What Really Motivates Mass Murderers

by Apr 23, 2007

David Von Drehle, a reporter who’s covered mass killings from Ted Bundy to Columbine, has had enough of the investigations into the “cracks, chips, holes and broken places in the lives of men like Cho Seung-Hui.” He’s uncovered one factor that links all these seemingly different killers: an extreme narcissism that he thinks is fed by our culture:

A generation ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch diagnosed narcissism as the signal disorder of contemporary American culture. The cult of celebrity, the marketing of instant gratification, skepticism toward moral codes and the politics of victimhood were signs of a society regressing toward the infant stage. You don’t have to buy Freud’s explanation or Lasch’s indictment, however, to see an immediate danger in the way we examine the lives of mass killers. Earnestly and honestly, detectives and journalists dig up apparent clues and weave them into a sort of explanation. In the days after Columbine, for example, Harris and Klebold emerged as alienated misfits in the jock culture of their suburban high school. We learned about their morbid taste in music and their violent video games. Largely missing, though, was the proper frame around the picture: the extreme narcissism that licensed these boys, in their minds, to murder their teachers and classmates.

Something similar is now going on with Cho, whose florid writings and videos were an almanac of gripes. “I’m so lonely,” he moped to a teacher, failing to mention that he often refused to answer even when people said hello. Of course he was lonely.

In Holocaust studies, there is a school of thought that says to explain is to forgive. I won’t go that far. But we must stop explaining killers on their terms. Minus the clear context of narcissism, the biographical details of these men can begin to look like a plausible chain of cause and effect–especially to other narcissists. And they don’t need any more encouragement.