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SNHU speaker well-schooled in study of mass killers and their deadly pathology

Union Leader Correspondent

April 03. 2013 8:02PM

HOOKSETT - Professor Jack Levin thinks he know what motivates mass killers: power.

The Northeastern University professor who teaches a single course, "The Sociology of Violence and Hate," shared his thesis at a Southern New Hampshire University talk on Wednesday on "Preventing Rampage Shootings."

Levin says the killer, especially the James Holmes and Adam Lanzas of our world, are after a power that has been denied them.

"We tend to underestimate this motive in multiple killers of attempting to achieve power and dominance and control of other people," he said. "It's very important to these guys: power, recognition, being in charge of things as elements of revenge, getting even against the people in their lives they feel have caused them to be miserable. . These are guys who want to be seen as a real man, so they do something that they see as very masculine."

He said Ted Bundy, who in addition to his brutal series of murders in the 1970s, also saved the life of a 4-year-old drowning boy and worked for some time with a suicide hotline in Seattle.

"Taking lives and saving lives, two sides of the same coin: playing God," Levin said.

Cult of celebrity

Levin took the media and culture to task. He said that the excessive attention, which he described as bordering on "romanticization" in some cases, provided the killers with precisely what they were looking for and offered examples to similarly disaffected children.

"That's the copycat phenomenon, and that feeds on publicity," he said.

"When you get national publicity, people who live thousands of miles away can become an inspiration to youngsters who are being ignored by their peers, or worse, being bullied. And then we make these killers into celebrities, so that young people that are not doing well in life find an alternative by shooting people."

Levin said in an interview he had with Charles Manson, the cult leader referred to himself as "the most famous person in history." Levin said the self-assessment was "only a slight exaggeration."

Levin said that most of the more visible and dramatic rampages likely involved psychosis, particularly those that seem random, like Holmes' Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, did seem to involve psychosis, and that many mass murders may have character disorders. But most mass shooters were not clinically psychotic.

Mass murderers, by Levin's profile, suffer from chronic frustration and depression, tend to externalize blame, are isolated from conventional influences, or are suffering a catastrophic loss and have access to and training in weapons use.

A prescription

However, we aren't doomed to suffer a steady stream of shootings perpetrated by born killers, Levin said. The key is early intervention.

"We should intervene long before someone has murderous intentions," he said. "If you wait until somebody wants to kill, you've waited too long.

"At Virginia Tech, the killer was in an English class. He was writing some things that were violent. The instructor got scared and tried to get (Seung-Hui) Cho to a therapist. How come nobody did that when he was in the eighth grade? In the eighth grade, Cho was not dangerous. He was troubled, but he wasn't troublesome."

Levin dismisses popular conjecture about the cause of mass shootings: "It's not the violent video game. It's the fact that they're alone," and that "if we were going to get rid of the guns, we should have done it 100 years ago."

Instead, he suggests institutional and cultural changes: Reduce "excessive" media coverage, institute effective anti-bullying legislation that "holds schools accountable," and end the culture of silence, encouraging students to inform administrators of threats.

A less orthodox suggestion is to remove incompetent graduate students early in the process. He found that seven of 13 college campus shooters in the 21st century were graduate students, several of whom had been in the program for a number of years without success.

Putting it in perspective

In the end, however, Levin makes a case for a degree of perspective when it comes to mass shootings. Terrifying and incomprehensible as they are, he said there are only about 150 mass-shooting victims in the United States annually, a fraction of the 15,000 annual murder victims, most of whom are killed in domestic and workplace incidents.

Additionally, while school shootings are the most common setting for a public mass murder, the college campus is "statistically the safest place to be in the country." The last elementary school shooting in the country before Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn., was in Stockton, Calif., in 1989.

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