The mysteries of homicidal attackers in public and sacred spaces have garnered attention and study. From the local school’s threat assessment team to the FBI and Secret Service, researchers and psychologists have attempted to draft a profile of those who threaten our safety and sense of peace and predictability.
Such a profile is still elusive. Although the news seems to announce a new shooting event daily, the occurrences are rare enough that studying the attackers and slicing and dicing their traits for commonality has yet to yield an answer in the quest for predicting who will be the next mass killer.
The science of behavioral profiling boils down to the science of statistics. When we see a pattern or patterns repeated, we can begin to chart probabilities. But as anyone who has baked a cake knows, there are so many variables that getting the exact same product every time is never completely in the baker’s control. We also know that concurrence is not causation. If we find in retrospect that most mass killers had oatmeal for breakfast, baking oatmeal illegal is not likely to reduce murders.
So what can be done to identify potential killers and increase the probability of intervening before they act? While there is emphatically no profile of attackers or their targets, there are some commonalities that safety experts can learn from. Two of these are that there is a planning phase for many potential active shooters and a motivation that evokes a desire to carry out their destructive plans. Those two elements can often be found in a plotter’s manifesto.
The classic definition of a manifesto, according to Webster, is “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer.” That sounds innocuous enough, but the connotation in common use is a declaration of something sinister. Recent revelations of vile manifestos are that of Connor Sturgeon, the man who fatally shot five coworkers at a Louisville, Kentucky bank in April, and critically injured a police officer who was shot in the head. Another was that of the diary of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, an activist who died after exchanging fire with police near the site of the planned public safety training center near Atlanta, Georgia.
Robert Card the 40-year-old gunman in the mass shootings that killed 18 people and injured 13 others in Lewiston, Maine left no known lengthy document but did prepare a note giving some final instructions to a loved one. Card was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Retired police lieutenant Dan Marcou, a nationally recognized police tactics trainer, cites as one of many reasons to study the diaries, journals, and manifestos of plotters and killers is to serve as a training aid. Another is for use in evidence of a surviving plotter or killer, to prove intent and forethought. Therefore, the release and analysis of these documents is critical to the prevention of future tragedies.
Manifestos can often be found on social media platforms. Authorities in Virginia were alerted this past September to disturbing Instagram posts by Rui Jiang showing potentially violent intentions toward a church in Haymarket, VA. Officers attempted to contact Jiang at his residence on a Sunday morning. When they were unable to find him, police began patrolling the Park Valley Church as services were about to begin. They found Jiang had entered the church through a side door, armed with a loaded gun and extra ammunition. “This was a thwarted diabolical plot to kill churchgoers in Haymarket, Virginia — and local law enforcement stopped it,” Chief Kevin Davis of the Fairfax County Police Department told reporters.
Finding manifestos of plotters and studying those left behind by active shooters is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding prevention and response to mass killers.