Information about last week's mass shooting in Collier is still coming in, and we may never understand all the reasons for the terror George Sodini unleashed upon the hapless participants of an evening aerobics class. But some of the lessons are already clear to those of us who study violent behavior. Indeed, they were evident long before Mr. Sodini packed his gym bag and left his Scott home in search of a final 15 minutes of fame.
Here, in no particular order, are five of the most important:
Lesson 1: "Random violence" is never random. While a mass shooter's choice of victims may be arbitrary, his methods are always deliberate and well-planned. School shooters, workplace killers and mass murderers like George Sodini share common psychological traits and almost always exhibit clear warning signs. But to avert future disasters, the public -- especially educators, human resource managers, medical professionals and social workers -- must be trained to spot the indicators and know how (and when) to intervene.
Lesson 2: The perpetrator inevitably sees himself as a victim of society. From the Columbine shooters to the 9/11 hijackers, the perpetrators of mass violence fit a common profile. There is an undeniable personality disorder in all these individuals, which manifests itself as a profound inability to take responsibility for their own circumstances. In simplest terms, it's always someone else's fault why their lives seem so miserable -- and that "someone else" invariably becomes the object of their anger. It's this failure to take personal responsibility that gives violent actors the moral license to feel justified in "punishing" those they blame.
Lesson 3: Personal recognition is his overriding motivation. One significant aspect of this profile is the need to achieve in death the recognition that cannot be found in life. They believe they have something profound to say, but they're convinced that no one will listen. By their lights, if they achieve a high body count -- like the high score on an arcade video game -- then people will finally have to pay attention.
Lesson 4: More external security isn't the way to avert future tragedies. It's not hard to imagine that LA Fitness and other gyms around the country will seek to upgrade their security in the wake of the shooting. The impulse is understandable, but it largely misses the point. A commercial fitness establishment with metal detectors, armed guards and mandatory background checks necessarily operates at a disadvantage to competitors that place no such demands on their members. Moreover, there's no guarantee that a shooter like George Sodini wouldn't find these precautions an invitation to outsmart the system, thereby earning even greater notoriety.
Lesson 5: Mass media is the oxygen on which these crimes feed. Through his online diary, multiple Web sites and suicide note, George Sodini made it clear that he was desperately looking for an audience to whom he could air his grievances. This is a pattern seen from Columbine to Virginia Tech to LA Fitness. Our media-centric, celebrity-driven culture makes it easy for those like George Sodini to find a platform for their petty views -- and, sadly, it's often a platform that the media offers as a willing co-conspirator.
The way to thwart future George Sodinis lies in changing how we -- as both producers and consumers of media -- view these criminals and their alleged grievances. Editors and reporters must exercise discretion in what they expose to public view and in how they frame the news stories about these crimes, treating them more like bank robberies or home invasions than tragic cries for help from the downtrodden and misunderstood. Media consumers should likewise view reporting around these events with a sober and skeptical eye. Our sympathy should be directed toward the victims, not the shooter.
The First Amendment guarantees our right to free speech, but it's up to the judgment and discretion of each of us how that right is to be exercised. Does public curiosity or the prospect of higher media ratings outweigh the human toll of a future -- perhaps more deadly -- mass tragedy? That's the question we all must answer in the aftermath of last week's events.
Make no mistake: The Dylan Klebolds, Seung-Hui Chos and George Sodinis of tomorrow are waiting for our response. If we romanticize the injustices, sensationalize the deeds and give greater voice to the ravings of past perpetrators, we unwittingly set the stage for yet another theater of blood and mayhem.