What Drives Students to Kill? Interview with Joseph Lieberman

| by Freedom States Alliance
Scott Vogel, Communications Director of the Freedom States Alliance, recently conducted an in-depth interview with Joseph Lieberman, author of the new book “School Shootings: What Every Parent and Educator Needs To Know To Protect Our Children.”

They discussed the profile of school shooters, the role the media has in glorifying shootings and how we can begin to ensure such tragedies never happen again.

(Editor's Note: This is Part II of the Interview. To Read Part I, click here.)

FSA: Do you believe there is a profile of a school shooter? Are there predictable patterns?

Joseph Lieberman: Yes and no. By that I mean the profile is morphing.

In the nineties, your typical school shooter had an above-average intelligence, small build, white, middle to upper-middle class student who had been bullied. Now it’s changing.

This century there has been an increase in the number of non-white school shooters, such as Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. Before him there was Kimveer Gill, for example, in Montreal who was from Indian heritage. On Sept. 13th, 2006, he shot 20 students, killing one young woman at Montreal’s Dawson College, using a 9-mm semi-automatic rifle, a .45-caliber pistol and a 12-caliber gun that can pump four bullets with each squeeze of the trigger. Kimveer was obsessed about using firearms to make up for his shortcomings, writing, “I love guns… I really do. The great equalizer.”

So school shooting has become an equal opportunity aberration among all young people.

You take a culture that, on the whole, is enamored and thrives on violence. Add to it the easy access to guns with ever increasing lethality, not to mention the bomb-making recipes. You take young people who are fairly intelligent, highly sensitive, and who feel that either some bullies or society in general have not given them their just rewards, and the result is that you get a much larger pool of risk.

School shooters know what the template is and they just go out and copy it. There’s not a lot of originality to their motives or how they carry out a vicious attack.

(Photo from the Northern Illinois University shooting on Feb. 14th, 2008).

FSA: How much of a role do mental health issues play?

Joseph Lieberman: Well, obviously anybody who commits a school shooting is not playing with a full deck.

There’s got to be something going on mentally because the conditions with which others attribute school shootings, such as obsession with violence, or playing violent video games, just doesn’t add up. A lot of kids play those games and don’t turn into school shooters. So it’s got to be some other factor. Researchers have also started looking at genetic factors that lead to violence.

One of the most pervasive factors is a lack of empathy among school shooters. These at risk students who become school shooters don’t feel compassion at all, or very little. That’s the nature of a sociopath — to do everything for their own gratification with no empathy for other people whatsoever. But there’s obviously some degree of mental illness in all of these people.

There are other school shooters who simply grew up in chaotic environments and have experienced trauma and abuse. If you look at Evan Ramsey, who committed a school shooting at Bethel Regional High School in Alaska on Feb. 19th, 1997, he was brought up in as many as 14 different foster homes. He was abused in half of those homes, either physically or mentally. His mother was an alcoholic and he had no father.

So when Ramsey became suicidal in high school and was constantly bullied, he planned on killing himself and a few other fellow students. In fact, Ramsey shot and killed his principal, Ron Edwards, and a star basketball player, Josh Palacios but did not wind up taking his own life.

FSA: What’s your take on the urge of some school shooters to become famous?

Joseph Lieberman: It’s bigger than that. Not only is there a desire to be immortal for the act of violence, but there is an urge to have a mass audience to witness it. And they know that in a mass media culture a school shooter will be able to impact society significantly.

When the two school shooters in Finland looked into a video camera and said, “I’m gonna kill you,” and posted their videos on YouTube, they were trying to extend their impact globally.
These school shooters are putting these messages on the Internet in English, not in their native tongue. This was never heard of before, even from a few years ago.

This is the age of YouTube and MySpace. Seung-Hui Cho sent NBC News the now infamous videotapes and photographs of him posing with his handguns knowing they would be broadcast to the world.

Kids are pretty adept at using computers, the Internet, digital cameras and social networking sites that are available. So instead of just writing a note or a suicide letter, technology has evolved to allow school shooters to garner a larger audience.

FSA: And, of course, the school shooter is playing right into the media’s hands because the media is going to broadcast the images and information. They’re almost obligated to.

Joseph Lieberman: Exactly. How do you deal with the fact that a murderer is out for fame? Do you not report it? You’ve got to report the news. You can’t stop that.

But the problem is that the media sensationalizes the egregious act of violence and that’s really the problem. Because when the media spins it in so many different ways, the fame goes on and on and the school shooter almost becomes legendary.

A lot of people were upset by the National Enquirer publishing the crime scene photographs showing the deceased bodies of the Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. They were the only publication in the world which had these photographs. This was June 4th, 2002, nearly three years after the Columbine school shooting.

The Enquirer paid a huge sum of money, $50,000 or so, to a first responder who had the photos. It took years and negotiations with lawyers before finally the disturbing pictures were published.

But I think it was a very good idea that the photos were published because instead of just hearing about how the shooters died in the library at Columbine, you see these graphic pictures and they are disgusting.

The same thing happened after Asa Coon attacked SuccessTech Academy in Cleveland, Ohio on Oct. 10th, 2007 where he shot and wounded two teachers and two students before killing himself. One of the officers took photographs in the aftermath of the shooting and put them on the Internet. The officer got into major trouble for doing so.

But I think people who are contemplating a school shooting should see these troubling images because it’s not pretty. It’s not glorious. Would be school shooters are thinking in terms of Jesse James, Billy the Kid – this sort of Bonnie and Clyde blaze of glory. But I think the graphic images lift the veil and show that it’s not a blaze of glory. It’s disgusting and you’re left with the fact that real people are affected. It’s no longer a game.

I think we sanitize the news to such a degree that you hear about incidents. You hear about this person who did the shooting. But you don’t hear many follow-up stories on how the victims have suffered, what they’ve gone through, the impact on those that were injured or the families that lost loved ones.

(Photo from the Virgina Tech massacre).

FSA: You’re saying that the images seared into our minds are of Cho posing with his two high-capacity handguns, not the consequences and the bloody aftermath. We remember the photographs of him looking and believing that he’s tough and planning a massacre. That’s what we’re left with.

Joseph Lieberman: As I mentioned previously, six months before Cho attacked Virginia Tech, there was a student, Kimveer Gill from Montreal, who posted images of himself posing with a gun. The photographs were almost identical to Cho’s before his attack.

There was another school attacker who not only planned a massacre, but also went to great lengths to document his actions. Alvaro Rafael Castillo, 19-years-old from Hillsborough, North Carolina, killed his father, then attacked his former high school but was soon disarmed without killing anyone there.

Castillo actually made a video showing the sheet that covered his father’s corpse after he shot and killed him and sent it to a local newspaper, just as Cho would send his to NBC News.

The previous year Castillo had traveled to Colorado to drive by the homes of the Columbine killers. In one more bizarre twist, Castillo emailed the current Columbine High School principal, Frank DeAngelis, the morning of his crimes, warning that he would attack his school. Unfortunately, DeAngelis didn’t see that email until after the incident. Castillo also wore a black trench coat when he went to Orange High School thinking of replaying Columbine.

This phenomenon of copying past massacres and then documenting them is almost becoming routine. I think the celebrity culture aspect of acting like a “martyr” fuels this dynamic. It’s as if school shooters are learning from past events like it’s a bad play.

It’s a chilling scenario when, like Virginia Tech, the incentive is to kill more and more people to “top” the last mass killing. And the more people who are killed, the bigger the news and the bigger the celebrity.

Now, unless there is a certain threshold of victims, the shooting might only be a one-day story, and potentially limited to a region or a single media market. Therefore, from the perspective of the killer, there is an incentive to massacre more people in order to become famous.

Frankly, it’s a nightmare scenario.

FSA: Virginia Tech is a tragic example where any discussion about solutions, such as strengthening and extending background checks on all gun sales, was turned on its head by the gun lobby and the right-wing. They effectively shutdown the debate by saying, “How dare you push your agenda after this tragedy.”

But then the same people turned right around and hypocritically said we need to allow college students to carry hidden and loaded weapons inside college classrooms, dorm rooms and around campus. Clearly the nation has fundamentally rejected this extremist idea. What’s your response?

Joseph Lieberman: I did an interview with the University of Washington about this. Not every university arms their campus police, but the University of Washington does. I asked the police chief about students carrying concealed weapons on campus. And his response was quite blunt saying that additional guns on campus was not the answer.

More guns in the hands of students, especially while they are going through a great deal of emotional changes, extreme stress, and pervasive access to alcohol and drugs, is simply a recipe for disaster. It is not a serious public safety option, and virtually every security professional opposes arming students.

Second, colleges have one of the highest rates of suicide in the country. Putting weapons in their hands creates increased risk.

The gun lobby appeals to that base level of fear that we will all be victims unless we arm ourselves. The best way to conquer that base level of fear, I think, is by using common sense and logic. The gun lobby’s agenda is predicated on this world view of good and bad people, which is utterly simplistic and frankly, ridiculous. For starters, how do we know who is a “good” student that should carry a concealed weapon, versus a “bad” student.

One thing we’ve learned, and that I point out in the book, is the difficulty of identifying what makes students prone to lash out in an act of violence. There are warning signs to be sure to prevent the next school shooting. But the idea that the best way to stop the next school massacre is to have armed students shoot the school attacker is almost so ludicrous that it pains me to even have to respond to the gun lobby’s fear-based agenda.

But the most difficult part for me in writing this book is the knowledge that it’s only a matter of time before the next major school shooting occurs.

I can only hope that sensible policies will be enacted to keep guns out of the hands of our children and young people while, at the same time, we can reach at-risk students and provide them guidance, counseling, and services before they lash out and commit a horrific school massacre.

Clearly, the only way to get a handle on this troubling issue of school shootings is through prevention.


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