The Neglected Mass Shooter and His Need to be Seen

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At a vigil to honor the victims of Sandy Hook, I read aloud the piece that Rabbi Lerner wrote on December 14th, 2012, entitled: “Banning All Guns is Necessary but Not Sufficient”, that we also need a fundamental transformation of consciousness both inner and societal. An article in Tikkun‘s spring issue, 2014 entitled, ‘Loving-Kindness to the Thousandth Generation’ by Ana Levy-Lyons mentioned a school administrator, Antoinette Tuff, who persuaded an armed twenty year old who came to her school with an AK-47 to put down his gun by expressing empathy for him. “That’s all?” I thought. Yes, simply empathy. It seems that we have lost that sense of compassion and that we suffer from a collective lack of empathy toward the other. I concur with Rabbi Lerner’s article, I applaud Ms. Tuff, and I believe that we still need to look deeper for, and at, the root causes of this mass gun violence.
In the aftermath of some of the most recent and shocking shootings, the one where the shooter’s intent in Virginia was to have his murders documented on TV and particularly the one at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, we are again appalled that this sort of thing can happen, and at a place of worship or now recorded on live tv. Or are we? Are we surprised anymore when we hear about someone pulling out a gun and shooting people en masse at point blank range, even children, at their schools or has this become commonplace? We have witnessed so much of this violence in our nation alone. In fact, our nation, more than any other advanced country on this planet has been the place of these shootings, they are now just another normalized news story. How can this be?
And, how do we understand the silence, the lack of our country’s response to these shootings? Not one 2016 presidential candidate has even mentioned these shootings. And, absolutely nothing has changed, not a thing has been done to address this pandemic of mass violence. No, excuse me, I learned that one thing was done: Congress’ first vote on guns after the mass shooting in Charleston has been to block federal funding for gun violence research. This is how we respond to violence in this country? That is, ‘let’s just pretend that this never happened and cut funding to find out why’.
I have been involved in fighting for gun control ever since a friend of mine was shot in 1999, in Miami, Fl. He was a physician and a patient of his shot him. Apparently this patient thought that the doctor had not done enough to heal him and he was stalking the man until he snuck into his office one day with a gun. The ninth bullet was the one that killed him.
Since that time and with the slew of mass shootings that have followed, I began to wonder who this shooter is and what makes so many people turn to this kind of violent theater, particularly committed en masse. The largely ineffectual solutions we have sought have been just that: they don’t really address the underlying cause of this phenomenon.

This is not just a gun control or a racial discrimination issue. It is not just an antisocial personality disorder, psychotic episode, work grievance or narcissistic problem that the killer has. It is a complex web of many causes, I believe. One of the causes I want to look at further in this article is the hidden psychological trauma of neglect; neglect both potentially suffered by the perpetrator and how this whole movement of mass shootings has been neglected. We don’t address the (collective) impact of neglect, just as we do not address the recurrence of this mass violence.
First, let’s consider the bombing and rampant shooting attack that killed a total of 77 people in Norway, 69 of whom were attending a Worker’s Youth League summer camp, on July 22, 2011. There was a recent article about this in the New Yorker and it was the first of which I’ve read that speaks directly to the underlying cause that might lie behind someone taking up arms against others for what seems like inexplicable reasons. The author of this article, Karl Ove Knausgaard, comments on how this 32 year old Norwegian perpetrator could really be any one of us, in terms of his narcissism, his having a difficult childhood, and perhaps a personality disorder. So what makes him pick up a gun and shoot while the rest of us narcissists and/or those who have experienced compromised parenting do not reach for the gun?
Knausgaard states that this man’s “mother who, without being aware of it, neglected him in ways that destroyed him so completely that really he had no chance”. She claims that he wanted to be seen and that is what drove him, nothing else. A recent article published in the Miami Herald states that “the U.S. has seen a number of shootings in public places with elements that seemed designed for maximum shock value”. A 2014 FBI study of these events since 2000 showed a staggering increase over time, with the four most violent years occurring in the last five years of the survey. It is expected that these events will become more and more frequent.
What gets my attention is the extreme need to be seen by these perpetrators and the neglect that this one (Norwegian) man suffered at the hands of his mother. We underestimate the power and silence of the invisible phenomenon called neglect. Neglect is foisted on its victims unknowingly and travels seamlessly from its perpetrator to its victim, becoming a trauma for that injured person. The trauma is silently carried by the victim, until perhaps one day they can no longer hold it, the silence and the wound have become too heavy, potentially lethal. Most likely the wound has been triggered again and again by life events that only the victim would register.
If this Norwegian man, (or lets say the So. Carolina shooter or any of these rampage shooters), was indeed neglected by his mother, and then also unseen by his father (since he claimed he wanted to make his father, whom he had not spoken to in years, proud in doing this), he is carrying a trauma that no one ever was held accountable for nor were their in-actions ever made visible to others. This man was carrying this invisibility around, and the wound of neglect, essentially a crime in itself, that was never acknowledged nor reconciled for thirty years. At some point, he was determined to do something about it, something to get himself (and the wound perhaps) acknowledged, in any way possible, even if he had to do the unthinkable. It didn’t matter if it cost him his life or other’s lives, or that he would be locked up forever; he would be noticed and in a huge way. If you can’t be seen in a good light, well, better to be seen in any light. Bad lighting will do, being seen is the goal at any cost. And, it didn’t matter who he took down with him, the more the better, the more inflated and large his name and his face would become in the minds of others, especially his father, as the murders tallied up.
Both this man, the South Carolina church shooter and the man who shot the television reporter and cameraman, yearned to be seen and desperately so, desperate enough to kill several people for their names and their faces to be known and remembered. In the Miami Herald articles about the South Carolina shooter, they claim that this man’s website hosted 60 photos of himself. He confessed to the crime and ‘wants his actions known’, according to law enforcement officials. The article cites examples of his feeling inflated; ‘no one else could do the job, so I have to do it’, he told his victims after sitting in a bible study class with them for an hour beforehand.
Who could do this? First sit with these people who welcomed him for an hour before this and then get up and shoot them afterwards? He registers their human kindness before he shoots as he almost apologizes for what he has to do to his victims before he does it. On his website, he left a manifesto which claimed that “someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me”(Miami Herald, June 21, 2015, p. 21).
Single handedly, this man believes he has to start a race war. He identifies with the archetype of the hero, albeit the dark hero. Identifying with an archetype makes him larger than life itself and this inflation, I believe, points to the reality of the smallness that he really feels at the core. The pendulum has swung 180 degrees in the opposite direction here, a phenomenon that Carl Jung, the noted psychiatrist, would label an enantiodromia, the opposite poles of a feeling, which really are one and the same, just a different side of the same coin. You can hear that in his statement, that he just ‘had to do it, no one else could’.
This whole sense of insignificance is felt as intolerable nowadays, especially in our country where one has to be significant. The mythology of this country, unlike most other countries around the world, places such importance on being important, being famous even. This perpetrator (and many of the others) was determined to make his life turn from being insignificant to terrifyingly unforgettable.
Inflation, I believe, is likely to be a characteristic of many of these mass shooters, as it was with the killer in Norway. When he was interrogated he was asked to undress by the police and he started posing in a classic body-building pose, to make his muscles bulge. That this man just murdered 77 people and shortly afterwards was posing as if he’s some celebrity speaks to his severe detachment from the other and his desperate need to be seen as someone special.
You can see in the pictures of faces of these perpetrators a vacant stare; they look detached, like they have no relationship or real connection to others. These people are disenfranchised, isolated, belonging to no community. If you don’t feel like you matter to anyone, then you’re vulnerable in a way that can be dangerous, a way that we have to start taking seriously in ours and other cultures. Our economics consign thousands of people not to matter at all, unless you can somehow fit into that narrow strip of the American dream, the one that only the successful and popular, usually handsome people fit into, the individualism that our country rewards at the cost of leaving most everyone else out. Well, how many people can actually squeeze themselves into that slender segment? Not many. It seems that the new bizarre form of American individualism for some has become mass murder; it’s the only way to go from being no one to becoming someone or more accurately, ‘the one’.
The act of killing, like the killer himself, has become normalized in most of the places where these crimes have occurred. These terrifying acts are being neglected, not unlike the perpetrator himself, who was possibly neglected, certainly not seen, these crimes are going unseen. Eighty eight Americans are killed every day with a gun (Everytown for Gun Safety, 7/2005).
Perhaps people are unaware of the severity of the consequences of cumulative early childhood neglect? Well, I think we better pay attention, if that is indeed one of the factors in this ‘need to be seen massacre’. This in itself says something about the culture where these shootings have taken place. Is there no time to devote to something as heinous as children being shot at school? Should not a mental health task force be assigned to investigate the underlying psychological factors behind these crimes? These horrifying acts of violence first shock us, cover the news headlines for the next day or so and then recede, like the perpetrator himself. These crimes become invisible after the initial shock and ratings that the television stations reel in with their coverage.
We are no longer bound or held in check by the fear of going to hell or by our elders, or whatever it may be that scares us out of committing a crime. We don’t have rituals that once held us and that we could rely on for passing from one stage to the next in our personal or collective development, rituals that could provide support for transformation. People are yearning for transformation, I believe, and they end up getting it, albeit not what they expected that change to be.
We need a new way of identifying who these ‘at risk’ people are but more importantly we need a cultural conversation about the accumulating rage that eventually explodes out of our most vulnerable and ‘least likely to do this kind of thing’, like ‘the quiet neighbor who kept to himself and was always polite to everyone’, we hear from those who are acquainted with the perpetrator. If we don’t address this in some way, and shift this rage into some other form or widen the possibilities of what it means to matter in this country, a compensatory fantasy builds and you find someone acting out his ideas of single handedly starting a race war or taking the government down, getting revenge for being fired or being neglected as a child and then feeling invisible. The anger that has been carried for years drives certain people to do drastic or unthinkable things in an effort to be acknowledged.
What’s not being acknowledged in our current society is that any one of us is sitting on multiple grievances, about work, family and relationships, injustice, the way in which this country is run, and the lack of empathy in our politics and economics. This just fuels the underlying rage that I believe is beneath all this violence. I mean, how many people feel alone, disconnected and detached from others, in our culture? How many feel that there are no prospects for things to improve, that this rigged game that favors only the rich, the top 1%, is just getting more exclusive with time?
I believe that cumulative neglect experienced in childhood, coupled with a sense of collective neglect and marginalization, can erupt into one of these shooting episodes where the rage is temporarily released and the perpetrator feels for a moment a perverted sense of inclusion. He is finally, if only for the moment, noticed and seen. Not only seen, photographed, written about, locked up so that he can write his story, what he figures will be his infamous, million dollar book and that his name will be forever remembered. He will, at whatever the cost, be acknowledged and remembered before he is done with this world.
Cheryl Hashman Sheinman writes on psychological factors undergirding cultural and political issues, specifically as they relate to collective and individual trauma, neglect, dialogue and justice. She has facilitated dialogue groups on Jewish values and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has been published in the Miami Herald, the Sun Sentinnel, the New York Times Magazine and been cited inArchetypal Psychologies: Reflections in Honor of James Hillmanfor her research and writing on the idea of dialogue in a conservative synagogue. She is seeking to form a group in South Florida that addresses the root causes of mass killing and comprehensive gun control.She can be reached at