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Understanding massacres

Aygül Cizmecioglu / hwApril 10, 2012

How can apparently normal young men become coldblooded murderers? In her new book "The Amok Complex," author Ines Geipel searches for answers. She examines five shocking examples and the mechanisms behind them.

Book cover of "The Amok Complex"
Image: Klett-Cotta Verlag

Almost ten years ago to the day, the inconceivable happened. In April 2002, a 19 year-old stormed into his high school in Erfurt and created a blood bath. By the end of his gun rampage, 16 school children and teachers were dead. They were executed by Robert Steinhäuser, who had recently been expelled from the school.

Global phenomenon

Ines Geipel learnt about the massacre a few hours later. The university professor was teaching theater students in Berlin. "A few of them had actually completed their school leaving exams at that school," she quietly explained. "We were all shocked, stunned. To this day one believes that such things only happen in films or somewhere else."

It was this sudden vulnerability, the collective state of shock, which Ines Geipel wanted to understand. In her book "The Amok Complex", she analyses five examples of gun rampages and lays bare the mechanisms behind them. From Port Arthur in Australia and Utoya in Norway, to the three German massacres in Erfurt, Emsdetten and Winnenden.

Mourners at the site of the gun massacre in Winnenden, Germany 2009
Mourners at the site of the gun massacre in Winnenden, Germany 2009Image: AP

She went to the scenes of horror, talked to those affected, eye-witnesses and viewed unpublished police protocols and files of inquiry.

Wounded outsiders

"Gun rampages have long been a global phenomenon," explained the author. "And they always follow similar patterns." Almost all perpetrators come from well-to-do families, live in small towns and are classed as outsiders. "Many of them were bullied in school. Only a few of them had any friends at all," said Geipel.

Gun massacres have long been a global phenomennon, says Ines Geipel
Gun massacres have long been a global phenomennon, says Ines GeipelImage: Bernd Lammel

Added to that was the pressure to achieve that many of the perpetrators experienced in their family life. Because they could not fulfil the high expectations of their parents, they retreated. Mostly to a fictive world. "Most of them have a strong affinity to theater and film," said Ines Geipel. "It is the desperate search for their own skin, for their own role in life."

Book cover of "The Amok Complex"
Geipel's book examines five cases of gun massacres in search of answersImage: Klett-Cotta Verlag

The anonymous landscape of the internet functions for many as loophole and a form of play. Young people can lose themselves in the realm of computer games. Whilst in the real world they are ignored, here they can rise the ranks level by level. They also become accustomed to virtual violence. "It is not the case that these young boys don't have any emotions," explained Ines Geipel. "They just shut them off, piece for piece." Time and time again, Geipel read similar sentences in the farewell letters of the perpetrators, such as "I need to train myself not to feel anything anymore."

Media spiral of violence

A theory from Ines Geipel is that the radicality and the frequency of gun rampages is increasing, and that the media plays a decisive role in this. "Robert Steinhäuser, for example, downloaded the preparatory plans of the Columbine perpetrator." The massacre at the American high school in 1999 shocked the world and kept the media busy for weeks.

Young people become desensitized to violence through computer games, says Geipel
Young people become desensitized to violence through computer games, says GeipelImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Those who run amok copy and imitate one another," said Geipel. They regularly wear the same combat gear such as army trousers, combat boots and black masks. Often, the aim is to "out do" the atrocities of others. "Today, young people actually film their murders with a camera," said the author. "It is the desire to make maximum impact in the media."

It is also a silent cry for help, the history of an insecure relationship to masculinity. Fathers who bring their sons into contact with firearms from an early age to "harden" them, also belong to the biographical fixtures of the perpetrators.

Stricter gun control laws have been introduced in Germany following the Erfurt gun massacre
Stricter gun control laws have been introduced in Germany following a number of massacresImage: picture alliance/dpa

Cultural differences

"There are also cultural differences, especially with the public processing of events," said Ines Geipel. In Australia for instance, the name of the perpetrator from Port Arthur, Martin Bryant, was absolutely taboo. "And in Norway people in cafes quickly turn over the pages of newspapers if they see a photo of the Utøya murderer Anders Breivik. The national shame is too much."

In contrast, in Germany a more offensive manner of dealing with the horrors is dominant. Maybe because the Germans have learnt something from history, above all the history of the Third Reich. The atrocities carried out between 1933 and 1945 are, even today, a national wound. For most Germans that has been a memorial against forgetting. Because one knows how disastrous it can be to suppress societal traumas.

"Since the gun rampage in Erfurt the weapons law in Germany has been tightened, the police have developed special strategies for such cases. And even in kindergartens, the door knobs are only on the inside, so that in emergencies people can barricade themselves in," explained Ines Geipel. But that is only a deceptive form of security. "The actual problem is that we demonize these young perpetrators, we push them away. Perpetrators of gun massacres come from the middle of our society. And they are often a lot closer to us than we like to believe."

Author: Aygül Cizmecioglu / hw
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg