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A dreary familiarity to this saddest of stories

The quiet hamlets of Cumbria – Wordsworth country – have now joined the grim global landscape of mass murder. Most of us cannot help trying to imagine the suffering among the uncomprehending bereaved, the horror of the local communities. We can do that because we feel empathy and compassion and can therefore imagine the consequences. Did Derrick Bird not think of the consequences? Surely only a crazed person could so catastrophically shut down these normal human reactions?

There is a growing body of research evidence about mass and serial killings. In their tidy scientific way researchers put order on the mayhem of mass murder. The overwhelming majority of serial killings and a substantial number of mass killings are motivated by a desire for control and dominance, including the likes of Harold Shipman who enjoyed playing God with the lives of other people; or those who kill prostitutes or otherwise think of themselves as on a mission to rid the world of evil. It includes the demented young men who dress up in military fatigues to launch an armed assault on a hated world.

A substantial number are motivated by revenge: the desire to get even with specific individuals or particular kinds of people, like women or work colleagues, or society at large. Some mass killings, particularly acts of terrorism, are ideologically motivated by the desire to “send a message” to the world. A few are motivated by a distorted sense of love or loyalty, for example, the Manson “family” or those who kill their entire families. Which brings me to a sub-category of mass and multiple killing called “homicide-suicide” – murder followed by suicide.

In this grim category, the most common type involves enraged, jealous men who kill their intimate partners and then themselves. Or men – usually depressed, paranoid, and often intoxicated – who are experiencing cumulative financial and marital stress and kill their wives and entire families in the belief that they are saving them from an intolerable life. There are the depressed mothers who kill their children and then themselves. Then there are the angry, disgruntled individuals who believe they have been wronged and set out to kill those responsible, along with innocent bystanders and then kill themselves. Derrick Bird falls into that category.

At one level, there is a dreary familiarity in the reported facts about him. Middle-aged, blue-collar, long divorced, living alone in an ill-kept cottage, variously described by friends and neighbours as a private person, quiet, well-respected, unassuming, a loner, prone to dark moods, tight-fisted, ordinary. Like a lot of people who never commit murder.

According to one report, the mother of his two sons left him because he wanted her to have an abortion when she became pregnant with the second baby and they never spoke afterwards. But that son spent a lot of time with his father, so they were presumably reasonably close.

He was also said to be close to his elderly mother, who alternated staying in a nursing home with staying with him. Of course, he liked guns. But so did his father who used to hunt rabbits and died in his bed. Yet the whole combination of facts rings an ominous bell, and with good reason. Bird, for all his ordinariness, had the classic humdrum profile of a mass killer, one that can be described accurately but tragically cannot predict.

He was male, white and middle-aged – the typical profile. Like the majority of mass killers, he appears to have had a clear-cut motive – revenge. He had come to believe that he had been wronged by certain people and then set out to kill them. These included his brother and solicitor friend whom he reportedly believed were conspiring against him about his mother’s will; his fellow taxi drivers whom he believed were touting for business outside the rank and teased him about his lack of success with women. There may also have been other victims with whom he had recent money disputes.

Almost 40 per cent of mass murderers are committed against family members and almost as many again victims known to the perpetrator.

The more specific and focused the revenge motive, the more planned and methodical the killing spree, and the less likely that the killer’s rage stems from mental illness or brain injury. Bird methodically summoned more than several victims to his car, perhaps in the guise of asking directions, and then shot them at point blank range. When he missed his victims first time, or only injured them, he shot them again.

Like most mass killers, he committed his crime in a small, tight-knit community. Contrary to expectations, most killing sprees do not happen in large anonymous cities, but in rural, school, university or work communities. His killing spree even happened in summer – the most frequent time of occurrence. But all these demographic details have profound psychological significance. People who perpetrate mass killing typically suffer from a long history of frustration and personal failure, allied with a decreasing ability to cope. For some young men, this culminates in an acute episode of despair and stress during late adolescence. For many, however, it is not until middle age that they have accumulated enough disappointment, setbacks, worries and pent-up frustrations to precipitate the killings. But there is one other ingredient necessary. The perpetrator has to come to believe that other people are to blame for his personal problems. In a supreme irony, he himself has to become the blameless victim before he unleashes his vengeance on the real, unsuspecting victims.

When this lethal combination of accumulated frustration and blaming is in place, all that is now required is the trigger event – usually a sudden loss or the threat of a loss, which from his point of view is catastrophic, the sense that his life is spinning out of control. Typically this involves the threat of separation from a loved one, the loss of a job, or an acute financial crisis. In Bird’s case, he was coping with the illness of his elderly mother, and reportedly feared that he was about to be prosecuted for tax evasion.

Finally, like many mass murderers, he had lived alone for many years and was cut off from most men’s biggest sources of emotional support and comfort and strongest protection against early death of most kinds – a loving partner. He reportedly had a longstanding tense and fraught relationship with his twin brother and was distant from his other brother. He had recently argued with his taxi driver colleagues and friends when they holidayed together and subsequently when they returned. The more such intimate relationships are characterised by frustration, jealousy, ambivalence and emotional dependency, the higher the risk of murder followed by suicide. Social rejection and isolation is intensely painful wherever it happens, but in a small community it must seem more personal, harder to escape from – and it is correspondingly easier to exact revenge.

With all the ingredients in place, tectonic plates move in the killer’s mind. The world darkens and contracts. All attention and energy begins to focus exclusively on the grim mission ahead. There may be a feeling of relief that the moment has finally come to act. There is a surge of power and control. In this solipsistic mental universe, empathy and compassion drain away. Other people are stripped of their individuality and humanity, and become, literally, targets. But there is still room for a God-like choice – this one rather than that one will die. All the carefully catalogued motives of the researchers collapse into accessories to the kill.

There is one final question left. Why do men comprise 95 per cent of mass killers? Saying that men have a greater propensity to violence than women is simply descriptive rather than explanatory. There is a more complex reason. To function well and cooperatively, men seem to need strong social structures. When they fall out of such structures, or can’t compete in them, they become particularly susceptible to a crippling sense of personal failure, to fear of losing control, and to obsessive attempts to dominate whoever is around them to restore their sense of self. The lone gunman running amok is the extreme end of the spectrum of catastrophic male failure.

In this respect it is interesting to note that our generation – for all our crises and frailties – has not been singled out for the blight of mass murder. All the evidence suggests that mass killings have been a feature of human society right throughout the 20th century. The word “berserk” came from the mass killers that disrupted the Viking community between the year 870 and 1030, and the phrase “running amok” refers to the periodic outbursts, of homicidal violence in Malaysia in the 16th century.

But, for all the historical regularity of occurrence, there was a precipitous drop in mass murder rates during the 1940s and 1950s in the US. This post-war period in the US was characterised by an increase in marriage, home ownership, church attendance and job security. It was an orderly, conforming and highly-structured world. We are not going back there anytime soon. Is it too much to hope that we could build another type of society – where we can find more enabling ways to help men who fall out of social structures, where, at the very least, they are caught by the embrace of compassion and love?

Originally published in The Irish Times

Posted: 07 June 2010