Mass murderers painted as loners bent on revenge

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People who commit mass murders like the one at Virginia Tech university often are frustrated loners bent on revenge who blame others for their own failures, experts in such crimes said on Tuesday.

Cho Seung-Hui, a student from South Korea identified as the gunman who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University, is seen in this police handout released April 17, 2007. REUTERS/Virginia State Police/Handout

When Charles Whitman shot dead 13 people from a University of Texas tower in 1966, he triggered “an age of mass murder” in the United States, said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

Since then, there have been about two dozen U.S. cases annually of murders with at least four victims, Fox said. The frequency of these crimes has remained steady over four decades, but the lethality has risen with the greater availability of high-powered firearms, Fox said.

Authorities identified the gunman in Monday’s Virginia Tech killings as student Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a South Korean who was a legal U.S. resident. They say he killed 32 people and himself.

“What motivates most mass murderers is the desire for revenge. They see themselves as victims. They see injustice around them and that they’ve been dealt a raw deal,” Fox said.

“They blame others for their own failures and feel that life is just not worth living. Before they take leave of this life, usually by their own hand, they need to get some satisfaction by taking others with them, punishing those they hold responsible,” Fox added.

Experts described differences between serial killers, who kill numerous people over a span of time, and mass murderers, who kill a number of people at one time like at Virginia Tech.

Arnett Gaston, a University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice psychologist, said a serial killer may commit murder as an expression of power over others, and may pick victims at random.

American examples of these killers include Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Dennis Rader.


Fox and Jack Levin, director of Northeastern’s Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence, listed five factors common to many mass killers:

-- a long history of frustration and failure;

-- a tendency to blame other people and never accept blame for their own shortcomings or failures;

-- a tendency to be socially isolated and loners;

-- some kind of a “final straw” event occurs that triggers the crime like being dumped by a girlfriend or fired from a job;

-- and access to firearms, preferably high-powered ones.

Fox and Levin, co-authors of the 2005 book “Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder,” described three types of revenge that can motivate mass killers.

There is “specific revenge” in which particular people blamed for a slight are slain. For example, software engineer Michael McDermott killed seven employees at his Massachusetts job in 2000, targeting human resources workers.

There is “category revenge” in which groups like women or blacks or Asians are targeted. For example, Marc Lepine killed 14 women at a Montreal university in 1989, believing feminists had wrecked his life.

And there is revenge against the world with indiscriminate targeting of victims. For example, George Hennard in 1991 indiscriminately killed more than 20 people at a Texas restaurant.

“The more indiscriminate the murders, the more likely it is that insanity plays a role,” Levin said.

Fox said bombs can be used in mass murder, citing 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh, but guns generally are the choice.

“These guys seem to enjoy the idea of dispassionately shooting at the victims,” Fox said.