To Kill, For The Love of Killing


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

Related Post Roulette

74 Responses

  1. North says:

    Awsome in general though I bridled at your implied characterization of Anders Behring Breivik as being non-political despite the fact that I suspect your implication was unintentional.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to North says:

      Psychologically speaking, I think he was far more motivated by his internal crazy than by his political leanings.

      Certainly he had no (rational) reason to believe that he was going to effect a change via his methodology.

      Of course, you can argue about that for most cases of terrorism, but that’s a whole ‘nuther conversation.Report

      • Certainly he had no (rational) reason to believe that he was going to effect a change via his methodology.

        Maybe I am misremembering or overly speculating? I thought he thought in a McVeighesque way that he was going to wake up an army.Report

        • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Will Truman says:

          I put Tim in the same category of, “Much more crazy and violent than political and principled”.Report

          • Hmmm, I don’t think I agree, but I’ll give you points for consistency.Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Will Truman says:

              There’s a border there, certainly… and it’s probably not a bright line, but a continuum.

              You can make a case that the Unabomber belongs on that side of the line, as well. It depends.

              I suspect that from a psych standpoint, there are differences between these types of mass killers that are worthy of note, which means systemic response for one might not cover the other.Report

              • I was actually thinking of the Unabomber when I mentioned McVeigh. I’d kind of lump them together. They seemed to have a coherent ideology. Their methodology was counterproductive, but it’s hard to say how much that’s an issue of misunderstanding the depth of their isolation (no, people don’t agree – not even secretly) and how much of it is that the ideology is simply an excuse for violence. It’s hard to know what is the cart, and what is the horse.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Will Truman says:

                “It’s hard to know what is the cart, and what is the horse.”

                That’s totally true.

                There are also mass killers (like the poisoning event or the apartment bombing) where the motivation sounds more like degenerate sociopathy than mass killing… that is, the body count isn’t a function of the desire to outlet some violent impulse, it’s more a factor of disassociation.

                So it’s hardly a cut-and-dried classification system. This does make the question of efficacy of gun control less cut and dried… it depends on which sorts of these activities we’re really trying to reduce.

                Still, I don’t see much of a correlation between levels of gun control and the aggregate. Maybe you’d see something with a much more detailed analysis, but you need better data.

                And I don’t know that you’re going to get better data that’s good enough to support any robust conclusion, anyway.Report

      • MikeSchilling in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I thought Breivik was quite coldly killing off the next generation of political leaders of the party he disapproved above.Report

        • Pat Cahalan in reply to MikeSchilling says:

          That certainly makes him a lot easier to hate, instead of him having something broken in his brain.

          I’m not sure we want to give “nurture” all the credit, here.Report

      • North in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I guess so Pat, you know more than I when it comes to psychology. I just find it difficult to imagine calling the acts of a man who targets the next generation of political leadership of a party he opposes; who bombs the offices of a party he opposes and who spouts right wing ideology when he’s permitted to speak a-political.Report

        • Pat Cahalan in reply to North says:

          You can say the same thing about Ted. He’s an anarcho-luddite or something.

          Me, I think they’re both first and foremost violently nutbar. The politics is just a mental framework which organizes their impulses.

          I don’t know anywhere near enough about psychology to make that a definitive diagnosis, that’s just my impression of the very little I do actually know.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

            I know less psychology than you do, I’m sure, but my view of Ted, given his history and what he put in his manifesto was this: he was a deeply unhappy man who didn’t fit anywhere. A combination of no understanding of people or society, an immense talent for abstract thought, and way too much free time combined to create a picture of a society where he thought he could be happy. [1] Sociopathy allowed him to try to get there via serial killing.

            Breivik had a much realer plan. But his vision of a xenophobic Europe is a far more achievable reality than Ted’s neo-neolithicism.

            1. An idiotic one, to be sure. His manifesto amounts to “If we reverse 10,000 years of technological progress, I might be able to get a date.”Report

  2. Brandon Berg says:

    Minor correction: A spree killing is defined as killing at two or more sites, without the cooling-off period that characterizes serial killing. Killing a bunch of people in one place is mass murder.Report

  3. Fnord says:

    What you call a “spree killer” is usually defined as a mass killer or, as wikipedia does, a rampage killer.

    Spree killer is a somewhat vague category between mass killer and serial killer. A mass murder kills all their victims at once, in a single event that’s more or less continuous in time and space. A serial killer kills victims on separate occasions (often, though not always, targeting a single victim for each event) with a prolonged waiting/planning period between killings (weeks, months or years). A spree killer kills victims at separate events, but doesn’t wait long periods between events.Report

  4. James K says:

    This is an excellent piece Patrick, it’s always nice to see someone get empirical.Report

  5. Tom Van Dyke says:

    A standing ovation, PatC, for your sanity and numerical literacy:

    “back-of-the-envelope…the U.S. having 33 attacks at its population of 300 million, or about 1 incident per 9 million. Germany has one per 10 million, France one per 8.5 million, the U.K. one per ten million”

    “the U.S. isn’t significantly more likely to have one of these events than Germany or France or the U.K. (less than France, actually).”

    I also like your takeaway

    I think that this sort of violent insanity is probably best dealt with via the mental health system

    that the question is not what to do with our guns, but what to do with our crazies.

    You add re our mental health system [admittedly, not a “system” atall, but a patchwork of ad hocs] “which is much less robust than I wish it could be,” and this gets into political policy questions about what would make the system more “robust.”

    Yes, we could spend more—would that help us catch and/or cure the one in a million [1-in-9 million!]? And then there’s the involuntary commitment thing, etc.

    Oy. Easier to pass anti-gun laws, that’s for sure.

    Great work, bro.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      Thanks, Tom.

      Spending more probably won’t significantly increase your catch rate on this sort of crazy. Unfortunately, for every guy like the VA Tech shooter, where there are plenty of warning signs, you get someone who appears pretty normal like Charles Whitman. And even when you have plenty of warning signs, any systemic approach is going to wind up missing some of them anyway, because you’re going to get false negatives unless you dial the criteria up so high that you catch way, way too many false positives.

      But, at the least, you’ll help people with depression and bipolar disorder and others who would never have these sorts of breaks… if you think of mental illness severity as a bell curve, increasing treatment access is probably going to catch the vast majority of sufferers who are in the fat middle of “needing treatment” but far away from “are violently dangerous.”

      It’s a particularly hard people problem.Report

      • I go back and forth on this issue. One part of me says we should absolutely do more for the mentally ill to prevent this sort of thing from happening. The other part asks how we do that without empowering the sort of people that become high school guidance counselors to run roughshod over the lives of the teenage oddballs any more than they already do.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

          I mean, can you imagine if we had a “war on mental illness” to rival the “war on terror” or the “war on drugs”? It would be a friggin nightmare. Not to mention the danger of empowering some bureaucrat to invent a new category of thought-crimes.Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Rufus F. says:

            Right… basically, this.

            The problem is that you can take all the warning signs that are exhibited from people who do stuff like this, and if you try to apply some sort of screening to the entire population based upon those signs, you’re going to put a bunch of people in treatment for violent disorders when they have almost no probability of doing anything violent.

            Most people who act weird just aren’t that weird, they’re not even close.Report

            • Yes indeed, given the rarity of the phenomenon Bayes Theorem is our enemy here. Even a very good test will generate a lot of false positives and there isn’t a very good test for homicidal tendencies.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              most people with borderline personality disorder OUGHT to recieve some therapy.
              These people really are WEIRD in a “bad for themselves/people around them” sort of way.

              I don’t claim the same thing about psychopaths, who tend to be better at controlling themselves. (even if they do laugh at things like the Holocaust *ahem*)Report

          • Rod in reply to Rufus F. says:

            Ecchh. On the one hand you have a Governor Reagan emptying out the mental wards and basically creating the schizophrenic homeless problem overnight. On the other hand, you have One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the old Soviet psychiatric-hospitals-for-political-dissidents situation.

            Nasty problem with no clear answers.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to Rod says:

              The person convinced that the squirrel is talking to him needs … guidance, of some sort. may not need institutionalization, at least not forever.

              Most depressed folks don’t need institutionalization.

              There are people who are dangerous to those aroudn them, and they need hospitals.Report

        • Don Zeko in reply to Rufus F. says:

          A good start on “doing more for the mentally ill” would simply be to get more insurance providers to cover mental health services. I doubt this would do much to prevent mass murders like this, but there are plenty of much more mundane benefits we could accrue. Plus, greater availability might lead to more de-stigmatization of mental health care. And in my experience, there’s a substantial population being treated by MD’s (at great cost) that ought to be talking to a psychologist instead.Report

      • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Tom stole my response.

        Hat is the evidence that increased mental health resources and easier to get care would reduce the incident of mass murder, spree killing, and serial killing?

        While I agree that it would help loads of people I just don’t know if it would make a difference in this case. Unless some evidence is presented this isn’t the reason to improve our mental health system. The number of people not getting the help they need is.Report

    • Rod in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      You add re our mental health system [admittedly, not a “system” atall, but a patchwork of ad hocs] “which is much less robust than I wish it could be,” and this gets into political policy questions about what would make the system more “robust.”

      Yes, we could spend more—would that help us catch and/or cure the one in a million [1-in-9 million!]? And then there’s the involuntary commitment thing, etc.

      Yeah, this. I think there are really great reasons for wanting to improve our mental health system (starting with making it more, err… systematic, for one, perhaps) but I don’t know how much we can expect it to impact these sorts of events. Often as not, I suspect these sorts of people are just going to fly under the radar in any case. Similarly for gun laws, where if we’re going to do anything, the focus and intent should be on reducing the overall level of criminal acts committed with firearms rather than these once-in-a-blue-moon tragedies.

      An interesting aspect to me is the interaction between our mental health system (such as it is) and our gun purchasing and CCW laws. The Virginia Tech shooter was in the mh system and I believe the Aurora shooter was as well (although that’s less than clear from initial reports). And yet they were both able to legally acquire firearms despite crazy-in-the-head supposedly being a disqualifier. Is HIPAA a barrier? Are the systems too disjointed and ad-hoc? With a robust black market and the “grey” market (gun shows/private sales) would it make much difference?

      I tend to view these sorts of things like natural disasters. Once in a while you’re going to get a tornado that wipes out a Joplin, MO, or a Norman, OK, or an earthquake that collapses a freeway and there ain’t a hell of a lot you can do to prevent that.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rod says:

        Much of the problem is related to how much better things are today than they were in the past… and part of things being better is that we have more brain space for each individual victim. I mean, Bush met with the families of each soldier killed in his Iraq War. Each one!


        But that also means that he (and we) can be haunted in a way that we weren’t haunted by body count numbers on the television during Vietnam.

        When it comes to murder, the first year going back that had fewer murders (total) than 2010 was 1968. We even had 100,000,000 fewer (!) people in the country then… but something like Aurora happens and it feels like things are getting worse, even though, according to the numbers, they seem to be headed full steam in the right direction.

        (Based on this: )Report

      • wardsmith in reply to Rod says:

        Rod, I had this link in my guest OP. ED said he might post it, but it may be too controversial.Report

  6. In a just world, this post would go viral. It’s the sort of thing that validates the exostene of the blogosphere.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      Any time I get props from Mark, James, and Tom all in one post… all I need is North or Elias or Stillwater and I’ll call that yeoman’s work for the week.


      • North in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Oh I tossed my comment in quickly. I certainly was impressed by the post. Excellent work Pat; yeoman’s indeed.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I’ll jump in on that. This is a great post.

        I’m curious about the correlation between western countries and higher incidence of mass murder or spree killings. My own feeling on gun control advocacy in general is that its proponents justify it as a legitimate response to the perception that the US is violent society. I say “perception” because what constitutes the right level of tolerance for, and acceptance of, within a society is subjectively determined, and opinions on that can differ wildly even if everyone in the debate accepts the premise that society should tolerate and accept only those uses of violence that are clearly justified by moral necessity. So gun control advocacy is justified on these grounds as mitigating against an otherwise unconstrained acceptance of the violence resulting from guns. So passing gun control laws becomes a codified norm of some sort.

        I’m not sure the above argument is coherent, but insofar as it is, I think that brings us back to some of that data points in the post: that individuals from western countries are more likely to engage in these types of violent acts. And it might be because western countries are more tolerant, or fundamentally accepting of, the uses of violence to achieve personal or national goals.

        I don’t know the answer to that, of course, but it strikes me as interesting. It also strikes me that any conclusion require care so the argument doesn’t become blatantly circular.Report

    • Roger in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      I agree. Awesome post!Report

  7. Rod says:

    Great work, Pat. I’m a great fan of sussing out the data and crunching the numbers. It adds much needed clarity to politically and emotionally charged topics.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Rod says:

      This is one of those cases where a social scientist who really studies this stuff would complain that there just isn’t enough data and then… stop and think about that complaint, and maybe be glad that they’re studying a phenomenon that isn’t quite so readily exposed to statistical tools, because it just doesn’t happen often enough.

      Which, in and of itself, tells you something. If the odds of you getting killed by a rampage or spree killer is a couple order of magnitudes lower than getting hit by lightning, you probably don’t need to get very invested in attempting to lower that risk, much.

      You’re much better off taking a defensive driving course than you are buying a gun for self-defense from this sort of thing, or campaigning in your free time for increased gun control.Report

  8. Roger says:

    Should we add a category for Government Murderer? One hundred and seventy million people were killed by their own government in the last century, almost all in totalitarian regimes.Report

    • Scott in reply to Roger says:

      We should include gov’t murder. Guns don’t kill people, gov’ts kill people. Maybe liberals should try to ban gov’ts instead of guns.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Scott says:

        if we ban governments, then who will stop the powerful non-governmental entities?
        Banning government simply implies return to feudalism, where the people with the sword get to be in power.

        Have you ever hired mercenaries to guard your ass?Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Roger says:

      It becomes worth asking whether the cure isn’t worse than the disease. Libertarian anarchists sometimes take a hasty step here from noticing the democide in totalitarian states to concluding that all states should be abolished.

      Much more difficult (for them anyway) is to observe that not all state-cures are necessarily worse than the disease. Do liberal democracies sometimes degenerate into totalitarianisms? Yes. Of course. Are they still worth the risk? This is a messier question, but I’m afraid the answer for now is yes.Report

      • Roger in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        I agree, Jason. I would add that the right to bear arms may, or may not, influence the tendency of a society to become totalitarian. The answer to this question will dwarf all other violence statistics. For the record, I am ambivalent on the issue.Report

  9. Jason Kuznicki says:

    I find it odd that there is little consideration of personal responsibility here. The tendency instead is to medicalize virtually everything. While some things clearly can be medicalized, I don’t believe all of them can. You will likely find August’s Cato Unbound interesting. Its lead essay will be published on Monday. The title is “Mental Health and the Law.”

    I also find it odd that there is no discussion here of the very common sexual dimension to serial killers’ behavior. Often the impulse to kill seems to stem from a sexual impulse, coupled with some degree of self-loathing over it.

    Serial killers tend to be men, yes, but they also tend to target sexually attractive objects, as per whatever sexual orientation they have. Jeffrey Dahmer was gay and evidently attracted to very young ethnic men. Ted Bundy was straight and targeted young women instead. And so forth.

    I wonder whether changes to our sexual mores or sexual culture would be capable of reducing or increasing the number of serial killers. It seems evident that the rise of cities in the industrial era made serial killing easier, although earlier examples certainly exist. Now that so many people live in or near urban eras, that trend may have stabilized. Would it be possible, somehow, to give these people some outlet either for their sex drive or their associated feelings, such that the did not desire to kill? I don’t know.Report

    • Scott in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:


      When do liberals ever talk of personal responsibility? Why not just blame the gun, bomb or hammer.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      Will you then lump the people who feed others to snakes, and snuff porn, amongst the serial killers?Report

    • Pat Cahalan in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      I’ll check out the CATO article.

      For the purposes of this post, I’m less concerned with underlying motives because I don’t know that the data set is clean enough on that front. Also, I’m really not certain that it matters.

      I suspect for these types of people, the motive is the focus, but the light source is something else. This is something that is rare enough that it just doesn’t map well onto normal human behavior sets. Even the copycat nature of some of these (pilots crashing their planes was big in the 70s, relatively speaking) seems mostly at best a weak cause.

      Lots of people don’t like technology, or conservatives, or Muslims, or whatever. There’s literally millions of ’em. And yet we get less than 200 of these events in 50 years, by this limited data set. That’s a pretty rare phenomena in a large population set.

      I wish I could upload the spreadsheet or even the CSV text file, but the site won’t let me. Email me if you’re interested in a copy.Report

  10. V.E.G. says:

    After all, Gameel Hamed Al-Batouti had killed 217 people including himself by crashing the airplane to the Atlantic Ocean!Report