What Makes a White, Middle-Class Man Kill?

What Makes a White, Middle-Class Man Kill? July 20, 2012

I, like many others, was shocked to hear this morning about the mass killing in Aurora, Colorado at a suburban movie theater at the hands of med student James Holmes. Having recently moved form Colorado to Oregon, it tapped into old feelings, recalling back when the Columbine High School killings took place. My wife, Amy, was a youth minister at the time, and one of the girls who had previously been a part of her group had helped the killers buy their guns.

Then there was the attack at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. And now this. It got me thinking about what all of the killers have in common, and for that matter, what they seem to have in common with many of the mass murderers at the focus of such tragic stories. I found this excerpt from David Lohr, a writer known for his interviews and write-ups about notorious criminals:

Typical mass murderers are usually conservative, middle-aged, white males from relatively stable, lower-to-middle-class backgrounds. These individuals usually aspire to more than they can achieve, and when they see their ambitions thwarted, they blame others for their failures. They feel exclusion and develop an irrational, and eventually, homicidal hatred of anyone they consider a hindrance to their own aspirations. Quite often, they choose to die in an eruption of violence directed at these perceived oppressors.

There are three common types of mass murderers: family annihilators, paramilitary enthusiasts, and disgruntled workers. Social areas of dysfunction, such as unemployment, loneliness, a family breakup, or an argument with a supervisor, can trigger their deadly rage.

Though much of what Lohr says makes sense, it still doesn’t explain, for me at least, why so many white, middle-class men seem to be the perpetrators of

these particular crimes. What’s more, I’ve found it difficult to track down any research seeking an answer to this question. It may be out there, but I’ve had a hard time finding it. We have all kinds of theories about inner city violence, gang murders and the like, but what about these “lone wolf” killers, many of whom have no prior record of criminal behavior at all?

But based on my own amateur research, here are some things that may contribute to this curious and disturbing pattern.

Often times, mass murderers have collections of literature from “hate groups” such as white supremacy organizations, separatist groups and other politically extreme networks. Though these groups are generally wary of ordering adherents to exact violence on others, the foundational hatred, militaristic aggression and ideological zealotry are a caustic admixture that can lead to such inevitably deadly outcomes.

Role Models: Consider the profiles of the most notorious mass killers in history – Hitler, Stalin, John Wayne Gacy, Lucky Luciano, Jim Jones, Charles Manson…all white men (European descent). In selecting role models, we tend to look for a bit of ourselves in the people we look up to. Granted, these are stomach-turning role models, but like it or not, some people do look at them as such. So in a sense, it’s a pattern because history has established precedent.

Isolation: It would be hard to plan a mass killing spree in a more communal living space; such planning requires a fair degree of isolation. Generally, people from middle income families can afford to have their own apartment, or at least their own room that is closed off from others. And consider that suburban life is, in many ways, constructed upon the value of privacy while being surrounded by thousands of people. We can go from our home to our car in the garage to our office and back again without having much, if any, contact with anyone else. This kind of privacy can be fertile ground for unchecked aberrant behavior.

Access: Combine extreme isolation with being inculcated with extreme propaganda, a litany of murderous role models with a healthy disposable income and
lots of free time, and you have someone who can frequent gun shows, pawn shops and the like to collect supplies. These things are expensive, and to be able to buy up so much of it without raising any eyebrows, you have to have access to a good deal of disposable income. Plus, they don’t look “suspicious,” according to the profiles we maintain for what a terrorist is supposed to look like.

Shock and Awe: If someone is a paranoid narcissist with a victim mentality and a longing to be noticed, they’ll likely go to extremes to get the reaction from society they seek. And although there is this time-tested pattern of white males as mass killers, we still hold up the middle class white male as the archetype of normalcy in the United States, particularly in suburban culture. So for one who is intent on personal and societal destruction, blowing up such archetypes serves their end as well.

No Hope:
 In a way, it seems absurd  to suggest that middle class suburban white men are more susceptible to hopelessness, despair and depression than others. But for those in an oppressive, violent environment, the source of distress is fairly evident. But if you live in an environment where you’re supposed to be happy and content about your life, and yet you’re not, who is to blame? Such internalized hatred can turn into internalized violence which, then, can be expressed outwardly.

So what is our collective responsibility in all of this? We are charged with recognizing and addressing the systemic and individual brokenness all around us. Who do you know that seems isolated, hopeless or in despair? Who among us is at risk of falling through the cracks, their pain and sickness going unnoticed until it’s too late?

This isn’t to say that anyone in these circumstances is at risk for such violent outbursts. Hardly. But aren’t the conditions themselves in which this type of personality germinates, and the pain that accompanies it, cause enough for attention, concern and action?


"goodness, some pple shld just learn not to speak at all"

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  • Teacherable

    You’re failing to mention one very important other factor: The use of certain mostly legal drugs that play with the brain.  If you will notice, most all of the school shooting young men were on these drugs, like anti-depressants, and so forth.  This is the most common factor between them all the and media won’t touch it.  Why not? 

    • S0 much “ugh” with this comment, i don’t even know where to begin… so i’ll just say, the media won’t touch it in this case because as of yet, there is no evidence he was on any psychiatric drugs. And perhaps the media won’t touch it in general because, unlike you, the rest of us are not cynics who believe every substance is a government conspiracy to control us. 

  • Teacherable

    And a very high percentage of America’s mass murderers were also sexually active outside the norms, if you know what I mean. 

  • olau76

    This article at the Atlantic points to some interesting research on this topic:

  • jupitaur

    “These individuals usually aspire to more than they can achieve, and when
    they see their ambitions thwarted, they blame others for their
    failures.”  This is key. 

    They are among that subset of white males who believe the white male as superhero achiever fairy tale.  They believe that white males are superior to nonwhites and nonmales, and that they will naturally and easily overcome those inferior people. 

    But that doesn’t happen.  Instead, every day they see a nonwhite or nonmale get a scholarship, a job, a raise, a promotion, a nice house, a nice partner or spouse, happy successful children, social approval. 

    Because they blame others for their failures, they think that a nonwhite or nonmale person’s achievement must be because of an unfair advantage like Affirmative Action, or using sex to get what they want.  After all, it couldn’t be because nonwhites and nonmales can be smart, effective people, too.

    It’s poisonous.  Most guys like this just sit and stew, and might vent to similarly-minded individuals when they think it’s “safe” to do so.

    But in a minority of cases, this poison develops into rage, and then action.

  • Jxcampbell

    I liked your thoughtful article. There is something special about white men and I think the pervasive sense of entitlement has a lot to di with it. If you have all the pieces and parts to succeed in life and you don’t, it can be very painful (impossible) for some to suck it up and take responsibility. ironically, that is one traditional definition of being a man: taking failure and getting back up again to fight another day.