Anthropology / Everything Human

Understanding Mass Killings

Understanding Mass Killings

Media commentary on Micah Johnson, the African-American who killed five police officers in Dallas on July 7, has focused on his animus against white police and his interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, playing up the racial motivation for this mass shooting. But commentators have largely ignored another important element of Johnson’s identity that he shares in common with many other mass killers: military service.

This is not to say that America’s vexed racial politics were irrelevant to the Dallas shooting, or to other mass shootings. Just before he was blown up by a police robot, Johnson said that recent police killings of black citizens during traffic stops made him want to kill white police officers; and at least two other mass killers in recent years have also been motivated by racial animosity toward whites. In 1993, after Colin Ferguson killed six passengers on a Long Island commuter train, his initial lawyers argued that he was driven temporarily insane by “black rage” brought on by discrimination. And in 2012, Omar Thornton, a black employee of a beer distributor in Connecticut, killed eight workers there in retaliation for perceived racial discrimination.

There have also been racially targeted mass killings by white supremacists. Wade Michael Page was a white supremacist who killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. And in 2015 Dylann Roof, another adherent of white nationalism, killed nine worshippers at a black Baptist church in South Carolina.

But a more common thread running through the biographies of America’s mass killers is current or former military service. Micah Johnson, the Dallas killer, had completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan, which, according to his parents, turned him from an extrovert into a “hermit.”

Micah Johnson, who completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan, killed five police officers in Dallas, Texas, on July 7, 2016. Too often we are overlooking the connection between mass killers and their military service.

Micah Johnson, who completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan, killed five police officers in Dallas, Texas, on July 7, 2016. Too often we are overlooking the connection between mass killers and their military service. Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

And the list of other mass killers with military backgrounds is impressively long: George Jo Hennard, who killed 22 in Killeen, Texas, in 1991 had served in the navy; Michael McDermott, who shot seven people in Wakefield, Massachusetts, in 2000, also served in the Navy; Robert Flores was a veteran of the Persian Gulf war who shot his three nursing professors in Tucson, Arizona, in 2002; in 2009, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, killed 13 when he went on a rampage at Fort Hood, Texas; Wade Michael Page, the white supremacist who killed six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, had served six years in the U.S. Army, where he became a psychological operations specialist; in 2012, Radcliffe Haughton, an ex-marine, killed three women, including his wife, at a spa in Wisconsin; in 2013, Aaron Alexis, another Navy veteran, killed twelve at the Washington Navy Yard; in 2014, Ivan Lopez-Lopez, an Iraq War veteran, killed three at Fort Hood in Texas; and, of course, Timothy McVeigh, whose truck bomb killed 168 in Oklahoma City in 1995, was a veteran of the Persian Gulf War.

There are obvious reasons why so many mass killers might be military veterans. They may have been drawn to the military in the first place by an attraction to violence. Once in the military, they are trained in the art of killing and, if they have combat experience, they may become disinhibited from killing. A New York Times report suggests that Dallas shooter Micah Johnson used skills he learned in the military to move rapidly across the terrain, evading return fire and giving the impression that there was more than one gunman. Military veterans may also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is associated with social isolation, personality changes, and a lack of control over impulses. A recent study in the Annals of Epidemiology found that military veterans kill themselves at 1.5 times the rate of their civilian counterparts. (Interestingly, veterans who had not seen combat had a slightly higher suicide rate.) Although more veterans with PTSD take their own lives than kill others, military service is a risk factor for both homicide and suicide.

Mass killings are a kind of Rorschach inkblot in which people see what they fear, or what they want to see. Where some saw homophobia at work in the Orlando killings, others saw radical Islamic extremism. More generally, where some see inadequate mental health care as the root problem, others point the finger at the ease with which Americans can acquire guns. Some blame the Black Lives Matter movement for inciting Micah Johnson, while others blame pervasive police brutality against African-Americans for creating a situation that pushed him over the edge. Although many mass killers have, of course, not been veterans, we need to ask ourselves why a disproportionate number have been.

But rarely do we focus on military service as a shared attribute among mass killers. Maybe this is, like inadequate Veterans Affairs health care, just another way in which we ignore soldiers and their problems once their service is done. Or maybe it is because rampaging veterans do not fit with our preferred narratives of soldiers as self-sacrificing heroes and of military service as a route to what the historian Richard Slotkin called “regeneration through violence.” In any case, although many mass killers have, of course, not been veterans, we need to ask ourselves why a disproportionate number have been.

George W. Bush once said that he took the U.S. to war in Iraq so that we could fight “over there” and not at home. It is an attractive fantasy that, by using the military to intervene in the Middle East, we can corral the violence there. But we are learning that a connected world does not work that way. Intervention “over there” generates terrorist attacks by angry Muslims in the capitals of Europe and in nightclubs and office buildings in the U.S. And the soldiers we send “over there,” to the land of violence, bring the war back with them. Many of our mass killings at home are a haunted shadow of our interventions abroad. We need to probe that shadow more deeply.

Correction: July 21, 2016
An earlier version of this article stated that military veterans kill themselves at twice the rate of their civilian counterparts. The correct number is 1.5 times the rate.

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  • Can we just name this for what it is? Histrionics. You see, Mr Gusterson has made a career of establishing causal linkages between sociological phenomena. It’s just that, in this case, he’s wrong. Why is it a faux pais to practice profiling in other demographics – and yet, when it comes to veterans, it’s somehow okay? No matter that he tries to make good at the close by referring to some obtuse foreign policy failures as the proposed ‘first cause’ of a generation of gun wielding substance abusing barking mad veterans. Mr Gusterson is playing fast and loose with culpability – it’s a fun thing to do in the academic realm of ‘ethics’. But culpability is a multi way street – a busy highway more like it. Like I-10 in LA on Monday morning. If Mr Gusterson is lamenting a faulty foreign policy, or a much-criticised president, as the cause of veteran violence, what then must we conclude if we do, in fact, live in a democracy? Must the one percent (Americans who serve in combat) bear the entire onus of violence gone wrong, in foreign lands and at home? What about the 99? The ones who elect (or don’t elect) presidents, who write letters to congressman, who demonstrate against wars on street corners, who sign petitions to end conflicts, who participate in peace vigils, who write books explaining why they think wars are wrong? Can Mr Gusterson count himself among this 99? Has he participated fully in the active life of a democratic society? If so, I commend him. He is beyond the pale. His ethics are clean and clear. If not, he’s worse than Micah Johnson. It might as well have been him pulling that trigger. In ancient Greece, social critics expressed their views knowing full well they might be put to death for them. Often they were not. The measure was whether they were convincing, whether they could garner public support. If only that metric applied today …. I feel badly that Mr Gusterson got it so wrong, that he is so eager to deflect blame, so quick to point a finger. Not for him, of course, but for the veterans and family who will read this tripe. Many of whom are teachers, astronauts, elected representatives, artists, writers, poets and priests. And for the rest who have never returned – and will never come back.

    • Dohn Jowd

      Cho, Klebold, Lanza, Breivik. No military background to all Hmmm

  • Nancy Pace

    Dr. Gusterson:

    Reading this morning in the Washington Post about the Charles Whitman upcoming 50-year “anniversary” of the University of Texas (my alma mater) shootings, I noticed what I had not noticed before (when reporting emphasized Whitman’s alleged “brain tumor”)– that the investigations of the shooting largely skipped over Mr. Whitman’s marine sniper training and duties in his years of service. I also noticed that FOIA documents held by the Austin police seem to withhold some of that information. Unfortunately, I am no researcher nor academic so I’m not sure what to make of all this.

    Like you, however, I am concerned about the apparently disproportionate impact of our endless wars and our large veteran population upon U.S. culture, politics, crime, violence, etc. Clearly (to me) evidence of this impact has been deliberately repressed. Mr. Whitman’s case is one of many cases of violent veteran crime in which the details of their previous military involvements do not seem readily available. Thank you so much for your research, writing and speaking on this important topic (and related ones!)(I’ve also been reading about recent military demands for new nuclear weapons, another of your valuable fields of research and writing…. 🙁 )

    Could you refer me to any available material about Charles Whitman’s service? And if you have time, maybe please point to articles about the repression of veterans’ military service records when they are involved in crimes? Thank you for any links you might share. And thank you for your work. I would love to talk with you further on these subjects. – Nancy Pace, Frederick MD, [email protected]

    Ps. and fyi: I’ve drafted a memoir of my brat childhood although I’ve set it aside. I also shared my perspectives on some of the impacts of military service/militarism upon both soldiers and society in a blog post some years back:

    “The tragic recent murders by Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood are part of an epidemic of suicides, violent crimes, and shooting sprees among active-duty and former soldiers which stem in great part from their understandable moral and ethical confusion about the nature of war and the uses of power and violence. Women soldiers newly serving in combat positions often struggle with their uncertainties about adopting formerly-despised “male” traditions of violence and dominance, especially since their use of such power—as male soldiers have always known—can and does often lead to a sense of separation from the human race, to feelings of isolation, aloneness, difference, wrongness, fear, inadequacy, failure, loss and rejection.

    Add to these moral conundrums of conscience the fact that soldiers are expected to behave in uncivilized and dominating ways while “at work,” and then nimbly revert back to behaving civilly and helpfully at home, flexibly “getting back in touch with their feminine sides” and working in equitable partnerships, building family affection, connections and wholeness. Clearly, twenty-first century soldiers have their hands full to be all they can be.

    Military trainers work very hard to try to turn selfless, idealistic, caring young recruits into good soldiers who can be both safe and effective in war zones, prepared to perform as knee-jerk killers, to instantly shoot down complete strangers—often innocents themselves who are protecting their own homes and families and comrades-in-arms—and to carry out the cold-blooded duties of snipers, bombers, interrogators and other executioners who must kill with no hesitation or trace of due process random members of any population demonized as “the enemy,” “others”—i.e., people it’s OK to treat as non-humans.

    Good soldiers are offered a fuzzy kind of contextual logic to (temporarily) ethically “cover them” and their bloodiest actions, for at least as long as they can believe that their killing and dying serves a worthwhile purpose—that is, to protect their friends and families and fellow-citizens, or to serve their country in some way, or to further its noble ideals and purposes. Soldiers can often do their duty if they can cling to some hope that their “jobs” are generally positive ones, that they are necessary, valuable and moral, that their terrible personal losses and cruel sacrifices were not in vain, and that they wasted neither their own lives nor the lives of others.

    Unfortunately—or perhaps, fortunately—it’s much harder nowadays in the age of media for us to continue to see complicated human instances of violence in simple black-and-white terms. The rapid pace of change, the continual clashing of conflicting old ideas and emerging new ones, our own American biggest-kid-on-the-block mentality, and our often-thoughtless, retributive, greedy habits of government policy-making with respect to war, empire and militarism—added to our too-violent and vengeful culture—together create a mentally and emotionally combustible, dangerous, crazy-making conundrum for even our best, most well-intentioned and professional soldiers.

    “Schizophrenic behavior” is defined as behavior which is motivated by contradictory or conflicting principles, or which results from the co-existence of disparate or antagonistic activities. In other words, when your ideals frequently conflict with each other, and when your actions feel equally conflicted, it can drive you nuts. Fallible human attempts to live up to one’s ethics, values, standards and goals can make even the best soldiers feel schizophrenic.

    Growing up on military posts, I believed, just as most citizens of most countries are taught to believe, that our military forces were always a force for good, an organization that helped people, supported peace, promoted freedom and democracy. Since then, I’ve learned that military forces everywhere—like violence of all kinds, from abuse to crime to terrorism—usually harm many more people than they help. I’ve also learned that peace, freedom and democracy cannot co-exist with war, because wherever war goes, anything resembling peace, freedom and democracy quickly disappear.

    Even the best-trained soldiers—those convinced that military actions are all about duty, honor and country, taking care of one another, following orders, and serving with excellence, integrity and honor in order to further the protection and interests of loved ones and the best nation on earth—in the midst of war, wonder whether their actions are truly helping or hurting people, whether they are on the “giving” or on the “taking” “side.” Every soldier prays that he will someday look back and believe his life and work have served the best interests of humanity—and heaven forbid that they have served on the side of darkness, pain, grief, and cruelty. In the midst of actions far from their homes, all soldiers wonder at times whether their devotion to military ideals and country may not conceal larger, deeper, sadder contradictions about the nature and missions of militarism and war.

    When soldiers from any nation come home from their wars, of course they have trouble rectifying all they’ve participated in, with their peacetime ethical, spiritual and religious beliefs about what it means to be humane, caring, good—all the many understandings parents and teachers carefully taught them about what makes relationships work, and what make life worth living. Many returning war veterans basically go insane for years. Others are unstable or crazy for the rest of their lives.

    Everyone insists that training and fighting animals—cocks, dogs, bulls—is an outrage. We wouldn’t, they say, we couldn’t, we shouldn’t do this to a dog! So why do we keep doing it to people?

    Every soldier I have known, at one time entered the military with selfless ideals and the best intentions. Sadly, military training and war often work subtly against soldiers’ best interests, leaving them confused about what power and leadership really mean, as well as poorly-prepared for the peaceful, productive civilian relationships they spend years dreaming of forging, at war’s end.

    Unfortunately, the many sad, lingering side-effects of military training and war include a heightened tendency to polarize even small conflicts into black-and-white situations requiring a quick, habitual adversarial or violent response to conflict—habits which later work insidiously against both the soldiers and their loved ones. Quickness to violence—while perhaps an asset in effective soldiering—is a terrible emotional burden in civilian life. Recent public-safety statistics indicate that too many soldiers attempting to re-enter civilian life—having spent their impressionable youth on high alert, in kill-or-be-killed situations—have become habituated to violent, lawless behavior, and continue to pay huge, never-ending psychic prices for their previous military involvements after their return to “civilization.”

    The number and types of military resources America should maintain may be a matter of reasonable debate, but what is not arguable is our need to develop more thoughtful and deliberate processes for deciding when and why to send our soldiers into war.

    The great writers and filmmakers who have told their stories of past wars have consistently described war as “insane.” Insanity is also the only word that most reasonably describes any future war, since humanity has the knowledge and the means now—if only we develop the will—to resolve conflicts peacefully and prevent the holocausts which the law of unintended consequences, along with our ghastly weaponry, inevitably spiral us into.

    Ethical soldiers like my father relive the remembered insanity of war for the rest of their lives, alternating between waves of the deepest humane compassion, pride and camaraderie, to long periods of dark, impenetrable, self-protective anger, fear and cynicism.

    The cruelly gruesome extremes of war sometimes contaminate and twist even the highest traditional military values into thuggery. Professionalism can be turned, at times, into barbarism. Selflessness can be turned into greed. Idealism can become cynicism. Courage can become savagery. Strength can become dominance. Love of country can turn to jingoism and chauvinism. Obedience, leadership and respect for authority can be warped by exigency into a numbed conscience and momentary group-think. Loyalty can become a destructive “us/them” mentality. Integrity can become a morally confusing paralysis, while duty can be pushed into rote obedience.

    However admirably motivated, however morally unambiguous in the midst of a firefight, violent military actions still have the look and feel of chaotic lawlessness. No matter how patriotic or mentally-prepared soldiers may be, the act of killing complete strangers goes queasily against soldiers’ moral teachings about how to treat other people.

    The ideal of freedom itself—the dream comprising healthy, productive human lives spent in peaceful pursuit of individual dreams—can feel, during war, quite unrelated to the specifics of what soldiers are often asked to do, because serving the freedom of one group often entails dominating and killing another, something which feels less noble in practice than what most soldiers hope for, particularly when their personal boots-on-the-ground experience has already offered clear evidence that many—perhaps most—of war’s victims are as innocent as the soldiers who kill them. Soldiers don’t sign up to defend moral ambiguities. And yet the first victim of war is truth, followed closely by moral clarity, and, too often, by despair.

    However high-minded the justifications given during a soldier’s training, the actual waging of war—the killing, the maiming, the brutalizing—feels more “against” than “for” humans. Unless “the enemy” has successfully been completely dehumanized in the minds of soldiers by war propaganda, military fighting too often seems rather more against than for human value and worth, human liberty; love, individuality, uniqueness; against the highest religious and moral traditions, against human ideals, values, beliefs, against the teachings of history’s great moral teachers, against humanity itself.

    Soldiers schooled in war fortify their emotions against moral confusion by coldly dehumanizing and demonizing their enemies, but such temporary moral adjustments don’t serve nearly as well at war’s end, when all the former “non-humans”—the Vietnamese, Germans, Irish, British, Russians, the terrorists, whomever—experience a miraculous rebirth, having been rediscovered somehow to be human beings after all. Soldiers who wisely shut down their feelings against tragically ambiguous memories unfortunately also become emotionally unavailable to their children, parents, and spouses. This happened in my family.

    Soldiers who have followed orders to loose destruction and death upon “combatants” and “noncombatants” alike in someone else’s country, often become cynical later even about their own country, about the human capacity for goodness, and the worth of people in general.

    “Human” values which specifically exclude certain portions of humanity—Muslims, for instance, or Christians, or certain races or ethnicities —ultimately prove uncomfortingly weak and useless. Nations claiming a constitutional and traditional embrace of “human ideals” and “human rights”—who then insist upon them only for their own citizens and at the expense of citizens of other countries—rapidly lose not only their allies, but also the loyalty and pride of their own citizens; while patriotism which rests shakily upon chauvinism and exceptionalism breaks down quickly into partisan bickering, and too-easily collapsing into division, bigotry, political hatred and violence, and even civil war.

    Wars’ costs go far beyond blood and treasure.

    All the war books and movies I’ve “enjoyed” shared similar conclusions about their experiences of war. Over and over, each artist expressed the point of view that their war had been insane, cruel, hard, sad, misguided and stupid, and created more problems than were resolved. The grisly killings aspects of war were consistently experienced as pointless, chaotic, numbing, unreasonable, inhumane, confusing, wrong—and sometimes thrilling, in that the pointy end of the sword went into the other guy, and not them. Soldiers throughout history have been urged by their leaders to keep such stories to themselves, or share them only with other soldiers who were there, so as to avoid bringing harm or shame to a unit, or turning the next generation against war itself.

    In nearly every war book and movie, bleak, terrified, mutilated children emphasize the meaninglessness and human tragedy of war, while fear for oneself and one’s friends drives soldiers to acts of cruelty and immorality unimaginable during peacetime.

    War never turns out to be at all what anyone expects when they join up, and not much like what they train for either. When at war, every soldier longed for home, and when finally back home, they missed having friends they could talk to, buddies who understood them and their experiences.

    All these artists told how their necessary training in hate and fear had carved a black chasms into their psyche, changing them (and their families) forever in ways inexpressible to anyone who hadn’t shared such experience—so mixed are war’s memories with guilt, pride, and loyalty.”

    • Dohn Jowd

      Cho, Klebold, Lanza, Breivik. No military background to all Hmmm

  • John Platko

    Perhaps we’ll soon see something like:
    Government Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that military personal involved with killing others, watching their fellow soldiers being killed or wounded, or under continual stress from hazards such as IEDs and snipers are at risk of mental health issues. These health issues may lead to an increased risk of suicide, domestic violence, etc. etc..
    But I’m not holding my breath – no no.

  • CadleCreek

    How many of the military vets had actually trained in combat arms? Most members of the military get about as much combat arms training as kids in summer camps.

  • Chris Al-Arab

    I’m sorry Mr Gusterson but this article is about as intellectually rigorous as some Breitbart bile harping on about how “we have to admit that the vast majority of terrorists in the world today are Muslims” with the implication being that there is a causal link between Islam and violence. Just as the former statement would rightly be derided as simplistic and epistemologically compromised by the fallacy of the illicit minor, your assertion that in order to “understand mass shootings” we have to “understand/admit/accept/appreciate” that many mass shooters are military veterans (“hint: military service is the culprit”) is equally simplistic.
    There is literally no discursive difference between your description of “military service” as a “risk factor” and an alt-right troll saying that “owning a Qur’an is a risk factor”.
    What this article demonstrates to me is an author who has very little experience with military service members and has clearly not conducted ethnographic research with the article’s subject. For someone claiming to be an anthropologist, this is quite shameful and as someone that has both served in the military and now works as an anthropologist I find the whole premise of this article disgusting.
    If you want to demonstrate a causal link between military service and mass shootings go and do the legwork and come back with some findings. Do the qualitative research – ring up the US Army and ask them to put you through a simulation military recruit course for chrissakes (ever heard of participant-observation?). Don’t just resort to tired stereotypes about crazed vets going on rampages that anyone can glean from watching a Stallone movie.
    You should tear up that PhD.

  • Kathy Barker

    This is a terrific article. Whether in combat or not, killing is normalized in training in the military. It is hard to get people to kill other humans, and there is certainly a moral component to PTSD (which even drone operators suffer from) in response to killing. And there is no training, no drug, that turns off what is done to a person who learns to kill.

  • Walton

    First off, I’m not taking away the contributing effects of combat or other stress induced environments to PTSD. Those that suffer from PTSD should always have access to proper medical care.

    However, when it comes to killing, it doesn’t take military training to learn how to kill. Inoculation starts with the young with the abundance of rapidly-advancing high-tech video games. No, I’m not a anti-gamer or blame video games on our social problems. But I will bring up the fact that they are highly effective as a training tool. So effective that the military adapts similar versions to teach marksmanship, flight training, and other specialized training designed to introduce stress induced environments in order to inoculate the student, so when they are introduced to the same stress under combat conditions, they will recognize and continue to perform. This type of training also prepares students mentally, shorten target acquisition, and ensures effective engagement in situations involving time-critical decision making.

    Even tools like paper targets have changed over the years as a form of inoculation. Bullseye targets were formerly used to train soldiers how to shoot. Now targets depict human facial features and sometimes threatening stances to help the shooter with threat recognition…and help develop the cognitive and behavioral skills needed to enhance performance. These targets are not only used by the military, go to any gun range and see the target lineup.

    Having retired in 2013 after 24 years of service, I know a little bit about military training.

    Of the 43 worst mass killings since 1984, only a third of of the adult shooters were prior military. Although military service is a risk factor, it’s not the only factor. Plus, I’m sure not all of the perpetrators were trained in combat despite their military service.

    Not all the recent mass atrocities are contributed to military service… but it is a factor. Other than the 2014 Fort Hood Shooting involving Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, (killing 4 and injuring 14), all the others mass killings since 2014 were non-military related. This is just in the last 4 years:

    June 2016- Orlando Night Club 50 killed 53 injured.
    Omar Mateen, Islamic State

    December 2015- Inland Regional Center, San Bernardino, CA. 14 dead, 22 wounded.
    U.S.-born Syed Rizwan Farook and Pakistan national Tashfeen Malik.

    November 2015- Planned Parenthood, Colorado Springs, CO. (3 dead, 9 injured)
    Robert Lewis Dear, an art dealer.

    October 2015- Umpqua Community College, Rosewood, OR. (9 dead, 9 injured)
    Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, student.

    July 2015- 2 Military Bases, Chattanooga, TN. (5 dead, 3 injured)
    Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, unknown affiliation

    June 2015- Historic Black Church, Charleston, SC. (9 Dead)
    Dylann Roof.

    May 2014- Isla Vista, CA. (6 Dead)
    Elliot Rodger, 22. He apparently spent thousands to arm and train himself.

    To reemphasis my point…..

    December 2012- Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, CONN. (20 first graders and 6 adults, his mother and himself- Dead)
    Adam Lanza, 20 yrs old, trained himself. He logged 500 hours of skills training using video games, boasting 83,496 kills including 22,725 head shots.