In San Bernardino, focus on the murderous partnership.
James Alan Fox 6:56 p.m. EST
December 3, 2015
Most mass killers
are enabled by social isolation, only rarely do pairs bring out the worst in
At least 14 killed and 21 injured in a mass shooting at
an office building in San Bernardino, Calif., allegedly by a couple armed
and dressed for battle. The extent of carnage is absolutely shocking, while
the relationship of the suspected gunman and gunwoman is surprising, but
only somewhat so.
It is quite true that the vast majority of mass
killings involving firearms are perpetrated by lone assailants. Of the more
than 200 cases in the USA
The prototypical lone gunman bent on
revenge usually reflects an angry, dispirited or sometimes deranged
individual who seeks revenge against those whom he sees as his tormentors.
The perceived enemy are those people who caused life to be so unlivable.
They would have to pay for making everyday existence a living hell.
Occasionally, in the purely random massacres, the target is not some
specific workplace, but society in general, seen as a corrupt world in which
all the breaks go to other undeserving people.
The lone shooter is
enabled by his social isolation. He has no real support system to help him
deal with life's frustrations and disappointments and, more important, no
one to provide a needed reality check on his unrealistic view of his
victimhood. The lack of others allows the loner to see the world through a
When couples kill be it a married couple (as appears
to be the case in the latest bloodbath), brothers (as in the Boston Marathon
bombing), pseudo father and son (as in the DC sniper murders), the presence
of a close confidant, rather than the absence, is enabling, so long as the
other participant is of like-minded perspective.
In these deadly
duos, the association is emboldening and reinforcing. It is far easier to
kill when someone else shares the responsibility and, more critically,
reinforces the idea that it is the right thing to do. It becomes a case of
"us against the world' thinking.
The key to understanding the
motivation of partners in crime both those that depend on familial
connections and others such as the Columbine massacre that involve friends
is to focus more on the partnership than on the crime. It is at last
arguable that the attack would not have occurred without the partnership
bond. Typically, one person is the leader who thrives on having a willing
foot soldier, while the other seeks approval from his or her mentor. Each
brings out the worst in the other, and together they see the virtue in some
As compared with lone gunmen, mass killer partnerships
and teams are especially dangerous. Of course, two heads are almost always
better than one in terms of planning a strategy of attack and making the
necessary preparations. Plus, once at the targeted location, two shooters
can wreak double the havoc in terms of body count.
dangerousness of gangs of two or more lies also in the power of group think.
While there is the possibility of a successful intervention to derail the
deadly designs of the lone wolf, team killers feed off each other to find
inspiration and resolve. They can easily insulate themselves from others,
especially when motivated by some political ideology.
single would-be killer can abandon his fantasies of violence without having
to appear weak. However, when co-conspirators are involved, there is
pressure to follow through, to stay loyal to the cause, and not let your
It is said that "everybody needs somebody
sometimes," but sometimes that somebody is only there to facilitate an
extreme act of violence.James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.