Skip to main content

Predicting mass killings impossible

By Edward P. Mulvey, Special to CNN
December 18, 2012 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Children in Newtown, Connecticut, return to school on December 18, 2012, four days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Adam Lanza opened fire in the school, killing 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Police say he also shot and killed his mother in her Newtown home. Children in Newtown, Connecticut, return to school on December 18, 2012, four days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Adam Lanza opened fire in the school, killing 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Police say he also shot and killed his mother in her Newtown home.
HIDE CAPTION
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
Newtown school shooting
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Mulvey: The shooting of 26 innocent people in Connecticut is horrific
  • Mulvey: We know that the shooter, Adam Lanza, was not evil personified
  • He says it's nearly impossible to identify a killer before a mass shooting
  • Mulvey: Talking and helping those with mental disorders is best way to help them

Editor's note: Edward P. Mulvey is a professor of psychiatry and director of the law and psychiatry program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

(CNN) -- The shooting of 26 innocent children and teachers in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, is more horrific than any of us can ever imagine. We ask, like many times before, how such a brutal and irrational act could have happened. Why would anyone do something like this?

President Barack Obama wants to take action; our neighbors want to take action. We all want to convince ourselves that the world has not gone mad. We want to find and address the core of the problem.

So we look hard for explanations. Some say evil has shown itself -- a simplistic salve. In our hearts, we know that the shooter, Adam Lanza, was not evil personified. We know at this point that he was a withdrawn, socially awkward young man, reportedly with Asperger's syndrome, living with his mother.

We would like to think that if only professionals could identify any shooters before they commit any violence, then we could prevent these tragedies. If they had been locked up, then they couldn't have killed anyone. Or if they had been forced to take their medicine, then they wouldn't have gotten to a point of no return. If we can find these people, keep guns away from them, restrict their civil liberties and monitor them closely enough, then we would have solved the problem.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This approach won't work. Hindsight is not foresight. The picture is much more complex than simply developing "profiles." Knowing this young man's profile wouldn't have told us how likely he was going to walk into a classroom and open fire.

Opinion: After tragedy, don't obsess, heal gently

There are a large number of withdrawn, socially awkward young men in our society; some have mental disorders and some don't. We simply cannot predict which ones will go on a shooting rampage. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack; you will probably only know where it is when it pricks your finger.

Of those who do have a mental disorder, few of them reach the level of extreme desperation that they want to die and hurt others (very dramatically) in the process. People fluctuate in how distraught or likely they are to commit violence, depending on either deterioration of their mental condition, or, like all of us do, in reaction to events in their lives (a disparaging remark from a co-worker, a lost romantic relationship, etc).

Carney: Hard to forget Newtown rawness
Searching for answers in Newtown tragedy
Looking at past shootings for answers

We cannot readily determine who might become so desperate as to see mass killings as reasonable. Striking out at others is often a combination of giving up mixed with rage. In one young man whom I knew, it could have gone either way. He walked in front of a train, but he could have as easily hurt many others to relieve his pain and despair.

Getting support and services to the people who matter to those with mental disorders is where the answer lies. We will only know what is happening in a troubled person's mind by talking to them regularly before they are desperate. The idea of identifying, ostracizing and restricting them is not only inhuman, but impossible. We need to embrace them as members of our community who are facing immense struggles.

But most people with mental disorders aren't in treatment. About 1 in 4 adults in the United States suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. We aren't, however, willing to invest the resources to provide ongoing outpatient care to them. Besides they may be afraid to reveal problems to professionals who seem out of touch with their lives.

Parents of disturbed, struggling children and adolescents need to know and talk to parents in similar situations. These parents know that they may get the telephone call at 2 a.m. with news of some tragic incident, and they need the support of others who understand what they are facing on a daily basis.

Opinion: Get serious about mental health care

Looking for individuals with mental illness and their parents only subverts what we all want -- to find out in advance about these incidents and to keep them from happening. By staying in touch with those who are suffering with mental disorder, we are in the best position to help them -- and their parents -- to forestall any possible slip into violence.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward P. Mulvey.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT