Researchers Who Study Mass Shootings Say Perpetrators Often Idolize And Copy Others

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on March 15, 2019 7:35 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The man who claimed responsibility for the mass shooting in New Zealand posted a lengthy statement online before the attack. It has a hate-filled mix of white nationalism, white supremacy and anti-Muslim ramblings. He claims to have identified with and taken inspiration from white supremacist attackers before him, like the shooter at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2016 and the attacker at the summer camp in Norway back in 2011.

Researchers who study such attacks say it's not uncommon for perpetrators to identify with previous attackers. NPR's mental health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is here to explain more. Hi, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We've heard before about copycat incidents. Is that basically what we're talking about here?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. So some researchers do use the term copycat phenomenon. Now, we know from this man's statement that he was enamored with previous white supremacist mass killers, but this kind of idolizing of previous shooters is not unique to white supremacists. It's actually true for most mass shooters. Someone contemplating mass violence often will spend days or even weeks studying the lives and acts of previous mass shooters.

And, you know, it's been shown really well that potential school shooters, for example, will often write in their journals or in school papers how they identify with previous school shooters - say, the Columbine shooters. And if there's a political ideology involved, these individuals then frame their ideology and actions based on the words and actions of those who carried out these acts before them.

SHAPIRO: Do we know what drives these shooters to copy their predecessors?

CHATTERJEE: It's a very human act. Now, we humans sort of instinctively emulate those around us, especially people we identify with, and we do this in ways we even often don't understand or know. That's how cultures spread. Now, if you take the case of these mass shooters, these individuals tend to be unhappy people. They're dissatisfied, and they tend to have this us-against-them outlook about the world. Their social lives aren't that great. They feel like they don't really belong anywhere.

Now, you take somebody like this, they can go online and read up about the lives and actions of those who felt like them and who acted on their violent, dissatisfied thinking, and now they have somebody to identify with, and there's a sense of belonging and purpose that comes with that identification, and they feel justified in how they think and what they want to act on. Another thing to keep in mind is that a significant number of mass shooters are also suicidal, and this sort of copycat phenomenon has been very well-documented in suicidal behavior as well.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, we've heard about the contagion of suicide, where, like, a celebrity will die by suicide, and then there's an increase in other suicides.

CHATTERJEE: Exactly. It's been well-documented, for example, after Robin Williams' death, and even in - take small communities; if someone's death by suicide gets a lot of coverage, it'll then spark other suicides.

SHAPIRO: So would you then presume that this attack in New Zealand would spur other similar attacks in the future?

CHATTERJEE: Well, according to one study, the risk of a mass shooting inspiring other attacks is the highest in the two weeks following an incident. It's not quite like the contagiousness of the flu, where one sick person leads to many people falling sick. But you do sometimes find that mass shootings occur in clusters, where one shooting sparks a few more. And the one thing to keep in mind, Ari, is that these mass shootings, even though they are more common today than a couple decades ago, statistically speaking, they're still very rare.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee, who covers mental health. Thank you so much.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.