Getting Life: Understanding — and fighting back — against violence

Published: Monday, Jan. 24 2011 3:00 p.m. MST

A loner with a grudge and a penchant for odd philosophy shoots an Arizona congresswoman, a federal judge and a roster of other victims outside a Tucson supermarket. The penetrating gaze and eerie smile in the gunman's mug shot bring to mind other headline makers – criminals who leave us scrambling to understand and stem their violent outbursts.

Some commentators and bloggers blame our current political climate for the Arizona atrocity. While I am as appalled as the next person by a lack of civility in our political discourse, politicians were not the ones wielding guns in Arizona. So what motivates violent behavior? Can it be prevented?

Mass murder is not predictable, and no single personality trait, physiology or background factor makes violent behavior inevitable. But research has identified several factors that make violence more likely. Some of these are factors you and I can do something about.

First, perpetrators of violence often see other people as objects. Their feelings, dreams and relationships are invisible or irrelevant. Neglect or abuse, during which children are treated as such objects, is one factor in developing this mind-set.

Consider the thought processes of forger and murderer Mark Hofmann, whose letter to his parole board was recently released:

"I believe I was trying to convince myself of the worthlessness of life and of life's unfairness. I told myself that my survival and that of my family was the most important thing."

As he rationalized murder to avoid detection of his forgeries, Hofmann told himself that his intended victims might just as easily die from an accident or natural disaster. Their lives became inconsequential while the preservation of his reputation became paramount.

Second, the violent may lack skill in defusing their anger. They see small slights as sufficient disrespectful or threatening to justify rage. They blame others for their problems, obsess over perceived insults and injustices, and combat resulting feelings of powerlessness with fantasies of revenge. For example, there is speculation that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' assailant felt so slighted when she brushed off his question at an earlier event that he began plotting against her.

Third, judgment in the violent may be compromised by their biology. Certain genes have been implicated in violence when coupled with childhood neglect or abuse. When prefrontal lobes (responsible for impulse control, judgment, planning, reasoning, calming, and empathy) are slow to develop aggression is more likely, and at best, prefrontal lobes don't completely mature until the early 20s.

Alcohol or drugs further impair judgment and loosen inhibitions. Serial killer Ted Bundy blamed alcohol for lowering his inhibitions and lighting the match to his violent interests.

Fourth, the violent may lack social connections and feel misunderstood and alone. Most individuals who lack social skills or suffer from mental illnesses do not becoming violent, and most awkward or impulsive kids grow out of it.

In combination with other factors, though, feeling alone, misunderstood or rejected can fuel fantasies of using violence to become famous or get even. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, apparently hit a breaking point that turned toward violence over repeated romantic rejections.

Fifth, certain aspects of the environment and culture make violence more likely. Research suggests that high rates of violence in the United States are fueled by a large disparity between rich and poor, high mobility and individuality and weaker community ties, glorification of and access to weapons, and unremitting media violence and pornography portraying people as disposable objects.

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