A couple of weekends ago, I was invited onto BBC Breakfast News to review the Sunday papers. Arriving at the studio in Salford, Manchester, at 6am, the producer presented me with a foot-high pile of the day’s newspapers and instructed me to pick five stories to talk about on air. All should be from different papers, none could be from the front page, and two needed to be ‘serious’. The Munich shootings had happened just two days before, when 18-year-old Ali David Sonboly lured victims to a McDonald’s restaurant before going on a killing spree that left nine dead and 35 injured. It was a horrific news event that simply couldn’t be ignored. Taking a deep breath, I sat down on the red sofa and flicked open a copy of The Observer to discuss this baby-faced teenager’s murderous acts. It’s not the sort of thing any of us want to talk about, let alone in front of 2 million people, but trying to understand the mind of the young killer could actually help prevent such tragedies happening again.
Branded a ‘nutter’, ‘deranged’ and ‘crazy’, Sonboly was said to have been a bullied loner. Psychology expert Professor Craig Jackson, who has studied spree killings for seven years, insists that he was anything but insane. “My research and studying of mass shooters increasingly convinces me that any ‘mental health problems’ of the killers are a red-herring in the hunt for explanations,” says Jackson. Most of us would like to understand how a rational human being could become a cold-blooded killer but in an interview with Professor Jackson, he told me that a ‘disordered personality’ drives these ‘spree killers’. From the Columbine killers, to Raoul Moat, to Anders Breivik – all have the same flawed view of the world. He says: “They are extremely narcissistic (self-absorbed), they see themselves as inferior to others, they cannot accept their mistakes, they blame others for their problems, and they see themselves as a victim.” These people have carefully thought out their intentions and, contrary to news reports, do not ‘shoot at random’. They plan to target those they blame for their failures. Sonboly had just failed his college exams, which seems to have tipped him over the edge. In the midst of his rampage, a smartphone video recorded the young man shouting to a man on a balcony: “Because of you I was bullied for 7 years… and now I have to buy a gun to shoot you”.
What are we to think and feel about the Munich shootings and similar attacks that have been happening all too frequently? Should we feel anger, pity or despair? Professor Jackson says that we need to take positive action. He says that the men (they are nearly always male) who might commit such acts can be found and helped before they do something terrible. They nearly always fit the ‘narcissistic’ profile described above and will have “romanticised about killings for some time”. Sonboly showed all the warning signs and had even threatened to “kill” his classmates several times. Nobody realised he wasn’t bluffing.
Jackson says that it’s time we learn the lessons. “We need to make it ok for teachers and relatives to get support for those who fit the profile,” he says, “Many spree killers have difficult interpersonal relationships – withdrawn, quiet, shy, timid but harbouring anger or grudges against individuals or groups.” At just 18 years old, Sonboly was still trying to find himself and had his whole life ahead of him. Labelling him a ‘monster’ does nothing to understand what was truly going on in his troubled mind. Rather, we should try to reach out to those who are the most isolated and rejected by society. These attacks are frightfully rare, but if the Munich shooting could teach us to be more aware of those who need help and support, then at least we one good thing may be salvaged from this unspeakably horrendous and upsetting crime.
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Footnote: I asked Prof Jackson whether the people who commit religiously-motivated killings are different to other spree killers. He explained that they are different: “Religious or terror-based spree killers are not the same as when an angry or frustrated narcissist boils over. To me, the difference lies in the motive – where they committing the spree to spread terror and awareness of their political/religious view OR where they just wanting to make their point about why they are right – and the world is wrong.
“I’m sure some narcissistic spree killers would happily find themselves committing a spree in the name of a terror organisation if they thought more people would notice it more or give them greater notoriety.”