CHENNAI: Stephen Paddock, the man who killed 59 concert-goers in Las Vegas on Sunday, was unlike any other mass shooter in recent US history. He was 64 years old, much older than the other mass shooters of recent infamy, all of whom were less than 30 years old.
James Holmes, the man who killed 22 people in a movie theatre in Denver in 2012 was, at the time of committing the act, 25. Dylan Roof was four years younger to Holmes when, in 2015, he pulled the trigger that killed nine African Americans. Adam Lanza was just past teen age when he perpetrated the massacre of 19 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2013. The Orlando shooter Omar Mateen and the San Bernardino killer Syed Rizwan Farooqi were both less than 30.
So what does Steven Paddock has in common with other recent mass shooters? They are people of varying backgrounds.
Omar Mateen and Syed Farooqi were second-generation Muslims whose parents migrated to the US while they were children.We know that James Holmes and Adam Lanza were young white males who were into violent video games and drugs. Dylan Roof was politically charged. He was a Confederate-loving white supremacist, who emptied his gun barrel into nine black people at an African American Methodist Church.
Guns and lonely men
So what do they have in common? Psychologists who have studied mass shooters found that most of them were loners who felt alienated from rest of society. All six of the killers named above fit well into this description.
James Holmes reportedly shied away from spending much time with friends. “Nobody really had a relationship with him,” one of his former classmates told CBS News. When a Denver Post journalist approached Holmes’s neighbour for an interview following the 2012 shooting, she was told, “No one knew him. No one.”
Likewise, people who knew Omar Mateen described him as a loner. Dylan Roof also fit well into that description. Once he started preaching white supremacist views, his friends began avoiding him. This agitated him further.
Steven Paddock too was a loner who kept his close relatives at a distance. Paddock lived thousands of miles away from his brother Eric and would rarely call. He was into gambling and known to spend hours before computers playing video poker.
None of this is to say that all loners are potential mass shooters. Far from it. In fact, millions of people around the world complain of loneliness, and a large majority of them are far from dangerous.
The injustice collector
Psychologists say loneliness coupled with a sense of alienation and injustice may lead to aberrant behaviour. According to Allen J Frances, an American psychiatrist, “The mass murderer is an injustice collector who spends a great deal of time feeling resentful about real or imagined rejections and ruminating on past humiliations. He has a paranoid world view with chronic feelings of social persecution, envy, and grudge-holding. He is tormented by beliefs that privileged others are enjoying life’s all-you-can-eat buffet, while he must peer through the window, an outside loner always looking in.”
Whether Steven Paddock, who unleashed the bloodiest massacre in the recent US history, nurtured such a world view is not known. Only his girlfriend, who is presently under interrogation, could throw more light on this. However, five other shooters, notably Dylan Roof, Omar Mateen and Syed Farooqi, lend credence to Frances’ observation.
Dylan Roof was indeed an injustice collector. One of his friends recollected that he once grumbled how black people were “taking over” the United States. He often cited Barack Obama’s 2008 election as a turning point in his life. He famously said, "I had to do it because … somebody had to do something because black people are killing white people every day – on the streets." He feared that white people would soon be at the mercy of coloured people.
What about Omar Mateen and Syed Farooqi? Both were second-generation Muslims who did not fit into the American social fabric. This is typical of many second-generation Muslims who grow up in western societies.
Mateen and Farooqi also displayed what Frances called “chronic feelings of social persecution, envy, and grudge-holding.” Both had pledged allegiance to Islamic State before carrying out mass shootings.
James Holmes and Adam Lanza fit less into Frances’ description. But they did show signs of alienation. Lanza was reportedly disillusioned with society, which according to him, was trying to get him to follow an “amoral” value system. According to Matthew Liank, author of Newtown: An American Tragedy, a book on the Sandy Hook massacre, Lanza complained of “societal pressures” to conform to certain norms, which he resented. It is also clear that he hated his parents for putting pressure on him. His first victim, in fact, was his mother, whom he killed before heading to the school.
Primate behaviour still holds the key
Psychiatrists say evolutionary psychology could explain the phenomenon of mass shootings. Their starting point is the fact that men commit 85 per cent of all homicides in any given year in the United States. Can you think of a female mass shooter? There has been none. Why? The answer lies in testosterone, according to the researchers.
Some psychologists have zeroed in on a concept, which they call “precarious manhood”. According to them, men are constantly under pressure to meet certain standards in order to be called men. Dr Frank T McAndrew explains that manhood is precarious because it is constantly under threat. “It (manhood) can be easily lost – especially if the man fails to measure up to the relentless challenges that life throws at him, be they tests of physical bravery, or competition with other men for respect and status.”
Many young men are prone to displaying violent behaviour when their manhood is challenged, especially in front of women they like. This, the psychiatrists say, is because of the high-levels of testosterone in them. McAndrew writes, “Adult male chimpanzees experience their highest levels of testosterone when they’re in the presence of females who are ovulating. This is associated with higher levels of aggression.”
So, do any of our six men substantiate precarious manhood theory? James Holmes and Dylan Roof do. Following his arrest, Holmes told psychiatrists that a “violent” break-up with his girlfriend plunged him into depression in the weeks leading to the Aurora incident. “My mind was kind of falling apart,” Holmes told them.
Dylan Roof shared a similar experience. A white supremacist, he was deeply disappointed when his ex-girlfriend started dating a black man. “Dylan liked her. But the black guy got her. That changed him,” Scott Roof, a cousin of Dylan Roof reportedly told The Intercept. Other three fits less into this category. If Steven Paddock did or not is not known at this stage.