Was the Shooter a Terrorist or a Narcissist?

There has been yet another mass shooting in the United States. This one is the deadliest in living memory. In the wake of this horror, people are having the usual arguments about whether the shooting was an act of terrorism and whether the shooter was mentally ill. The first is a legal question, and the second is a medical question. To answer the first question, you need to understand how legal terms are defined. To answer the second, you need to understand what mental illness is and how cases of mental illness are classified. These questions are important. Until you answer them, you cannot figure out how to prevent similar offenses from happening in the future.

As usual, many people are angry that the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are hesitant to classify the mass shooting as an act of terrorism. These angry people imagine that this hesitation means that the authorities do not think that the crime was bad enough to qualify as terrorism. Yet the word terrorism has a strict legal definition. Terrorism is not just any very bad crime. Terrorism is a crime that was committed for a political purpose. According to U.S. federal law (18 U.S. Code § 2331), the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

The mass shooting was clearly an illegal activity that was dangerous to human life, and it did occur within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. However, it does not seem to have been intended to influence government policy or affect the conduct of government. Presumably, the shooter intended to frighten people, and he probably enjoyed watching as the panicked people attempted to flee his hail of bullets. Nevertheless, the shooter does not seem to have been trying to intimidate anyone, in the legal sense of the word intimidate. By definition, intimidation involves the creation of fear of negative consequences, for the purpose of influencing someone’s behavior [State v. Marrero, 2009 Ohio 2430, P12 (Ohio Ct. App., Lorain County May 26, 2009)]. The mass shooting was doubtless intended to provoke fear, but it was probably not intended as a means of coercion. In other words, it was probably an ordinary crime (albeit a heinous one), as opposed to a political act.

To understand why this crime might not qualify as a terrorist act, compare it with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 19, 1995. That bombing was clearly a political act. It was admittedly done in retaliation for the actions of federal agents in the Ruby Ridge incident in 1992 and the Waco siege of 1993. In fact, the Oklahoma City bombing was committed on the second anniversary of the Waco siege. The goal of the bombing was clearly to influence government policy. The perpetrators wanted to warn the government not to continue to use lethal force against white Christian men, women, and children who posed no imminent threat to public safety. Three men were convicted for crimes related to the bombing, and one of those convicts was executed. However, the bombers may have achieved their political objectives. Since the Oklahoma City bombing, the federal government has not undertaken anything remotely resembling the Waco Siege.

The Oklahoma City bombing fit the legal definition of domestic terrorism. However, the people who carried it out viewed it as an act of war, and they viewed themselves as patriots and soldiers. Their political ideology may have seemed kooky to outsiders, but it was shared by a large social group. The bombers’ actions may have seemed heinous to outsiders, but these actions were condoned and presumably supported by people within the bombers’ social circle. Although war may seem to be a form of collective insanity, soldiers are not classified as mentally ill for being soldiers, even in an unjust war. Nor are the killings and other mayhem that they commit in battle generally regarded as crimes. As the French philosopher Voltaire explained, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

Was the perpetrator of this latest mass shooting mentally ill? Some people argue, quite reasonably, that mentally healthy people do not commit mass shootings and that anyone who would commit a crime of this nature must therefore be mentally ill. Thus, the question is what kind of mental illness would lead to this kind of aberrant behavior. Is the underlying problem biomedical or psychosocial or some combination of the two? Some mass shooters have been found to have serious brain disorders that could explain why they were psychotic (out of touch with reality) or at least unable to control their impulses. Sylvia Seegrist, who shot 10 people at a shopping mall in Springfield, Pennsylvania, had such a severe case of paranoid schizophrenia that she did not understand that the three people she killed would stay dead. Charles Whitman, who used the observation deck at the University of Texas Tower as a sniper’s nest, had a brain tumor that was pressing on his amygdala, a part of the brain involved in “fight or flight” responses. James Huberty, who committed a mass murder at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, California, was a welder who had an extreme case of cadmium poisoning, a condition known to cause violent behavior.

Clearly, some mass shooters have been suffering from a psychosis, which is a mental disorder that causes a person to lose contact with reality. Others seem to have been suffering from a problem with impulse control. Those are the cases in which someone might be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Yet many others seem to have been driven by a different kind of mental problem: narcissistic personality disorder.

Narcissus was the mythological character who developed a fatal attraction to his own reflection. Narcissists are people who have an unhealthy degree of self-worship. For this reason, narcissists feel that they deserve an unrealistically high rank within the social order. When their unrealistic expectations are not met, their frustration may turn to rage. There are two reasonable solutions to this problem: either find some way to earn the respect that you crave, or accept the social rank that other people are willing to grant to you. Unfortunately, some people with extreme cases of narcissistic personality disorder find an unreasonable solution. They decide to kill themselves, but to go out in a blaze of glory, taking as many other people with them as possible. My guess is that the recent offender had been enjoying the status of being a high roller at the casinos but had lost too much money to keep the game going for much longer. Since he could not longer occupy the status of high roller, he decided to take himself out of the game, and take a lot of innocent people with him.

Psychotic people seldom pose any threat to other people. However, when they do become dangerous, their dangerous actions are often bizarre enough to be newsworthy. Fortunately, people who are dangerously psychotic usually come to the attention of the police and the medical profession long before anyone is seriously harmed. The same goes for people who have brain disorders that undermine their impulse control. Good psychiatric care and, perhaps most importantly, good case management are needed to protect these mentally ill people and society in general. In contrast, people with serious personality disorders may not seem to the casual observer to be dangerously mentally ill. As psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckly put it, people with personality disorders seem to wear a “mask of sanity.” Yet even a dangerous narcissist may give some advance warning of plans to kill himself or harm others. These warnings should be taken seriously.

Terrorists view themselves as soldiers who are doing something unsavory but necessary to achieve some higher purpose. Often, the acts of terrorism are successful politically. For example, the motive behind the Oklahoma City bombing was to intimidate the federal government, to keep it from carrying out any more actions like the sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco. In that respect, the terrorists may have been successful. (Of course, civilized people would have used nonviolent means to achieve that goal.) In contrast, the narcissists who carry out mass murder, usually in the context of a suicide attempt, are not serving any purpose higher than self-aggrandizement. They want their name to be on everyone’s lips and their picture to be plastered everywhere. Thus, we do need to differentiate acts of terrorism from the kinds of crimes committed by malignant narcissists. These two categories of offenses have different causes and thus would require different solutions.

The solution to terrorism is simple: foment peace. Often, the terrorists have legitimate grievances arising from problems that could be solved through peaceful means. For example, the men who committed the Oklahoma City bombing were angry because agents of the federal government had committed state and federal crimes at Ruby Ridge and Waco and had not been held accountable for their actions. If the government agents had not committed those crimes, or had at least been prosecuted for committing them, then it is doubtful that anyone would have bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. In other words, if you want to prevent terrorism, stop participating in it or even condoning it.

The solution to narcissistic mass murder is more complicated. Mass murders are committed by unreasonable people for irrational reasons. For this reason, these offenses are harder to predict and harder to prevent. Threats of punishment will do nothing to prevent these crimes. The perpetrators are bent on suicide and do not expect to be alive to face prosecution. Yet there are some simple precautions that could help prevent many of these crimes or at least lessen their severity. The most obvious precaution is to limit the potential offenders’ access to firearms and ammunition, and especially to assault rifles with large magazines of bullets. A raging narcissist causes far less damage if he is armed only with a pocketknife.

A less obvious but also important precaution is to work to make our schools and workplaces more civilized. Investigations into the mass murders that have taken place at schools and workplaces often reveal a culture of severe bullying. Some sensitive people deal with this kind of abuse by self-injury or even suicide. Others decide to turn the tables on the bullies, as well as on those who stood by and did nothing. To prevent this problem, we need to find ways to ensure that everyone can live and work in dignity.

In the meantime, everyone who is involved in the media or in social media can do something important to prevent further mass shootings. One is to organize politically to demand reasonable gun-control laws. Another is to avoid repeating the name or showing the face of anyone who has committed a mass shooting. (The only offenders whose names I mentioned in this article were those whose offenses clearly resulted from a disease of the brain. Narcissists do not want to be regarded as diseased.) The perpetrators of the Columbine High School shooting had been inspired by the movie Natural Born Killers. They expected that a major motion picture would be made about them, and they debated whether Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino should direct it. Do not give mass shooters the notoriety they crave. Otherwise, you will be encouraging other people to follow their example. Instead, ignore the offenders and focus on the people who were injured or killed and the heroes who intervened to stop the carnage.


For more information about how to deal with narcissists at home and at work, read my book Don’t Feed the Narcissists! The Mythology and Science of Mental Health.

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