Thursday, February 9, 2012

2011: Year of the Mucker? (Morbid Musings On Mass Murder)

2011 was quite a year for high-profile instances of individuals running amok with the intent to kill.

The year began with Jared Lee Loughner's shooting spree in Arizona in January and ended with three separate incidents in December that occurred in California, Belgium and Italy. In between the world witnessed several other mass killings, including the horrendous massacre carried out by Anders Breivik in Norway on July 22, which is considered to be the deadliest "killing spree" in history.

When I heard the news about the Norway massacre I immediately thought back to the shootings in Arizona earlier that year, and that led me to recall the phenomenon of "muckers" that played such a central role in John Brunner's dystopian (before dystopian was cool) novel, Stand On Zanzibar (first published in 1968), and as a result of those morbid musings I posted a few excerpts from that great work of literature.

I can't see a pattern in the motives or any other connecting thread in these acts of seemingly senseless violence. Many of them do fit a pattern of lone mentally ill individuals motivated by megalomania and delusional ideology. But some are obviously examples of severely psychologically damaged human beings who reached a breaking point without any "ideological" direction to their violence.

And it's not 100% clear that 2011 actually saw more of this kind of violence than other years, especially since definitions vary for such things as "spree killing", "rampage killing", "mass murder", etc. Here are four good discussions of some of the different definitions:

Previous years have of course not been without their fair share of mass killings. In 2010 there was a truly Brunner-esque wave of violent attacks in China, including a wave of attacks on schoolchildren in which at least 21 children were killed, some as young as four years old (link). That same year a Chinese construction worker went on a drunken rampage with a shovel loader, killing 11 people (link). And early Spring of 2009 also saw an alarming string of mass murders committed in the United States (link). If we go back to 2007 there was the Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 people were gunned down in the 6th deadliest rampage killing by a lone perpetrator on record (well, at least according to this list, already linked to above). So maybe 2011 wasn't so bad after all? Hmmm, that doesn't really make me feel any better!

But maybe there is a pattern, or at least a trend, and not a good one. Mark Kopta, chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Evansville in Indiana (link), has tabulated the rate at which mass killings occur in the U.S., going back to the 1930s. According to Kopta, the frequency of these events has been on the increase at least since 1970. Here are his numbers (according to media reports, such as this one from abc):

3 mass killings from 1930-1970 (.075 per year)
3 mass killings from 1970-1980 (0.3 per year)
10 mass killings from 1980-1990 (1.0 per year)
17 mass killings from 1990-2000 (1.7 per year)
25 mass killings from 2000-2008 (3.1 per year)

Of course numbers like these once again raise the question of how these events are counted, and especially what definitions and criteria are used. Consider, for example, the fact that the FBI actually changed their official definition of "serial murder" in 2008 (link). And, so far as I know, although he has been widely cited in the media, Kopta has not actually published his results, although he did present them in a paper to the Midwestern Psychological Association in Chicago in 2009.

And now here is a listing of the various acts of spree killing that I know of from the year that was 2011:
  • January 8 Jared Lee Loughner opens fire in a supermarket parking lot in Tuscon Arizona, killing six and wounding 14.
  • February 11-12 Maksim Gelman kills four and wounds at least five others in New York City.
  • April 9 Tristan van der Vlis kills six and wounds seventeen in a shopping mall in the Dutch town of Alphen aan den Rijn.
  • July 7 Rodrick Shonte Dantzler kills seven in a shooting spree in Grand Rapids Michigan.
  • July 22 Anders Behring Breivik slaughters 69 people on the Norwegian island of Utøya after first killing 8 people in downtown Oslo with a car bomb.
  • August 7 Michael E. Hance kills seven (and wounds one) in Summit County, Ohio.
  • December 9 Tyler Brehm opens fire at the intersection of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood California, killing one and wounding at least two others.
  • December 13 Nordine Amrani, armed with grenades and an automatic rifle, kills five and wounds 125 in the Belgian city of Liege.
  • December 13 Gianluca Casseri kills two and wounds three in a shooting spree in the Italian city of Florence.