“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt).
A mass killing is “where five or more people, often unknown to the perpetrator, are killed – sometimes in multiple locations” (Robert J. King, 2017). On Sunday, October 1, Stephen Paddock committed the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Las Vegas, Nevada, from the windows of his hotel room, Paddock killed at least 59 people and caused injury to at least 527 others at a country music festival (Melia Robinson and Skye Gould, 2017). According to reports from the Gun Violence Archive which purportedly tracks shootings in the US, this was the 273rd mass shooting in 2017. This averages almost 1 per day (Melia Robinson and Skye Gould, 2017).
The question is here is what can Psychology offer in the midst of such trauma? I raise this issue because I attended the Howard University Research Day at the Rayburn Center in Washington, DC just two days after this mass shooting and shared my concerns with a few of the researchers present. Howard’s faculty and students are undoubtedly innovating research and pushing the boundaries or their respective fields. I spoke with almost every presenter who stood by their posters and had conversations about: atmospheric science; cancer research; genetics and the viability of infertility treatments; biochemistry and compounds for treating inflammatory diseases; meteorology and the economic costs associated with severe weather events; an innovative proposal for improving cybersecurity in smart cities; the differential costs among hospitals caused by length of stay for patients who suffered heart attacks; engineering associated with increasing connectivity speeds to the internet to facilitate up to a terabyte of data at the current transfer rate of a gigabyte of data; evaluating 3D printing techniques and enhancing product quality; and an innovative technology used to evaluate the quality of hearing sounds. But what struck me was the lack of social science research? Where were the psychologists? Where were the ones who explored the science between affect, behaviour, and cognition? Psychology should have been centre-stage to explain how minority students at HBCUs are pursuing careers in STEM; to explain how minority women are doing cutting edge research to reveal challenges in healthcare for major diseases that affect them; and how investing in the next generation of minority women will enhance the quality of products available for the global population as women significantly influence the purchasing options of their households.
But, back to the crisis at hand as the global media continues to be perplexed with the mind of a mass shooter. In today’s world Psychology is needed more than ever to assist people dealing with every human experience around the globe. From London and Paris to Las Vegas and Miami, increasing acts of mass violence are threatening the way of life for many average citizens. As Howard University’s Research Day happened just hours after the most historic mass shooting ever experienced in the United States, psychologists, if they had been present, could have engaged attendees on the factors that may have led to this mass murderer’s act. They could have explained how the loss of social support in his move from Florida to Nevada might have affected his cognition. They might have been able to explain how his consumption of the news and the increasing number of mass shootings over the years created an environment within which those who want to be remembered in notoriety seem to flourish. They might have suggested how challenges with his health caused a corresponding depression that resulted in his desire to express his misery in a very elaborate way which included taking the lives of many, and ultimately ending his own life. They may have even been able to suggest a connection between his father’s history as a criminal and his engagement with the law enforcement personnel in the past may have impacted upon his decision to plot the most heinous mass murder in US history.
One thing that is accepted among psychologists who research violence and mass shootings or acts of terror, is that creating a profile of a perpetrator is difficult (King, 2017; Farley, 2017). From more than a hundred years of mass shootings and over 70 perpetrators, King and his colleagues found that these perpetrators are typically male, and range from 11 years to 66 years. However, there are two peaks with vastly differing profiles. The younger peak is at 23 years with individuals who had previous trouble with the law and suffered from mental illness. The older peak at 41 years were typically married, had no previous problems with the law, no mental illness, but experienced the threat off loss of status. The loss could result from losing a job, a relationship, children or some other impending scandal (King, 2017). So creating a profile of a perpetrator and knowing what to do about it as the person cannot be arrested before they commit a crime creates problems for the field. However, there are some benefits that psychologists can offer in such crises.
Professor Frank Farley (2017), of Temple University, suggests that psychology offers a post mortem of these violent events to assist people in reframing the experience. For example, instead of being terrorized and somewhat permanently handicapped from travelling to countries or regions that have experienced mass attacks, the experience can be reframed as one which showed the strength of the human spirit through heroic, life-saving feats from men and women. Victims of such experiences can be helped to find gratitude for the lives which were spared and if they were one of the ones spared from death, how can they find meaning and purpose in the midst of their new awareness. Those who are concerned about future attacks can see the level of preparedness of the fire and rescue emergency personnel to respond to such mass attacks which is a vulnerability of major tourist destinations, and especially of smart cities. Additionally, individuals with concerns about future attacks can see the unflagging resolve of skilled medical personnel, like the trauma doctors and nurses to attend to the hundreds of wounded who pass through their emergency rooms.
Professor Farley does not suggest that we must ignore the enormity of the event, but that in acknowledging the magnitude of it, we can assist the law enforcement personnel in creating profiles for future mass shooting perpetrators and terrorists. Beyond stitching together the fragments of the wounded lives of mass shooters and terrorists to aid law enforcement, Professor Farley suggests that we entertain innovative interventions that can assist communities to heal in the wake of trauma – whatever the source of motivation (i.e., ethnic, religious, gender, and more). Critical interventions are required to assist individuals in resuming as normal a life as possible, and not allowing their existence to be diminished from the fear created by these attackers. For example, forgiveness education which was introduced to the field by Bob Enright at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Long standing research shows the power of forgiveness to free individuals from chronic undiagnosed health-related conditions. There is more than a grain of truth in the Buddhist saying – “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Forgiveness education moves us beyond anger. It has shown to be so effective that it is also being used in many war zones like Palestine and Liberia. Farley and others who see a future beyond these mass shootings and terrorist acts see education as being a critical pillar for healing. It is also true that “With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism” (Malala Yousafzai). Here, school psychologists and child psychologists can play a critical role. Some leaders, like the President of Liberia, have implemented forgiveness education in all public schools. Such a move ensures that the next generation of one’s country is not driven to hatred and war, but rather driven to find ways of peace building and bridge building with other minority groups. Some may scoff at such lofty ideals in the midst of this post-modern existence, but here is food for thought from one who was unfairly judged and imprisoned for many years for the sake of his people, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” (Nelson Mandela). We have to start somewhere to alleviate the sorrow and the fear that these acts of violence cause, and we have the tools to do it through psychology.
“Mass killings are …a deliberate attempt to drive a wedge into the existing social order. … Some of these motives are obviously political – the intent is to sow fear and destabilize government” (King, 2017). However, psychology can assist law enforcement in creating a profile of the perpetrator, help victims to reframe the experience, and educate the younger ones in order to decrease the likelihood of creating more mass shooters. In revealing to the lay person that the goal of the terrorist is to drive fear into the hearts of their victims, the psychologist empowers them with truth that they can act upon. If they terrorist succeeds, then quality of life is lost and the terrorist wins. But, if the intended victims understand the terrorists’ game and they find the strength of resolve to rebuild their lives, first through reframing the trauma, and celebrating the heroic efforts of the human will, then a new will is forged. Fortitude is birthed and their renewed strength to live free from the bondage of fear is shared with everyone in their immediate as well as their extended community. In closing, a former US first lady wisely surmised that, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along” (Eleanor Roosevelt).