Mass murderers are as different as their killing field — be it a nursing home or a suburban home — and as diverse as their reasons for killing — whether it’s spousal betrayal or the loss of a job.
But experts say most people who embark on such wholesale slaughter share certain key characteristics: A catastrophic event that triggers a suicidal rage and an unquenchable thirst to get even.
And there is often no way to see it coming.
“I’m not sure you can even predict it,” says Mark Safarik, who retired in 2007 as a senior profiler in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
“It’s the constellation or coming together, the perfect storm of someone’s last shot at something. For them, there’s just no other way out. Or if there’s another way out, they don’t choose it, because they’re going to punish somebody.”
Mass murder is nothing new, and the invention of repeating guns only made it easier. But even experts who study the phenomenon have been stunned by the recent rash — seven in the past month, three in the past week alone. The string of shootings in the US in the last month has claimed the lives of at least 53 people.
“Boy, this is a lot,” said Safarik, now a partner with Forensic Behavioral Services International.
Criminologist Jack Levin was not surprised to learn that the man who shot up a Binghamton, New York, immigrant center on Friday had recently been laid off from his job at a vacuum cleaner factory.
What puzzled him at first was why Jiverly Wong chose his target.
“If it was only the job loss, why didn’t he go back to the work site and kill his manager and his coworkers?” the Northeastern University professor asked. “Because that’s what we’re used to seeing when someone is set off by a termination at work. But he didn’t do that.”
Then he learned that the 41-year-old Wong — an ethnic Chinese man raised in Vietnam — had taken English classes at the American Civic Association, and that he blamed his inability to find and keep work, in part, on his poor language skills. That’s when the massacre began to make sense — or as much sense as any such tragedy can.
Wong’s personal failures meant that he had “lost the respect in the eyes of others of the immigrant community,” said Levin, co-author of the book Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.
“I’m sure that he was on a suicidal rampage, but first he decided he was going to get even,” Levin said of Wong, who killed 13 before ending his own life. “And just like every other mass killing I’ve studied, his motive — his primary motive — was revenge.”
Wong’s attack came less than a week after a rampage that killed eight in a North Carolina nursing home. And it preceded attacks in Pittsburgh and Washington State that left three police officers and five children dead.
Media coverage of such events blankets the airwaves, and that becomes another factor, Safarik said. In this era of saturation coverage, mass murders seem to beget more mass murders, and the stumbling economy only makes matters worse.
“I think that people that are on the edge, that are contemplating such tragic events, sometimes all it takes is that being highlighted in the media for them to go: ‘You know? I could do something like that. I’m that angry,’” Safarik said. “It’s in their face on the television and now it’s in their thinking pattern.”