The Psychology of "Active Killers”

And what to do if you meet one

A crime scene cordoned off by tape

Why would a young man arm himself with a gun or knife, go to an unprotected area full of defenseless strangers, and try to kill as many people as possible, usually including himself? The "Active Killer" - that most modern of criminals - is perhaps the 21st Century equivalent of a medieval werewolf: a core of genuine human violence artificially aggrandized by widespread fear and ignorance.

Sherlock Holmes famously identified three universal attributes of crime: Means, Motive and Opportunity. Unless he had a complete understanding of all three, Holmes did not consider a mystery to be solved. Yet today, the media-driven conversation about Active Killers focuses almost entirely on the Means - usually a firearm - and largely ignores the Motive. The assumption seems to be that each active killer is driven by some unique grudge that makes their act different, frightening, and impossible to understand.

You might call this the "special snowflake" theory of active killing.

Is Motivation Really A Mystery?

The problem with this approach is that, unless we understand WHY a group of people are all doing the same undesirable thing, it is very difficult to stop more people from doing it. It was fascinating, therefore, to read Daniel Modell's papers, "The Psychology of the Active Killer" and "Mythologizing Killers: How Language Distorts Debate and Response." Modell - a 20 year veteran of the NYPD who also happens to have a post-graduate degree in philosophy - rejects the idea that active killers are special snowflakes motivated by complex grievances, and instead has developed a persuasive, elegant, and extremely logical explanation for why some people attempt what he calls "rapid mass murder."

Modell acknowledges that the term "active shooter" or "active killer" is more sensational than meaningful, but since everybody knows what you're talking about when you say it, it makes practical sense to use it. Unfortunately, it gives the criminals far more credit than they deserve. Modell writes, "The killers are, in truth, most often awkward, bullied, by and large goofy, weak sociopaths ... What sort of person does this describe? A special kind of "take on the world "warrior? No. It describes a coward."

Importantly, Modell differentiates the Active Killer from the Ideological Killer. "The Ideological killer is driven by adherence to ethico-political or religious orthodoxy," he writes. "By contrast, while the Active Killer may conceive of himself as ‘making a statement' of sorts, his motives are invariably more personal and desultory."

Although the Ideological Killer may use the same tactics as an Active Killer (e.g. the San Bernadino office Christmas party shooters, the Charleston Church shooter, or Minnesota mall knife attacker), there are several key differences, chief among them being the observation that, "The Ideological Killer generally means to elude capture, to live beyond the event ... The Active Killer merges his identity with the event and sees nothing beyond it."

The Blaze Of Glory Factor

The fact that we live in a tabloid-soaked society in which, as Modell writes, "infamy is fame and fame is the cultural coin of the day," does not help. Indeed, Modell indicts the media's role in encouraging these acts: "So long as mass murder is a path to celebrity in our celebrity-obsessed culture, this phenomenon will endure."

For most people, the idea of killing as many random strangers as possible, and probably dying in the act - even if it does involve posthumous fame - has zero appeal. This makes it difficult to understand the Active Killer's motivation, and renders Modell's insight all the more compelling.

In a nutshell, what Modell has identified is this: for the Active Killer, the world is divided into two kinds of people - victims and victimizers. The young men (they are almost always young men) who become Active Killers regard themselves as victims, and hate themselves for it. In the act of mass murder, they strive for what Modell refers to as metamorphosis: "He cannot live as a victim, so he dies as a victimizer ... In every victim, he sees himself. In killing them, he kills everything that he has ever been. He kills the failure. He kills the loathing. He kills himself."

This is not purely an abstract hypothesis, with no practical application. On the contrary, Modell points out that, "When confronted, what do the killers do? Kill themselves, or yield - often ... to the unarmed." In contrast to the way these cowards are depicted as unstoppable predators, Modell notes that, "He will attack a victim; he will not attack - not effectively, in any case - those who adopt the posture and action of victimizers in his peculiar interpretation of that term. In his world, aggression is the province of the victimizer, and he sees himself, finally, as a victim. Thus attacking has proved strikingly successful."

How successful? Modell parsed the data and discovered that, contrary to the public perception of Active Killers as being unstoppable predators, "rapid mass murder has been aborted primarily by a single courageous actor. 50% have been UNARMED citizens, 25% were armed citizens, and the remainder have been police officers."

Those are staggering numbers, and Modell is not shy about drawing the obvious conclusion: "statistical analysis recommends a tactic: aggressive action ... For citizens, when necessity or obligation calls, attack."

Don't Just Run. Fight!

Modell's theory also explains why Active Killers usually kill themselves at the first sign of resistance. The goal of their action is metamorphosis from victim to victimizer. Faced with resistance, the killer often chooses to go out on his own terms: "In this one moment, he will not lapse again into the role of victim; in this one moment will not be ‘bullied.'" Not wanting to become again what he hates, he kills himself instead. Of course, sometimes, he fails even in that, but the suicidal behavior is, almost by definition, always there.

Like Sherlock Holmes, Daniel Modell has deduced that rare type of solution: one which fits all the data. It is worth noting that although his paper was published in 2013, all the incidents that have happened since then support his premise.

The good news - if anything can said to be "good" when associated with this type of atrocity - is that forceful resistance is extremely effective in stopping this type of crime. I reached out to Daniel Modell for comment, and his bottom line was this: "If you do nothing, you die. If you do something, I do not want to soft-peddle it, you may die, but in that case, you are no worse off than if you did nothing, so YOU MAY AS WELL DO SOMETHING. And in scrutinizing the data on Active Killer stoppages, understand that the case histories favor you."

The Department of Homeland Security has been advising "Run, Hide, Fight" as the preferred order of responses to an active shooter. As Modell observes, "The lesson from the data is clear. You need not employ special weapons, special tactics, special training or concede to special ‘experts' to stop these killers. Mindset, resolve, speed and aggression have stopped them." In other words, now that we understand the Active Killer's motive, perhaps the advice should just be, "Fight!"