What Mass Killers Tend to Have in Common

It may almost seem too obvious to mention, but I don’t think that’s why we so seldom mention it. I don’t mean being male, or being mentally disturbed, or having been cruel to women, or living in places like the United States where it’s easy to acquire weapons of war. These and many other factors are very significant and very often discussed, as they should be, when we consider mass killings.

There’s something else that ties a lot of mass killers together, and it’s also obvious, but seldom discussed. The man who killed with a van in Toronto had been briefly in the Canadian military and promoted his crime on Facebook beforehand as a military operation. The same day he killed in Toronto, the G7 countries were meeting at the University of Toronto and declaring their unified hostility toward Russia. The mass killing on Toronto’s streets sought to solve problems in the same way that the Canadian government and its allies seek to solve problems.

The recent mass-killing in a Florida High School was also promoted by the killer as a military operation, in the sense that he wore his JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) shirt and killed in the same school where the U.S. Army had trained him to shoot and instructed him in war-supporting views of the world and its history.

Why should anyone notice such points or generalize from them? Don’t members of militaries and veterans have it hard enough already without such gross bigotry?

There’s actually no need to generalize. Looking at a long list of mass shootings in the United States, almost all of the shooters are men, and almost all of them are between ages 18 and 59. Above age 59, the percentage of men in the general U.S. population who are veterans leaps up dramatically. Between 18 and 59 — by averaging the percentages for each age year — about 14.76 percent of U.S. men are veterans, but at least 35% of these shooters were veterans. I determined that by quickly reading available news reports online about each shooting, so the percentage is likely to be significantly higher. I found no news reports that stated that any of the shooters had not been in the military.

In U.S. mass shootings, military veterans are over twice as likely to be mass shooters, and probably much more likely than that. Needless to say, this is a statistic about a large population, not information about any particular individual. Needless to say, profiling and discrimination are counterproductive. But here’s what else might be counterproductive: Training people in the arts of mass murder, launching wars, and dropping people trained for wars and having suffered through wars into a heavily armed society taught by schools and entertainment systems that mass-killing is the way to solve problems. Mass killing in the United States gets you on the news, and if you happen to be a president bombing a distant land it gets you widely praised and labeled as “finally presidential.”

Of course it’s possible that people inclined toward mass shootings are also inclined to join the military, that the relationship is a correlation and not a cause. In fact, I would be shocked if there wasn’t some truth to that. But it’s also possible that being trained and conditioned and given a familiarity with mass shootings — and in some cases no doubt an experience of engaging in mass shooting and having it deemed acceptable — makes one more likely to mass shoot. I cannot imagine there isn’t truth in that.

The most killing Western societies do is done abroad by their militaries. In the United States, hundreds of deadly shootings every year are committed by police officers — disproportionately military veterans. Suicides, as well, are disproportionately committed by veterans. And not because we are untactful in pointing to problems, but because we generally fail to admit to and deal with problems. Veteran suicides are driven by guilt over having participated in killing. That guilt is the top factor in predicting suicide, according to the U.S. Veterans Administration.

Militarism will continue to cause extensive damage until we shift our culture to nonviolence. That shift needs to include our governments, and it needs to treat the illness, not just its symptoms. The answer to gun violence is not more guns any more than the answer to van violence is more vans. I hope that seems obvious. It should.

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David Swanson is director of World BEYOND War which will be holding a conference in Toronto this September 21 and 22.

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