I must start first with a disclaimer. I have no direct information about any of the people involved in today’s shooting in Toulouse nor of their plans for the shooting or activities before and after. All I am about to say is conjecture. I am in a mood to rant. Murder does that to me. I am in control externally but on the inside I am boiling, and enraged. Who, in cold blood sets out to murder innocent children? Who has the profound audacity to walk into a schoolyard and shoot and kill a father, two of his sons another child and wound others? What type of mind would hatch a plot where defenseless young people are cut down for no apparent reason other than what likely and ultimately will be referred to by many media outlets as political? I feel the need to try and make some sense of these senseless behaviors from the perspective of a student of human behavior. What I am about to say is in no way meant as providing the groundwork for an excuse or a means to explain an unexplainable action. Perhaps this missive is about giving myself a little catharsis.
The available data on child abusers indicates that all who abuse children were very likely abused themselves. Interestingly, only about 20% of people who were abused go on to be abusive to others. This piece of data might strongly suggest that it takes a combination of personality and personal history to become an abuser. This is the nature – nurture combination at work. Is the shooter in France someone who was abused and therefore has developed a murderous rage that is so uncontrollable that he can travel throughout the country shooting at unarmed individuals? This sounds too much like an excuse, a psychological assessment even without a patient to assess and is therefore meaningless.
If the attacker is a devotee of terror than the abuse theory may certainly not hold. The terrorists responsible for the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks all came from middle class homes and had a good education. There was no real information that they were raised in abusive homes and that somehow they were provided with a rationalization which they used to murder over 3.000 people. In fact, some claim they were brainwashed outside of their homes by a religious doctrine that taught that it is a positive deed to kill infidels. This is not abuse per se, however, an extension of this theory would be that the religious underpinnings here are, in and of themselves, abusive. An abusive society creates abusive adherents. According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinsker, the more freedom that exists in a society the lower the likelihood of terror and murder. Certain Islamic sects might be viewed as abusive because of their lack of freedoms for their believers. This approach may make some sense.
One additional theory comes to mind, that of the lone gunman. Usually acting completly alone or in a very small group these individuals have so low a sense of self that they feel the only way to draw attention is by acting out in so gross a manner as to gain notoriety. The Columbine murderers come to mind though they do not completely fit this profile. The attacks in France also do not fit this as the attack in the Yeshiva may be linked to other attacks that occurred on others in the last few days. This link to other murders suggests a broadly planned and financed program of terror.
I wish the psychological theories were data generated and provable. I wish they made more scientific sense and could be used to understand murderers and terrorists more consistently so that they might be prevented from their hell bent behaviors. Unfortunately, I have yet to see a solid theory emerge that could be used to make this happen. In the US we struggle with the idea of profiling, but presently it seems to be all that works and works successfully in Israel.
While I try today to understand what motivates a killer I worry for my children, grandchildren, friends and neighbors. My synagogue and all the local yeshivas and day schools have security in place. Some of it is obvious some not. But when looking around at what is in place I see that none of our lives or our communities are invincible. Certainly not to a lone gunman on a motorbike bent on a mission of mayhem. And certainly not to an individual with financing from a terrorist network or country.