Last winter I did considerable research into American mass murders, because I was invited to participate in a symposium on that topic in Colorado--a state with two of the most horrific recent mass murders, and a vested interest in preventing more.
Every state shares that same interest, but some don't address it with the necessary urgency. Mass murders are rare--but not that rare. Mass murders are always unexpected events. They take everyone by surprise...but in the end, after the bodies are carried away and the killer's life is dissected, there's a tragic inevitability.
I wrote about some of my findings here, in the wake of the awful killings of children and school staff in Newtown, CT. What I wrote then remains true today.
We're still finding out about Aaron Alexis, the murderer of twelve human beings at the Washington DC Navy Yard. More details will filter in over the days and weeks to come. But there are certain elements characteristic of just about every mass murderer, and I expect them to be the same here. Indeed, we're already seeing bits and pieces of the puzzle take shape.
1) There will be incidents of violence in his past. With very rare exceptions, killers don't start to kill out of the blue. Before they reach that point, they've been a victim of violence and dealt it out. They've learned that it works for them. Whether it's with fists or knives or guns, they've committed some form of violence and gotten away with it. In Alexis's case, we know, for instance, that he shot out the tires of a truck, in what he described as a "rage-induced blackout." He was arrested, but ultimately not prosecuted. I expect that we'll hear other examples as well. An additional element in this case might be his military service--military basic training has become, over the years, very proficient in schooling recruits on how to become violent individuals. It's what they need, in combat situations--violence has to be reflexive if they're to survive. But off the battlefield, it's sometimes difficult to let go.
2) There will have been contact with mental health professionals. Alexis was being treated for mental health issues by the Department of Veteran's Affairs. He was suffering from paranoia, a sleep disorder, and hearing voices. We've also heard, from his family, that he suffered from PTSD as a result of volunteer efforts after 9/11.
3) There will have been a recent incident or series of them that shattered his perception of himself. He will have tried to rebuild his self-image, but that effort will have failed. It's in the wake of that failure--when troubled people literally don't know who they are anymore and don't know why they can't figure it out--that the urge to take multiple lives comes upon them. We don't know yet what the inciting incident was in Alexis's case. I suspect it had to do with his being discharged from the Navy for disciplinary problems; reportedly, he wanted to get back in, but was denied. There might be something we haven't yet heard about that's even more central to his self-identity. But it's something, and we'll find out about it soon.
Many people--most, by far--who experience these three interrelated issues do not go on to become mass murderers. And every mass murderer is a special, unique case. But virtually every mass murderer has these three elements in common. Aaron Alexis is no exception.