Written by: Dr. Kevin Arnold
The killings across the country have jarred even the most jaded. Mass killings in churches and school seem more and more tied to individuals who have struggled, often obviously so, with anger and resentment within larger emotional distress. They kill unarmed, innocent people because of their race or age, or because they are in a place easily targeted and entrapped.
More disturbingly, they seem to plan these acts. They know when school is in session, or when the church service or meeting will likely be convened. They bring plenty of weaponry and leave behind explicit or implicit predictive statements….or so it appears in hindsight.
If we assume these individuals do, in fact, let others know they suffer or harbor hatred, how can steps to reduce risk be taken before they act? And, how can we help our fellow citizens recognize the need to act as quickly as those who subdued the shooter in some of these events?
Tips for Recognizing and Acting on Risk: Prevention or Mitigation
- Hear the Pain Before the Actions: Individuals who languish in pain and anger often express it verbally and behaviorally. Growing up, they are often sad, which converts to helplessness and anger when it is invalidated. Too frequently, when they leave a testing sessions at school, quit a job, or storm out of a house, they hear individuals say “Calm down. What is wrong with you?” The messaging reveals others do not hear their pain and anguish, instead reacting in fear and dismissiveness. If being told to calm down worked, people who suffer would in fact calm down. Distress hurts and stopping it, were it that easy, would be exactly what they do. Instead, embracing their pain and connecting to it and providing a way out of the self-isolating coping strategies could both reverse the loathing of others, but it could also help them articulate their pain and ideas so that others can understand the potential risk….and take steps to see help.
- Reverse Dehumanizing Withdrawal: Individuals who suffer not only use anger to protect from their fear of being rejected and unvalued, but they also use it to get our attention. And when they do, too often it is met with rejection or indifference. Most individuals fear someone using anger to ask for help. But consider that offering to stay and hold a hand or give a hug would be exactly the opposite experience they anticipate, creating enough of a startled response to be open to learning from it. The lesson they could learn is that others do not wish they disappeared or stopped expressing their distress. They can learn that expressing pain could be met with concern and compassion-the opposite of what they believe will happen. Doing so humanized those around them, rather than dehumanizing them. The experience may counter the denigration of others, instead creating a sense of connection rather than hatred.
- Teach Coping, not Guilt: When we see a family member or student who is angry, isolated and fearful of school, we can choose to frame that as signs of needing help or indicators of unruliness. We can choose to see it as a moment to teach or to reprimand. For many who struggle with self-hatred, and thus project that hatred onto others, teaching may well prevent some of these heinous acts. Coping, according to approaches like Dialectic Behavior Therapy, includes learning to label such feelings and then manage them. When we see early signs of such desperate distress, modifying “What is wrong with you?” to “You look sad an angry, is that what you’re feeling” can help someone create coping by having words to wrap around the feelings. Usually, that step promotes better ways of thinking through the situation. Managing early distress and isolation can include teaching someone ways to reverse the mood state through more positive reactions (e.g., lifting weights, taking a long walk). While these methods seem simple, they are powerful strategies to moving the mind off of recursive ideas of hate and loathing.
- If Someone Seems Threatening, Believe Them: In the case of the Uvalde killings, new reports have indicated that before the mass killing of young children, the killer posted pictures of weapons (guns) online and videos of domestic arguments that involved the police (https://www.startribune.com/texas-gunman-was-bullied-as-a-child-grew-increasingly-violent-friends-say/600176290/). Undoubtedly, his history of home disturbances, verbal aggression, self-mutilation (cutting his face), and fascination with weapons provide a picture of someone in need of help, and perhaps intensive intervention. His reported statement that he found cutting his face as fun provides clues into the lack of normative response to pain and harm (in this case to one’s self). When he posted, as reported in the Star Tribune, that he had purchased rifles and called them “my gun pics,” someone who saw them and knew of his history could have been moved to contact the police and mental health professionals to investigate, perhaps intervening.
These ideas offer ways to prevent the creation of dehumanizing hatred of others when someone is at-risk for spinning out of control in the future. But they are not meant to suggest any type of excuse for the acts in Uvalde, Buffalo or Laguna Woods. Moving from thought and emotion to actions, especially actions that destroy the lives of others, calls for accountability of the person who kills.
What to Do if a Mass Killing Begins Where I am?
- Structural and Personnel Strategies: The first step in reacting to the threat of a mass killing is to practice its prevention both through security and mitigation strategies. Security efforts such as double entrance offices (an entrance office sequestered off from the main entrance) provide a first step in identifying anyone threatening trying to gain access to the building. While it is unfortunate, these events suggest much more intense efforts and video monitoring of entrances and parking lots should occur in locations of what perhaps we should consider as targets of those with ill-intent.
Mitigation begins with preparedness as well. While our society would like to believe in the notion of public safety, individuals with troubled pasts or psychopathic tendencies can now obtain weapons that cause quick, massive, and lethal results. Our teachers, ministers, rabbis, priests, and security guards continue to be viewed as public safety personnel. Training them in how to manage an attack such as those seen in the last month may now be necessary to reduce the likelihood of mass killings. But first, society may need to use the label of public safety when discussing parts or all of jobs like teaching and leading a religious service.
- Practice Attention and Mitigation Plans: By now, many reaction and safety plans have been created, and often practiced especially at schools. However, other gathering places such as churches and grocery stores have not created plans or given directions to their parishioners on mitigating an active shooting situation. Of course, plans such as those require repetitive practice so that reactions occur with as much as ease as possible.
Mass shootings devastate both the victims and those who vicariously experience fear and outrage at the violence. Unfortunately, mitigation strategies can only go so far, since someone with weapons and the element of surprise can often overwhelm even the best reaction plans.
The more effective approach is prevention. Intervention for those who become alienated from their own emotions eventually alienate from others. Their experiences lead to emotional numbing or suppression, disrupting their ability to empathize both in their imagination and in real-life. And without empathy, they lose access to a key internal deterrent to violent fantasies (e.g., planning violence) and violent acts.
The best plans identify these individuals as early as possible, frame them as damaged by events, and deliver treatment and healthy coping skills rather than rejection and isolation. If they internally struggle to see others as real people with real feelings, isolating and rejecting them only further removes them from experiences that teach them their own, and others’, humanity. If any of us sees someone isolating and self-harming, we owe it to ourselves and others to intervene if possible. If someone brags about violence and owning guns, perhaps alerting others who can help would be an effective next step.