental health treatment. The instance in Newtown, Conn., in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza - who had suffered from severe mental illness and had Asperger syndrome, and killed 20 children and 6 adults at an elementary school - brought increased attention to the role of mental illness in mass murder.

Yet, research shows that, while many mass murderers do exhibit mental illness and early intervention can lower a person's risk, it is an oversimplification to blame their actions on brain chemistry.

"Research, in fact, confirms the error in associating dangerousness with mental illness, showing that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses," wrote nationally renowned forensic psychologist Robert Phillips in the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics in 2012. "In reality, no one can predict future dangerousness precisely and with absolute certainty."

Research shows that it is exceptionally rare for a person with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, to commit violence against a stranger, unless that illness is compounded by a first-time psychotic state and substance abuse.

Even then, "the extreme rarity of these events means that identification of individual patients who might kill a stranger is not possible," according to research published in the medical journal Schizophrenia Bulletin.

Plus, Levin said autopsies and testing of mass murderers show they typically are not under the influence of alcohol and drugs when they commit the act.

Research also shows that risk assessment tools used in the clinical and criminal justice settings don't do a good job of predicting the violent mentally ill because their "accuracy varies depending on how they are used," according to a 2012 meta analysis.


And the biggest problem in heading off mass murder is that a workable profile for the killers hasn't really emerged from research either. The media and the public talk with certainty about the villains, but behavioral scientists remain baffled, experts say. One significant reason is that many of the killers either commit suicide or are killed by law enforcement.

"Incidents are not well understood, despite their notoriety," an article in the Journal for Police and Criminal Psychology notes.

Criminologists can only offer a broad sketch.

The killers are typically male, typically middle aged, typically have access to guns, typically suffer from depression, typically blame others for their problems and seek some type of revenge, typically experiences a major loss or setback and typically are socially isolated, said Levin.

They also tend to be more vulnerable to radical ideology because many suffer from "adaptive failure" and haven't been able to find their place in the world. Radical groups like ISIS are appealing to this type of individual because they send a message that the outside world is responsible for their pain, said Thomas Bowers, a clinical psychologist at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg who studies mass murders internationally.

And, in many ways, Abdulazeez fit the profile, said Bowers and Levin. Still, the profile isn't a good predictor because so many people share the same qualities but don't kill anyone.

"There is no way to predict who is going to kill in mass and who isn't," said Levin. "There are so many people who have all the symptoms. They fit the profile, but don't get the disease."

In the aftermath of July 16, even though little information is known yet about why Abdulazeez did what he did, the calls for more guns and less guns and more surveillance of Muslims and better mental health care will continue.

But the past should be a warning, experts say. Just think back to April 1999.

In the hours after news broke that two teenagers had entered Columbine High School and killed students and teachers and their profiles emerged, many already felt they understood what had happened.

Two social outcasts - influenced by Nazis, a hate for Christianity, Marilyn Manson songs and violent video games - had plotted revenge on the cruel jocks and cool kids who had bullied them.

The narrative spawned sermons, songs, best selling books, years of academic research into the influence of video games and lawsuits against video game manufacturers, deep suspicion of the goth subculture, a famous documentary on gun culture, a fierce debate about gun restrictions and the modern anti-bully movement in schools.

Yet, the causes of Columbine, which fortified so many social and political efforts for years, seem less clear now.

In 2006, thousands of pages of official documents were finally released that cast new light on America's first school shooting spectacle.

These documents, which included the teens' journals, showing that the two young killers were not, in fact, bullied. They had friends. They did well in school. They didn't listen to Marilyn Mason. They didn't intend to target a single group. Cassie Bernall, who had been deemed a Christian martyr, had been shot outright. It was another student, Valeen Schnurr, who had been asked if she believed in God. When she answered yes, her life was spared, according to a book written by Colorado-based journalist Dave Cullen.

And perhaps, the furious effort to pin the tragedy on the prevalence of violent video games or school bullying or goth culture or Nazi ideology was misguided, Cullen's book suggests. Thorough reviews of their journals since show the mass killing seemed to be born out of a general disdain for humanity, a sociopathic void of empathy. They wanted to blow up the whole school and kill 2,000 people. They wanted violence on the scale of the Oklahoma City bombing, but the explosives didn't go off.

What can the political remedy be for simply and broad hatred?

"We would like to think that we can prevent these types of murders, but there is no way we are going to put armed guards and metal detectors everywhere," said Levin.

Sadly, it's the cost of a free society, he said. It's the cost of probable cause and personal privacy and innocent-until-proven-guilty laws.

And the real deterrent may be beyond laws and policy and social media analysis, Levin said.

Research shows America's sense of community has been disintegrating for a long time. People text instead of call, play with phones instead of talk to people sitting beside them on the bus, have less stable families, are more divided politically, feel less trust for government, police and even their neighbors, as renowned Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam has pointed out in his research.

Despite calls for strength and unity in a city like Chattanooga, a quick scroll through the comments on any news story of the attack show tragedy divides as well.

Yet, a sense of community is what can pull some who are the most vulnerable to violence - those who might feel depressed, hopeless and powerless - back from the brink, Levin said.

"We shouldn't do it to prevent a murder. But we will," he said.

Contact Joan Garrett McClane at or (423)757-6601.

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Latest national news on Chattanooga shootings: authorities searching gunman's computer

Cook: On a normal Thursday morning, everything changed

Tragedy will not define us, our city will heal

Shooting shatter's city's sense of innocence