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Why Do People Go On Rampages?

cejensen's picture

    On November 5th 2009 Major Nadal Malik Hasan shot dead 13 people and injured many more at Fort Hood, in Texas. In light of this recent tragedy, I want to know: why do people go on rampages? To examine this, I will look into a few cases  (school shootings mostly) in which people, seemingly inexplicably, went on killing sprees. Why do they happen? What different explanations exist for these rampages? After I have examined past cases, paying special attention to the Columbine shootings, I will return to this recent case, of Maj. Hasan, and attempt to analyze it based on my findings.
    Even though I was about 9 years old at the time, I still remember the aftermath of the Columbine shootings. On April 20th 1999, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a rampage at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. Altogether, they shot and killed 13 people (12 students and 1 teacher), and injured 23 others before killing themselves. They attempted to bomb the school with homemade bombs, but failed. These shootings had a profound impact on the American public. The response was one of shock and dismay, and this spurred discussions about everything from high school culture (and sub-culture) to gun laws, from violent video games to anti-depressants.
    There was a lot of speculation as to why Harris and Klebold did what they did. Some, like psychiatrist Jerald Block, argued that it was Harris and Klebold’s obsession with video games such as Doom that lead to the attacks. Many others speculated that it was the high school culture and bullying that was to blame. People came to believe that Harris and Klebold were social outcasts who took part in unusual sub-cultures (famously, the “Trench Coat Mafia”). There was a lot of discussion at the time about the need to improve the culture in high schools to be more inclusive and less clique-y. There was also discussion about the desensitizing effects of violent video games on young people. From these arguments, it is clear that people really wanted to find some outside reason that these boys were driven to kill. A lot of people wanted to say that “society caused this.” However, many of the arguments made were based on assumptions. For example, the Harris and Klebold were not even really affiliated with the Trench Coat Mafia. The boys were also not really outcasts either; they had a circle of friends. I really don’t think that these killings were caused by high school culture. As for violent video games, many people play them, and yet incidents like the Columbine massacre are relatively rare. I think that, while video games may have been a factor, they cannot possibly be the sole factor.
    Another argument, that is presented by Dave Cullen in an article written five years after the massacre, is that a key factor in this case was mental illness, particularly on the part of Eric Harris. Harris, it is argued in the article, was a psychopath. Using evidence from Harris’ website and in his journal, the article shows that Harris had a superiority complex, lacked empathy, expressed extreme contempt for those around him, and was incredibly deceitful and manipulative. Dylan Klebold, on the other hand, was socially awkward, and the article argues that he was a depressive. However, of the two, Harris allegedly seemed more “normal.” This article really pins the blame for the rampage on Harris, because he was a psychopath. There is a lot of speculation about this case, but it is my belief that in this case mental illness, combined with some outside factors (perhaps things such as video games or bullying) may have been the cause. What about other cases?
    On May 18th 1927, in Bath Michigan, Andrew Kehoe, aged 55, killed 45 people in three separate bombings. He first bombed his farm buildings (after killing his wife) to distract the fire department. Then, he bombed the local school, this killing the majority of the victims. The third bombing was a car bomb, which he set off with himself inside, killing passerby. The popular reason for this was that Kehoe was angered by a new property tax put in place to pay for the building of a new school. However, I feel that this is not explanation enough. Many people dislike taxes, but most do not bomb an elementary school. While there is less information about this incident because it was so long ago, I would speculate that this man was also mentally ill. The combination of mental illness and his anger about the increase in taxes (or perhaps that mental illness caused him to become incredibly angered by the taxes) seems more likely to me.
    On August 1st 1966, university student Charles Whitman went on a rampage at the University of Texas at Austin, shooting and killing 14, and wounding 32 others. He was shot down by police the same day. In an autopsy, it was discovered that Whitman had a glioblastoma, a kind of brain tumor. Toward the end of his life, he had complained of terrible headaches. It has been speculated that this may have influenced Whitman’s actions. Though not mental illness, this may indicate that at least one factor that drove Whitman to go on a rampage may have been internal.
More recently, on April 16th 2007, university student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. He too committed suicide. It is pretty widely accepted that Cho was mentally ill. He had been diagnosed with severe depression and severe social anxiety disorders. While at university, he demonstrated disturbing behavior, such as stalking. It seems to me, as it seems to a lot of people, that Cho’s mental illness, perhaps combined with an outside factor, was an important factor here.
    All of the cases I looked at, I believe, an internal factor is at work. With the exception of Charles Whitman, this internal factor was, I believe, some form of severe mental illness (not very specific, I know). Severe mental illness is not the only factor, though; plenty of people who have some form of mental illness do not go on random killing sprees. I believe that both internal (mental illness, brain tumors) and external (access to weapons, video games, something that made someone angry) factors cause these rampages. I think that it is the same for Maj. Hasan. I think that we should not overlook that he was angry about the wars in the Middle East, but we should also consider his mental health.
    From my research, I would say that it is important to continue the study of mental illness in this country. I was honestly a little surprised at the enormous role or mental illness in things like this (I too want to attribute things like this to “society”). To identify it earlier on in life, and to perhaps develop more effective medication would perhaps limit incidents like those described above. One thing that all the above cases have in common is that the murderers all died (either by suicide or, in Whitman’s case, being killed by police) shortly after the fact. In this more recent case, Maj. Hasan is still living, and I think that we will be able to learn more about this case because of it. I think that this will also shed light on other cases like his.
    Another thing that all the cases I looked at have in common is that the perpetrator was male. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find a similar case in which a woman was the assailant. I wonder about the significance of this. Surely women are just as liable to be mentally ill as men? I think a question I would like to ask next is, why do more men than women commit violent crimes? Why don’t women go on rampages?


Information on 2009 Fort Hood shootings:
On Maj. Hasan:

Information on Columbine massacre:
“The Depressive and the Psychopath” (referenced in essay)
An article looking back on Columbine 10 years later:
Jerald J. Block’s argument about the role of video games:
More information:

Information on the Bath School disaster:

Information on the University of Texas massacre:

Information on Virginia Tech massacre:
The Virginia Tech panel report on Cho’s mental health history:

General Information:
Columbine massacre:
Bath School disaster:
Charles Whitman (Univ. of Texas massacre):
Virginia Tech massacre:
Seung-Hui Cho:



Fez's picture

Why not women?

I think women are more likely to seek help. Men on the other hand, forever pursuing the ideals of masculinity, will keep quiet, until their illness eventually takes over them.

Paul Grobstein's picture

rampages: external and internal factors, and ...

It is useful to notice peoples' tendency to look for outside causes, and to recognize that there may equally be internal ones.  Perhaps one can go one step further and suggest that what is actually at issue is combinations of the two?  Internal factors don't lead to rampages except in the context of particular external factors and vice versa?  Acknowledging this kind of causal complexity may make it harder to find something to blame, but may be a better starting point for making sense not only rampages but many other biological and human phenomena generally.