Psychology and the mind of a shooter. From “Psychology of New Mexico Shooting of James Boyd” by Misterleflo, 2019 (https://favpng.com/) and DMCA.
It’s 38 degrees outside – it’s cold for L.A. The wind has been howling as it does seasonally here, blowing down from the pass with tornado strength gusts. After three tepid days in Southern California, I am getting ready to drive north to San Francisco again tonight. It’s never long enough, the visit here and the time with my girls. It’s always too short. The big news for me this morning is not the outcome of Super Bowl LIV, but another seemingly senseless shooting on a Greyhound bus in Lebec. Shortly after that, news of a school shooting in a residence hall at Texas A&M. Again – why? In a few short hours, I will drive right past the scene in Lebec. Police tape and a few flashing lights to mark another end-of-life scene.
Tomorrow night I will be back in Vallejo. Although the details of these shootings are still emerging, I can’t but help thinking of the men and women I work with. Will this latest perpetrator perhaps become one of them? After losing years of their lives to the California Department of Corrections (and ‘Rehabilitation’), most of ‘my guys’ are honestly and earnestly trying to create a life for themselves – perhaps the first life, or shot at life, they have ever really had.
Most – but not all.
Last year, I began research to examine the applicability of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) ‘Threat Assessment Perspective of the School Shooter,’ 1 published in 2000, against the rash of school shootings that have occurred in the two decades since. The report was developed in response to public demand for a profile of the potential shooter. “How do we recognize these kids before it happens?”
The result? Essentially, you can’t!
There have been many other studies since then, including one by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), titled ‘Protecting America’s Schools,’ 2 and with more data to compile, perhaps the potential profile has changed. In a cruel twist of irony, my family was directly impacted when on November 14th last year, 15-year old Nate Berhow opened fire on the campus of Saugus High, killing two and injuring three others before turning the gun on himself.
So Why Does It Happen?
Well that’s the question, isn’t it! There is much debate among academics as to whether the men and women who currently fill our prisons are themselves victims of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture?’ Is there something within them inherently fused and broken, or were they driven by circumstance to do whatever it was that they did? For every person who has ever consider this dilemma, the 2018 documentary film Three Identical Strangers 3 is a must-see.
The film, which premiered in 2018 to some critical acclaim, documents the lives of three identical triplets, born to a single teenage mother in 1961, New York, and adopted out at six months old to three separate families. The boys were raised knowing they were adopted, but not knowing they each had a brother. These boys, along with several other sets of twins and triplets born in the same era, and managed by the corresponding adoption agency, became a part of what’s known as the Neubauer Twin Experiment, first documented in The New Yorker in 1995 by Lawrence Wright. 4
Dr. Peter Neubauer, a prominent psychiatrist at New York University’s Psychiatric Institute, conducted investigative research to discern comparable or contradictory paths an individual twin’s life might take if they were raised in separate circumstances, miles apart, unaware of each other’s existence. Considering each study participant started with the same genetic statute, Neubauer sought to establish once and for all the impact of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ on the course of one’s life.
While the conclusion of the documentary is impactful, when the audience learns that Neubauer died in 2008 without publishing a comprehensive summary of findings potentially derived from more than 20 years of longitudinal data, the curious are left with the sense of being entirely unfulfilled. The question remains definitively unanswered. My work with marginalized populations both locally and internationally has led me to my own conclusion that both nature and nurture, genetics and circumstance, biology and environment if you will, play a significant, if not somewhat equal though slightly imbalanced role in how an individual will live their life. However, what is often overlooked is the complicated intertwined relationship that exists between genetics and experience.
Evolution of the Mind
As researchers and scientists strive diligently to understand the evolution of the criminal mind, one disturbing fact will remain a foundation for all future studies: explanations of criminal behavior and political allegiances, unfortunately, tend to go hand in glove. 5 No, I am not talking about Trump and Pelosi and their personal political divides, but rather how biological and social causes of crime intermingle inseparably, step-for-step in a bizarre dance of interdependence. Where the liberal left tends to embrace the theories of social factors as the cause of crime, conservatives tend to go in the opposite direction, leaning more toward the biological.
Don’t believe me? Think back to the last (of too many) recent school shootings. Who was it proclaiming that easy access to guns and the prevalence of guns in our society, and even the NRA, were the basis of such horrific violence? Who was it proclaiming in an equally loud voice that a failed medical system and the inability of these perpetrators to access decent mental health services were the basis of such horrific violence? The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that in the political context, the interpretation of science, often for personal gain, can result in a really bad outcome – and usually does!
Back to the dance of interdependence. So, who leads? Well, to answer this question, there needs to be a basic understanding of the human brain. Scientific advances in the 20th century led researchers to a unanimously accepted conclusion about the structure of the brain: the brain’s prefrontal cortex is linked to the control of antisocial behavior. That’s an essential recognition.
As a very brief synopsis: There are two major systems within the brain. The limbic brain, the oldest reptilian part of our brain, where the endocrine system resides, develops when we are around the age of 15. The prefrontal cortex, which provides reasoning and regulation is not fully developed until our mid-twenties. This suggests that the reasoning part of our brain is lagging behind by about ten or so years, and many young people who are guilty of anti-social behavior don’t have much of a reasoning or control system in place. 6
Yet for all our advances in science, the ability of doctors to study the brain with technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), and even the inordinately high prevalence of antidepressant and antipsychotic pharmaceuticals in our midst, this one simple fact remains: crime – all crime – is an inherently social event. 6
Think about that. “Crime is an inherently social event.”
Some researchers suggest that it is the fantasies of troubled teens in which the seeds of violence are sown. 7 The dark and violent vengeful scenarios that lead to murderous acts of violence. Others suggest that the prevalence of violent video games and the ‘first-person shooter’ gameplay scenarios are to blame. 8 While others still believe that the root cause of teen violence is predominantly grounded in some kind of ‘bullying.’ 2
While we can’t change genetics, well not quite yet, we can have other positive impacts. Violence, especially this kind of violence, is only a symptom of a much greater and more prevalent disease. We need to treat the condition.
Until there is a uniform and accepted diagnosis of the disease, the best we can do is work toward recognition of the symptoms. Hidden among these symptoms are indicators of an imminent act.
Perhaps the most profound commonality among perpetrators is their desire to share their intent with others prior to the execution of the crime.
More to Come…
Over the next several weeks, I will continue to write about my ongoing research as I investigate the findings of the FBI, the CIA, and the body of independent researchers who have taken an interest in this field. After being personally touched by one of these incidents, the goal of my research has somewhat changed. Or perhaps it has just become more personal. Either way, it is my objective to contribute to the broader body of research on the subject in the hope that perhaps we can reach some common ground as a society toward recognizing and thus eradicating this type of social crime.
More importantly, over the next year, as I present my research findings to interested parties in several speaking engagements around the country, it will remain my primary goal to educate and inform.
- O’Toole, M.A. and N.C.f.t.A.o.V.C. (U.S.). The school shooter: A threat assessment perspective. 2000, FBI Academy: Quantico, VA.
- Alathari, L., et al., Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence, U.S.S.S.N.T.A.C. (NTAC), Editor. 2019.
- Wardle, T., Three Identical Strangers. 2018, CNN Films. p. 1hr 36min.
- Wright, L., Double Mystery, in The New Yorker. 1995: online.
- O’Malley, J.P. Understanding the Mind of a Criminal: Is it Nature or Nurture? [electronic] 2016 November 16 [cited 2019 February 2]; Available from: https://www.gizmodo.co.uk/.
- Rafter, N.H., The Criminal Brain : Understanding Biological Theories of Crime. 2008, New York: NYU Press.
- Robertz, F.J., Deadly Dreams: What Motivates School Shootings?, in Scientific American. 2007: online.
- Grossman, D. and K. Paulsen, Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing. 2016, New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.