After the Oklahoma Slaughter, a Student of Murder Says Such Killings Are a Sign of Our Times

updated 09/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1986 01:00AM

Massacres. They appear to be the most random of random horrors, conveying the sense that life is a lottery. On Aug. 1, 1966 architecture student Charles Whitman, 25, went to the top of the University of Texas tower in Austin and began shooting, killing 14 people and wounding 30. On July 18, 1984 unemployed security guard James Huberty, 41, drove to a McDonald's near his home in San Ysidro, Calif, and methodically murdered 21 strangers, many of them children. Only days ago mail carrier Patrick Sherrill, 44, entered the post office in Edmond, Okla. where he was employed and gunned down his co-workers like ducks in a shooting gallery. Distressingly, says Northeastern University sociologist Jack Levin, such killers are extraordinary chiefly for their ordinariness. Isolated, frustrated and angry, like countless other Americans, they explode without warning and often without direction, hazards of an impersonal age. Levin, 45, who studied some 200 multiple killings for the book Mass Murder, America's Growing Menace (Plenum Press, $16.95), co-authored with criminologist James Fox, was interviewed by Correspondent Marsha Dubrow.

What kind of person is most likely to erupt into sudden, multiple killing?

The typical mass killer is as ordinary as the boy next door. He's most likely a white male, in his late 20s to mid 40s. Often, but not always, he's a loner who has drifted from job to job. And certainly he's alone in the sociological sense, like Patrick Sherrill, who had no close family, neighbors or community group to turn to.

Are killings of this kind really peculiar to modern American life?

Definitely. Of course you find some mass murders in other eras and other cultures, but they have been on the rise in the U.S. since the mid-'60s. Before that the episodes in which four or more people were killed were rare. Lately there has been a dramatic increase.

Why?

Because there has been a breakdown of the personal and social controls on behavior in our very mobile, do-your-own-thing society. People move often, divorce often and are often alone. Also this country has a love affair with firearms.

Is the incidence of mass murder linked to the availability of guns?

Without firearms, the number of massacres definitely would be reduced. It's very hard to kill 14 people at one time with a knife. Among the people we studied, access to firearms and being trained to use them seem to be a big factor. Sherrill was an ex-Marine and a member of the Air National Guard. Other mass killers have had backgrounds in law enforcement or the military. They love weapons.

So would tighter gun control laws reduce the number of mass murders?

Yes, if they are made more restrictive. The laws today would not prevent most mass killers from securing guns, because these people usually have no previous criminal record or history of major psychiatric trouble—which is what a number of states now look at when they issue gun permits.

Does that mean these men are not insane?

Well, we're not talking about glassy-eyed lunatics. Sherrill's attack was premeditated, well-planned and quite successful. People get very upset about this. "He killed 14 people," they say. "He's got to be crazy." But I feel sure he knew what he was doing was wrong. He probably was not insane medically, legally or otherwise.

Is that usually true of mass murderers?

In 42 cases that we studied in depth, only nine murderers attempted the insanity defense. Only four were successful. People like to say these men are insane, I think, to distance themselves from something horrible—to be assured that "he couldn't be like me."

But could he?

Given the presence of weapons, given tremendous anger and the right precipitating event, many people are potential mass killers.

Is there any way to predict who might go over the edge?

No. The best predictor of violent behavior is violent behavior. You don't know until they act. When James Huberty headed out to the McDonald's in San Ysidro he took a rifle, shotgun and pistol and told his wife he was "going hunting for humans." She didn't realize he meant it. The truth is we don't really understand this kind of behavior very well. We keep looking at the brains of mass murderers, kept in jars, to see if we can find biological causes. Or we look at the killers' childhoods for evidence of abuse, neglect or the early death of a parent. But someone who suffers a terrible childhood is still more likely to become a vice-president of a corporation than a mass killer.

Where should we look for a cause?

I think we should look at the social and economic conditions that contribute to these episodes. Almost always there's a precipitating event, which is often economic—the loss of a job or, in the Oklahoma case, the threat of job loss. If you also lack the support of a social network, that can very easily push you over the edge.

Can we do anything to change these social and economic factors?

The basic nature of our society would have to change to reduce unemployment, rootlessness and isolation. I don't think America is going to do that.

Is there anything one can do to avoid becoming a victim?

First, keep in mind that massacres remain a tiny percentage of all murders committed in this country, so don't panic. Beyond that, what are you going to do? Stop going to McDonald's? Stop mailing letters? Of course not.

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