Criminologist: 'The Most Likely Motive'

The details are still scarce. But as the death toll from a killing spree at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg ratcheted up past 30, law-enforcement authorities and outside experts were trying to learn as much as possible from the little information in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. For Jack Levin, a leading authority on mass killings and those who commit them, the story emerging out of Virginia already has many sadly familiar hallmarks. A professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston with two dozen books to his name, Levin spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about what he's learned from a career spent studying tragedies. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You've studied mass shootings for more than 20 years. What's the first thing you think of when a story like this starts unfolding?
Jack Levin:
I can talk in general terms about this and I'm probably going to be right. In almost every case the motive is revenge. Usually the killer is on a suicidal rampage—he sets out to take his own life but first he takes his revenge on all the people he believes to be responsible for his miseries. Usually the killer has suffered from some catastrophic loss; it could be a girlfriend, a loss of a place in the university—assuming he's a student or faculty. Either way, in his eyes, it's catastrophic. It's the trigger, the catalyst, what pushes him over the edge.

Columbine was certainly about revenge, but I don't seem to recall there being a final straw that pushed them over the edge.
We don't know that. Usually the final straw sets in motion the planning stages. Sometimes the catastrophic losses occur months before the shooting. It's a precipitant that triggers the planning stage. Almost every one of these shootings is premeditative and selective. It's very rare to see a mass killer in a school or workplace or family target random victims. He'll more likely step around those he doesn't see as part of the conspiracy. I bet that happens here. At the same time this looks like a family annihilation where a husband-father wants to get even with his wife because he blames her for all his misery, but does so by killing everything associated with her, everything she loved. I've seen things in [the] postal service, where [the attacker] will kill his supervisor, the one who laid him off, and then target everyone else at the post office. This killer may have been setting out to kill the college. I'd like to know who his first victim was.

Virginia Tech had a bit of a scare earlier this year when an escaped murder suspect was reported to be nearby. Some have suggested that this might be a copycat crime of some sort.
I don't know all the details, but I can tell you I doubt that was the inspiration. I'm not a psychic, but sometimes I get it right. A couple of months ago there was a mass shooting involving 20 students, one of whom died, at a community college in Montreal. [In the Virginia case], the initial news reports said that the killer looked as though he's Asian or of Asian descent. So was the killer in Montreal. I've studied the copycat effect. It's much more likely to happen when the killers share personal characteristics. Think about the Columbine-style killings that happened in the '90s: they all happened in the suburbs; they were all bullied, isolated boys. If this killer turns out to be of Asian descent, it's highly likely he was inspired by the Montreal mass shooting.

What happens next?
The short-term solution is to take a law-and-order approach. In the high schools, that's exactly what happened. For a period of time, there will be a general feeling of unsafety among the students and faculty. The administrators may decide to institute some short-term measures in order to make everyone feel safe. They may install metal detectors; may place police officers in the hallways. It's understandable; it gives the feeling of safety. But it won't do much to reduce violence. My greatest concern right now is that this could inspire copycats around the country. At the very least, we might see false alarms being pulled, especially during final-exams week; we may see more threatening phone calls being made to faculty.

None of those measures you mentioned sound particularly effective.
I think most colleges and universities are open campuses. You can't make a university into a safe haven. We can station a hundred police officers on campus and it still may not make a difference. I think there's an illusion that somehow we're going to reduce violence to zero again, but it's not going to happen.

There have been reports that this killer was in his early 20s. The Columbine killers were obviously younger than that. How are younger killers different from full-grown adults?
Until the string of [high- and middle-] school shootings started in 1996, I was used to thinking of middle-aged men opening fire at work or in their own families. I would have argued then that it takes a cumulative protracted period of frustration to get someone so angry that they want to kill themselves and take everybody with them.

Like in "Falling Down," the Michael Douglas movie?
A really good example, actually. But what I think now is that you can be 16 or 21 and have suffered for a long period of time—for most of your life. We're talking about young people who have endured a whole set of frustrating circumstances. They may have been bullied in high school, shy kids suffering from physical defects or mental handicaps. The point is you can still be young and profoundly frustrated. So frustrated that you don't want to go on living and you want to get even.

I would imagine many younger people don't also quite have the same sense of the value of life either.
There are teenagers I would call "temporary sociopaths." They'll commit a hideous act, such as the taking of human life with impunity, when they're 16 or 19. They wouldn't dream of doing the same thing when they're 30. There's a lot of evidence that this is, in part, a developmental issue. The brain of an adolescent is quite different from the brain of an adult. Many young people don't think about consequences—whether it's spending 30 years behind bars or getting lung cancer 30 years from now. So it's hard to deal with and discourage violent behavior on the part of those few teenagers so frustrated with life that that they want desperately to get sweet revenge.

This must be awfully traumatic for survivors.
There are so many victims when a mass murder occurs. There are, of course, the victims who died. There are also their families, relatives, friends. Then there's the university itself, being stigmatized for a crime for which they have no responsibility. The whole community feels this sense of tragedy. As someone who studies this phenomenon, I can associate a mass killing with a town, and it's often the only thing I know about a town. When a killing happens in New York City it doesn't stigmatize the city—it has so many things going for it. If I hear about Edmund, Okla., I think of the postal tragedy in 1986; or Russellville, Ark., I think about a husband-father who killed 14 of his family members. What else do I know about those communities?