To gain a comparative perspective on the Norway terror attacks and the public response to them, ACIA formed a panel of speakers to discuss several mass shootings in the United States. Dave Cullen, the author of Columbine, covered the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School as a journalist, then spent 10 years writing his widely praised book. John Ryan, chair of the sociology department at Virginia Tech University, and Laura Agnich, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech in 2007 and now teaching criminal justice at Georgia Southern University, were both on campus on the day of Seung Hui Cho’s shooting rampage there, and subsequently conducted research on the reaction in the university community. Joseph Hight spoke on the 2006 shooting of five young girls in an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where he observed the aftermath while serving as president of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Formerly, as an editor of the Daily Oklahoman, Hight directed that newspaper’s coverage of the 1995 bombing that killed 168 people in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
After those and all such events, the affected communities and the wider public are left with the mystery of why they occurred. What made Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold or Anders Behring Breivik or the Virginia Tech or Amish school shooters become mass murderers?
“The question I get asked most often is ‘Why did they do it?'” Dave Cullen said. “I think the question people are really asking is not why did these two guys do this, it is why do people do this? Why do people keep going into buildings and shooting people, or why do they put bombs under buildings and then go to an island and kill people there?” In answering the question, Cullen went on,
I frustrate them a little bit by telling them well, there is no they. There’s why did Eric do it and why did Dylan do it. They were completely different people and they had different drives. But the short story is that Eric Harris was a psychopath, a sadistic psychopath, and Dylan Klebold was a severe depressive.
A psychopath is somebody without empathy. Psychopaths have no capacity to feel the needs of other people or care about other human suffering. We’re not sure but they seem to be born that way. They are without remorse. They are very rarely killers because there is not a lot of money or there is not a lot of benefit in killing for most people. Most psychopaths are swindlers, conmen, and crooked politicians, somebody who is going to rip you off, cheat you out of your position at work or something like that. It is only in very rare cases when for whatever reason the person is also sadistic and enjoys hurting people, hurting animals, hurting whatever, and really relishes it. That is a really toxic mixture where you get a person with complete disregard for other people’s feelings who also enjoys hurting people. You put those together and he will enjoy killing people. That is a pretty rare case, but that is what we had in Eric Harris.
Dylan Klebold was a deeply suicidally depressed person. We have his journal, which he kept for two years. On the first page he talks about suicide. He was probably thinking about it before then. So, we have a really long, long downward spiral. Eric was the driver, the psychopath, his plan was the driving force. Dylan Klebold is harder to understand, why someone just deeply depressed would kill other people rather than just killing himself.
People are looking for a sort of unified theory of mass murders. They assume it is out there. They want to understand the mind of killers, not just these two particular guys but all of them. And they are really frustrated that there is no single unified theory. There is no one thing driving them all.
There is one thing that I found that does seem to be in common, not a motivating force, but a key characteristic. Mark Juergensmeyer, who wrote one of the best books on terrorism, Terror in the Mind of God, refers to all terrorism as “performance violence.” I think that really captures not just terrorism, but most mass murder. It is a performance. It’s murder as stagecraft and as theater. The people involved are props in his stage play. If you are killing multiple people, you are lashing out in some way. You are trying to get the attention of many other people and whether you are thinking about it or not, you’re doing it for an audience. So I think that is one thing they have in common. It does not really satisfy the people who are looking into this because that still begs the question, why the hell are people committing murder as theater.
Most mass murderers fit into one of three types, if you exclude terrorism. If you keep terrorism in, that’s a fourth type with a political agenda, like the PLO, the IRA, Osama Bin Laden. There are some outliers that do not fit in. But for the most part mass murderers fit into one of these three types: sadistic psychopaths, deeply suicidal depressives and then people who are deeply mentally ill, typically schizophrenic or somewhere out of the bounds of reality, where they do not understand what is going on. A classic example of that is Virginia Tech, where Seung Hui Cho was delusional and out of touch with reality.
It turns out that two of those types are pretty rare. You do not have a lot of psychopaths as mass murderers. When they do it they tend to present more often as serial killers than with this kind of event killing. The seriously mentally ill are fairly rare too. The vast majority are actually depressed, which a lot of people find surprising.
There is also overlap between those types. Relevant to theNorwaycase, it seems highly likely that Breivik probably was psychopathic in addition to being a terrorist. There is a lot in the literature about that too. Juergensmeyer’s book notes that a high percentage of people in terrorist organizations are psychopaths. A lot of people in the organization may well be guided by morality, something they consider a moral reason. Whether or not we choose to believe that, they think they are doing the right thing. But within the organization there are a lot of people who are feeling too like ooh, very cool, I can go kill people.
On Dr. Robert Hare’s checklist of 20 key characteristics of the psychopath, 10 are characteristics of external behavior and the other 10, which are really more important, are the internal drivers. Among the internal ones, egocentricity is massively important. It is all about the person. Others are being grandiose, lacking remorse or guilt, lacking empathy, and being deceitful and manipulative. That is a huge one, the way they lie. They lie to get away with things but also because they enjoy it. Lying for sport. They just really, really enjoy telling lies and getting away with it. That is a signature characteristic. The external things include poor behavior control, need for excitement, lack of responsibility, early behavior problems. It is typically in adolescence that these start showing up.
In Eric Harris’s writings there is his bomb-making chart. He was quite methodical about it. He has the number he made, the day he did it, and a rating — that column is very interesting. Psychopaths have a very high opinion of themselves. One early batch is rated okay, one is good and the rest of his work is all excellent. This is about October, more than six months out. He is already planning this thing and with minute detail tracking what he is doing. Eric also made a diagram of the cafeteria, where he tracked how many people were in the cafeteria at any given time. There are only about 60 to 80 people in there before the lunch period starts. After the bell rings he watches as the room fills up. It maximizes at more than 500 people between 11:14 and 11:15 so that is when he planned to set the bombs to go off. That was the plan, to wipe out more than 500 people in the first few instants and then start shooting and killing everybody.
This is very, very cold blooded and meticulous. I am just going to sit here in the cafeteria, count up roughly how many people there are, so I can maximize the number of bodies. I do not care who dies, who lives. It is just a numbers game. It is just what kind of impact I can make on television.
Where Cullen had focused on the act of mass murder and the mind of the mass murderer, John Ryan and Laura Agnich spoke about the community that experienced the shooting — about Virginia Tech and how its students, faculty and staff sought to come together after April 16, 2007, when a deranged 23-year-old student named Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people in a dormitory and a classroom building and then killed himself.*
*Analysts reconstructing Seung Hui Cho’s emotional life found significant connections to the Columbine shooting, which occurred when Cho was in eighth grade. As documented in the report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, after Columbine, “Cho’s middle school teachers observed suicidal and homicidal ideations in his writings and recommended psychiatric counseling, which he received.” In the written manifesto he mailed to NBC on the day of his own rampage, Cho mentioned Harris and Klebold — referring to them by their first names, as if he knew them personally. A “theoretical profile” of Cho included in the review panel report suggested that his suicide may have consciously followed the example of “Eric and Dylan,” who by killing themselves had succeeded in “cheating society out of ever having the opportunity of arresting and punishing them” for their act.
Agnich began with a brief recapitulation of the day of the shooting — believed to be the worst mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history — and the events that followed:
On April 16, 2007, at 7:15 a.m., Seung Hui Cho shot his first victim, Emily Hilscher, in her dorm room. Her resident advisor, Ryan Clark, came to see what happened and he was also shot. So, it looked like a double homicide. At 7:30, Emily Hilscher’s friend who always walked to class with her shows up and tells police that normally Emily’s boyfriend drops her off, that he has guns, and likely he had just dropped her off. So the police assume that Emily had been having an affair with this young man who was also found dead with her and they are out looking for the boyfriend.
At 8 o’clock classes begin. Meanwhile Cho is walking to the post office across town where he mails his multimedia manifesto which includes some video footage and e-mails to NBC. At 9:01 he mails this to NBC. At 9:05 the second period of classes begins. Between 9:15 and 9:30, Cho chains the doors to Norris Hall closed from the inside, at three different entrances. And then between 9:40 and 9:51 an additional 30 students are killed, 17 others were shot and survived, and another eight sustained injuries largely from jumping out of second floor windows to try to escape the shooting.
After the shooting, the victims were to some extent identified on Facebook — before the families were notified — through a group called “I’m OK at Virginia Tech.” People were joining this group to let their friends and relatives know they were okay, because cell phone lines were clogged and it was extremely difficult to get any information out. So that was one way that these victims were identified in social media before the actual media was able to release the names.
The aftermath. The day after the shooting we had a huge convocation at our stadium. Then President Bush and his wife came. Nikki Giovanni gave a very powerful speech saying “we are Virginia Tech,” and that was very important for solidarity. The week following the shooting, classes were canceled for the entire five days. There was a free picnic with hot dogs and hamburgers on campus that was very well attended. We were inundated by psychologists and psychiatrists and lots of people that wanted to help. People came with signs offering free hugs. People also baked cookies, sold quilts, brought dogs to interact with the people on campus.
There was a lot of solidarity. When we were researching the aftermath we had focus groups and one of the participants said when a member of your family dies, everyone comes together and to talk about it and to heal and that’s exactly what we did, the Virginia Tech Community was a family. Also during the week after the shooting, as an impromptu memorial, students set up 32 stones in a semicircle in front of Burruss Hall where you go to register for classes. There was some conflict in the early stages about whether a 33rd stone should be laid out for Cho, but that conflict did not last long. The memorial became official and was dedicated in August of that year with 32 stones.
There was some debate about what to do with Norris Hall where the 30 students were killed. Some people wanted to tear it down. It actually became the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, which still exists today in the exact location where the class rooms were, where the students and faculty were killed.
John Ryan turned from the details of the event to the emotional dimension of Virginia Tech’s response, and the narrative its community created of the tragedy and the aftermath:
So, what do we learn from this? A primary task of human beings when confronted with a critical incident is to make sense out of it. In sociology or social psychology, we call that framing.
When we walk into a meeting like this one, immediately, because of our socialization, we know what the frame is. We know how we are supposed to behave in a room like this, we are all in playing our academic roles. When a critical incident happens, the framing that we have been brought up with pretty much goes out the window. We are initially not sure what is happening. At Virginia Tech, the initial frame was that this was a terrorist attack that had something to do with 9/11 and all that. But very quickly a different frame emerged, that this was a random act that could not have been easily prevented.
The way an event is framed is very important for community recovery. If this was a random act, we members of the Virginia Tech community were not to blame. That frame to feelings of solidarity, of oneness in the community. The community is innocent. The victims are innocent. We share a common bond and therefore we are all victims. There were competing frames out there, there are different ways to think about us, but that’s the one that emerged in the media, that’s the one that emerged at the university level. That came out of the characteristics of the community in the first place. This is a very solidified community to begin with and this frame reinforced the solidarity. Compared to Katrina, where there were many more fault lines in the community, or Columbine, Virginia Tech being a college town is very solidified. Perhaps not unlikeNorway.
Inevitably, counter-frames emerge. That’s what we found in our research. The sense that we are all one, we’re all in this together, begins to weaken, begins to fall off after a while after other facts become known — or facts start to be discussed that were known but were initially pushed aside in favor of this sense of solidarity. Questions of bureaucratic incompetence, questions about the mental health system, how much was known within the university about Cho’s mental condition, those arose early. But initially anyone who voiced those kinds of concerns was pretty much ostracized within the community. We had a party line. It was actually a very healing party line. That may be the wrong term because that sounds like it was imposed on us. The university hired a publicity firm for $250,000 to help maintain that frame that we were not to blame, so that was organized, but it wasn’t only imposed. It also grew organically within the community.
Finally, what we learned from our research, which really fits with what we’ve heard over the last two days, is the importance of collective events, collective grieving and recovery. We just happened to have pre-data on solidarity at Virginia Tech and the campus climate, from a survey we had done in the previous year. We were able to follow up with the same students in a longitudinal study twice after April 16th, and what we found, controlling for their well-being beforehand, those students who engaged in community activities were the ones most likely to be recovering and have well-being. They did better than those students who retreated into their personal networks, either family network or their friendship networks, and they did better than the students who only had psychological counseling. Now, we were not dealing with the immediate victims. We were not dealing with the family, the friends of immediate victims, we were dealing with the community at large. So, that does not mean the counseling isn’t helpful, but the community aspect, the church, the community organizations, the picnic, the vigils on the drill field, the data showed that all of those were most conducive to the recovery of individuals and the community as a whole.
Dave Cullen pointed out that communities affected by tragedy do not always get to determine how their tragedies are framed or to shape their own narratives of events. After the Columbine High School shooting,
The framing was not self-imposed, but imposed by the media within the first couple of days. It was that these kids did it because they were outcasts, they were bullied. And the corollary was that the school and its students caused this. This horrible school from hell, this suburban hell that tortures the different and outcast, caused this. The 2,000 survivors in the school were pretty much turned into the guilty parties. It was pretty bad and the students sort of turned on the media and were furious with the media and the way were portrayed.
The shooting at the Amish school in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster county occurred in a specific setting, a community with a culture that is very different and distinct from the broader American society. Driving through the county’s Amish farmlands gives a feeling of “peace and serenity that is uncommon in this country,” Joseph Hight recalled, especially at night when the only lights are from lanterns flickering in farmhouse windows or swaying on the backs of horsedrawn buggies.
The children who live on those farms go to small one-room schools on country roads, all of them built close enough to each other so that every child can walk to school. In a place called Nickel Mines, about 15 miles from the city of Lancaster, a milk truck driver named Charles Roberts walked into one of those schoolhouses on the morning of October 2, 2006, carrying a handgun, a shotgun and a rifle. After sending the teacher and the boys out, along with several parents, he held ten girls as hostages. After police assembled outside the school, along with emergency medical teams and local residents, Roberts began shooting. He shot all ten girls, then killed himself. Five of the girls survived their wounds; five died. The youngest victim was 6, the oldest 13.
Hight, then the president of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, traveled to Lancaster county some weeks later to conduct a workshop on journalists’ response — and responsibility — when covering communities that are struck by tragic events.
There were Amish families in the workshop, which was kind of surprising. They described the circus atmosphere, narrow streets and neighborhoods clogged by TV satellite trucks and the whole bit. As in many of these cases, there were clashes between local and national media, where the local media understood the culture and the national media did not, creating misperceptions or doing things like shooting images of the Amish who did not want any close up images of their faces. The local media respected that. The Amish were angered by false reports, the lack of understanding of their customs, that came from the media, particularly the national media — such as a false report that all Amish at the funerals had to the touch the girls’ bodies and throw dirt on their coffins before they could go to heaven.*
*”It’s really false testimony,” one Amish woman told Hight and his colleagues about that story. “We feel these little girls’ souls went directly to heaven.”
If he came to pursue questions about journalists’ response, what struck Hight most strongly in Lancaster county was the response of the Amish themselves:
The aspect that resonates more than anything else was the forgiveness that the Amish offered to the Roberts family. Dozens attended the funeral. They gave money intended for the support of the victims to Roberts’ wife and children. I’ll never forget being shown the house of Charles Robert’s wife, still living among the Amish, still being treated well by the Amish. who actually supported her just as much they supported the families of the victims, which is incredible to us, why they could do this.
They destroyed that school house 11 days after the killings. So, today you will see only two trees where the school house was because they tore it down. There are misperceptions that that and the forgiveness were the Amish ways of “getting over the massacre, moving forward.” Reports in the years after the massacre indicate survivors still have guilt feelings and nightmares about that particular morning, especially those who were connected to the scene, but what has been found is that forgiveness helps them focus more on the healing process.
Hight read from an article by Donald Kraybill, a professor and author of a book on Amish forgiveness rites:
“For most people [Kraybill wrote] a decision to forgive comes – if ever – at the end of a long emotional journey that may stretch over months if not years. The Amish invert the process. Their religious tradition predisposes them to forgive even before an injustice occurs. Amish faith is grounded in the teachings of Jesus to love enemies, reject revenge, and leave vengeance in the hands of God. As a father who lost a daughter in the schoolhouse said, ‘Forgiveness means giving up the right to revenge.'”
Hight also cited a commentary written for the fifth anniversary of the Nickel Mines shooting by L. Gregory Jones, a theology professor at Duke Divinity School. For the Amish, Jones wrote:
forgiveness is a journey. The decision to offer forgiveness may have occurred immediately, but the emotional and healing processes that accompany that decision takes time. When recently asked about what he had learned over the past five years, one of the Amish fathers said, “I have learned that healing is possible. And that it is not yet finished.”*
* Donald B. Kraybill, “Why the Amish forgive so quickly,” Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 2, 2007 (http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1002/p09s02-coop.html); L. Gregory Jones, “On Amish school shooting’s fifth anniversary, a reflection on forgiveness,” Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger , Oct. 2, 2011 (http://blog.nj.com/njv_guest_blog/2011/10/on_amish_school_shootings_fift.html). Beside the lines Hight quoted in his talk, Kraybill’s article also contained this passage:
News of the instant forgiveness stunned the outside world – almost as much as the incident itself did. Many pundits lauded the Amish, but others worried that hasty forgiveness was emotionally unhealthy.
In dozens of interviews with Amish people since the tragedy, I discovered that the Amish approach to forgiveness is indeed quick and unconventional – but also inspirational to the rest of us.
Members of the Amish community began offering words and hugs of forgiveness when the blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor. A grandmother laughed when I asked if the forgiveness was orchestrated. “You mean that some people actually thought we had a meeting to plan forgiveness?”
As the father of a slain daughter explained, “Our forgiveness was not our words, it was what we did.”
The process of forgiveness may help people heal, Hight added, “but it doesn’t complete the healing.” He recalled that the wife of one Oklahoma City bombing victim told him: “Closure will never happen for us. It’s a process we’ll go through for the rest of our lives.” Dave Cullen heard something similar from a mother who described being asked by a sympathetic acquaintance whether her child had died recently. She replied, she told Cullen, “when a child dies it is always recent.”