Mass shooters leave hidden clues before their crime, says sociologist | Books | DW | 26.07.2016
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Mass shooters leave hidden clues before their crime, says sociologist

DW spoke to Klaus Hurrelmann, author of the German foreword to a book on US school killings found in the Munich gunman's possession. He explains how shooting sprees can be prevented.

Ali David S., the Iranian-German teenager who killed nine people in Munich last week, was found in possession of a book largely aimed at an audience of sociologists, educators and other experts. He may, however, have incorporated aspects from "Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters" into the preparation of his killing spree, says Professor Klaus Hurrelmann, who wrote the book's introduction in its German edition. The book itself was written by US psychologist Peter Langman, whom DW has also interviewed.

Hurrelmann, a professor of public health and education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, has studied the impact of peer pressure, social ambition and mental health in educational settings for many years. He was also responsible for a series of youth surveys in Germany, and stresses in an interview with DW that his work is aimed at preventing future rampages.

DW: How do you feel about the fact that the book you contributed to was found in the Munich gunman's possession?

Klaus Hurrelmann: Knowing that a book that is actually addressed to an academic audience was found in a perpetrator's possession and was possibly used by him to achieve his intentions is quite disturbing. The book is intended to appeal to experts in the field only.

Klaus Hurrelmann, Copyright: Hertie School/Peter Himsel

Klaus Hurrelmann

It is conceivable that the suspect in Munich took one of the examples cited in the book to identify a kind of companion in his perceived line of misfortune, or that he saw an idol in one of the cited examples. After all, the book gives a very detailed analysis of young men involved in school shootings.

The suspect in Munich was reportedly fascinated by killing sprees, in particular by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. What is the psychology behind such copycat acts, and behind this desire to idealize some of the most hated criminals in the world?

Peter Langman's main insight in the book is the fact that the perpetrators of school shootings prepare their acts over a long period of time and in great detail. In most instances, they quietly document previous cases, long before they decide to carry out their own crimes.

The perpetrators also all seem to have severe personality disorders. We have to remember that these acts take place in a state of poor mental health - by people who often have split personalities and other afflictions. These sets of circumstances and criteria are not going to make much sense to healthypeople.

How can your work and the book help in preventing future attacks?

Our entire volume of work deals with one central question: How can such acts best be prevented? The main conclusion that we have drawn to date is the fact that these crimes are so meticulously planned over a prolonged period of time that the perpetrators leave many clues along the way.

Naturally, they try to hide these clues, but the very act of concealment and the accompanying behavior already should provide the first evidence. In addition, most of the perpetrators have been in professional psychological therapy.

But it is possible to identify potential perpetrators before they commit these crimes if you succeed in piecing together these clues, which, however, are often quite hidden.

Why are so many of the perpetrators young people who seem compelled to kill other young people like themselves?

Many studies show that [the perpetrators] loathe practically everyone around them. They often feel humiliated by their peers, while also observing that others of the same age don't seem to find themselves under the same kind of pressure; that the world does not appear to conspire against them or threaten to break them.

You have to bear in mind that - speaking in broad strokes - these aren't just hateful crimes committed against their peers, but that their deeds are designed from the beginning to incorporate their own suicide as well.

Germany has repeatedly been in the headlines in recent days, with various violent crimes highlighting a host of issues. How would you rate Germany internationally when it comes to mass murder and similar rampages? Can we rest reassured that the government is doing enough to prevent such acts that are often driven by radicalization, brutalization and, in fact, loneliness?

Book cover, Amok im Kopf, Copyright: BELTZ

Hurrelmann wrote the German forward to the book by Peter Langmann

Germany has a noteworthy rate of killing sprees per capita. There are certainly more instances here than in some other countries. I interpret that as a key signal highlighting the sort of pressure and, therefore, the high level of despair that young men can be subjected to in this country. It is also a warning that the potential consequences of this kind of treatment are usually not detected early enough.

Many professionals don't recognize the extent of many people's despair and hence don't manage to categorize them accordingly. There's a lot of room for improvement in this area.

However, we have been succeeding in raising awareness, particularly in schools, and have managed to make schools in Germany much more alert when it comes to school shootings. Still, we have to remember that the recent rampage in Munich did not take place at a school at all, which goes to show that there are other many areas in which we still need to apply ourselves and our expertise.

Do the recent killings constitute some sort of trend? If so, why?

As Mr Langman explains in his book, there are three main factors to take into consideration. The one is the broken or disturbed personality that these people usually have. Another important aspect is the existence of a social environment that rejects the potential perpetrator from the start and refuses to accept him in their midst. Finally, we have to bear in the mind what kind of medium these first two factors are funneled into, and how. I'm concretely referring to access to weapons.

The accessibility of guns is clearly a much more central issue in the United States. However, that's no consolation for us in Germany; in fact, we should be even more alarmed by the reality that in Germany you appear to be able to get hold of a gun online without much difficulty. This is an indicator of a new dimension that these acts of despair could actually be taking on in Germany.

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