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The mass murderer's mindset

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Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh native Michael Welner is a forensic psychiatrist and chairman of The Forensic Panel, a New York City-based forensic science practice. Welner, 48, spoke to the Trib regarding the mindset of sudden mass murderers following Monday's shooting spree that left 12 people dead at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.

Q: Did Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis display any characteristics that are common to the lone wolf killers we've seen in recent years?

A: I know a lot of people use the expression “lone wolf.” I prefer to use the term “alienated social reject.”

There's a certain romanticized quality to the lone wolf that bespeaks the hunter, the nobility of the wolf and the idea of the wolf as this individualist.

Really, this is so much a crime of the social-sexual reject because of the social payoff to a larger-than-life identity in a fame- and celebrity-driven society.

Q: Is there a common thread to the people who commit these crimes?

A: The common thread is that it starts by blaming everybody around them for their social awkwardness, their social failures.

(2009 Collier LA Fitness shooter George) Sodini is a great example. He was somebody who so wanted to connect, but was just a social-sexual loser who was ignored. He was so bitter about his ordinariness but invariably blamed everyone around him.

So it starts with that, and what such folks do is they identify with the power of the destructiveness and how it relates to their failure at masculine identities.

Q: What brings a person to the point where they take the most drastic measure possible to rebel against their own sense of failure?

A: Two things. First, a person latches on to a grievance which becomes, for them, a rational explanation about why their life has been a failure. In the instance of Ronald Taylor (who killed three people in a 2000 shooting spree in Wilkinsburg), it was racial hatred. In terms of Richard Baumhammers (whose 2000 shooting rampage in suburban Pittsburgh ultimately claimed six lives), it was sort of a political, ideological but also a xenophobic kind of hatred.

But the point is, it's an agenda (shooters) can make sound legitimate. The reason for sounding legitimate is that they've got to justify to themselves that what they are doing is right, the idea of killing complete innocents.

So the first thing is an agenda. The second thing is the recognition that it's never going to get better for them.

Q: So are these the acts of insane people, or people who just give in completely to their own egotistical agenda and decide to go out in a blaze of glory?

A: Let me put it to you this way: You have to be resentful of everybody in order to kill anyone. Your sense of resentment has to be so pervasive in order to be destructive in an indiscriminate way, and that's part of the whole graduation of someone from fantasy to actually being a mass killer.

There is always some degree of paranoia. (But) I actually found Taylor to be more psychiatrically stable than his attorney, John Elash. Baumhammers was someone who clearly had a psychotic disorder.

Q: So it's possible to commit these horrendous acts without necessarily being clinically insane?

A: That's right, and that's where social incentive comes in. We have so powerfully socially incentivized folks who have broad resentments into adopting their own agenda and fusing it with their fantasies of destructiveness as the accomplishment that makes men men. And that is a toxic, toxic concoction.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or




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