Skip to main content

How a boy becomes a killer

By James Garbarino, Special to CNN
December 19, 2012 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
A sign hangs near a cemetery where Jessica Rekos, 6, was to be buried on December 18 in Newtown, Connecticut.
A sign hangs near a cemetery where Jessica Rekos, 6, was to be buried on December 18 in Newtown, Connecticut.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Garbarino: Violence that seems senseless to us makes sense to shooters
  • He says troubled, lonely boys can perceive the world as hostile and full of enemies
  • Garbarino: View fostered by web sites promoting paranoia, shooting video games
  • Culture supports access to weapons, he says, entertainment promotes violence

Editor's note: James Garbarino is the author of "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them" and is a professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. He serves as an expert psychological witness in murder cases and is working on his next book, "I Listen To Killers."

(CNN) -- Twenty children and six adults killed in a town in Connecticut. Why? As someone who listens to killers as an expert psychological witness in murder cases, I have spent much of the last 20 years trying to understand how and why young men kill, maim and attack others.

Killings like those in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; and Virginia Tech are always met with expressions of shock, anger and sadness. These are understandable first reactions, but in the long run they accomplish nothing.

So long as the discussion does not move beyond labeling these events "senseless violence," horrors such as these never move us closer to a place of deeper understanding. Greater understanding is crucial because understanding leads to more peace and less violence through preventive action. All the crime scene investigations in the world will not do this.

James Garbarino
James Garbarino

Although all our instincts urge us to dissociate from the killer, achieving better understanding requires us to put ourselves in his shoes no matter how frightening and distasteful that may be. I have done this over the past 20 years, and I have learned that it's the only way we can understand a fundamental truth: Although to the rest of us, the observers and the victims, extreme acts of violence seem "senseless," these murderous acts make sense to the shooters.

Masculinity, mental illness and guns: A lethal equation

This is true whether it's Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut; James Holmes in Aurora, Colorado; Seung-Hui at Virginia Tech; Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in Columbine, Colorado, and the many thousands of others who wage war against their society, either in the form of high-profile massacres or the daily grind of shootings around the country that barely make the local news.

How do we go about this process of "making sense," not as a way of excusing but as a path to understanding and preventing violence? We start by recognizing that many young Americans (and other young people around the world) develop and carry with them a kind of moral damage, which I have come to call "the war zone mentality."

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.



However it develops, they grow up with a damaged sense of reality. They view the world as if they are soldiers confronting a hostile environment that they perceive to be full of enemies. Once they get fixated on this damaged world view, they may hatch the delusion that even teachers and young children are their enemies. For Adam Lanza, apparently even his mother was an enemy who had to be destroyed.

There is no one cause. It is as if they are building a tower of blocks, one by one, that can get so high it falls over, with innocent people dying. These building blocks can be found in a dangerous neighborhood or a school rife with bullying. They can be found through the Internet and mass media: the many, many web sites and videos that promote paranoid views of the world and validate violent action in retaliation.

Thinking twice about violent video games

They can be found in pervasive and intense playing of video games, the hands-on virtual violence that desensitizes young people to proxy killing. These games become a psychological pathway to real killing by dampening impulses of compassion and altruism.

Lt. Vance: Children lived through hell
Lanza's schoolmate stunned by massacre
Newtown wants change after mass shooting

They also come from a culture that supports access to lethal weapons: the crazy availability of guns like the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle used by Adam Lanza that are, in effect, weapons of mass destruction when turned against children at school, or moviegoers in a theater or shoppers at a mall. These weapons have no place in civilian life.

But moral damage and a misperception of reality usually are not enough to lead to murder. The typical killer is emotionally damaged and has developed mental health problems, perhaps exacerbated by being bullied and rejected by peers, or abused and neglected at home. He might be suffering from profound sadness, depression, despair, self aggrandizement and narcissism.

The mental health problems that result from emotional damage require more, not less, social support, and not just from parents, who may be overwhelmed and ashamed of their offspring. The boys and young men can be socially isolated because their damage makes peers and the community turn away from them, and that only compounds their problems.

Couple deluded thinking and rage with the rationale of the war zone mentality, and the result can be a boy or young man ready to kill, sometimes with horribly spectacular results. But this is more commonly seen in the "routine" killings that I work with as a psychological expert witness in murder cases across the country.

Opinion: Get serious about mental health care

The crucial point is that even "crazy" people operate in a particular culture, a particular society, a particular time and place, and within a certain world view of how to manage your rage, your hurt, and your sadness. While not uniquely American (it has happened in recent years in Europe and the Middle East), the mass murder that took place in Newtown, Connecticut, is especially American.

Our socially toxic culture promotes paranoia, desensitization to violence, almost unlimited access to lethal weapons, opportunities to practice mass murder via realistic "point and shoot" video games and games that justify violence as a legitimate form of vengeance in pursuit of an individual's or group's idea of justice.

So what do we do? We can improve mental health services in schools and communities. Right now many parents are frustrated that there is nowhere to go with their troubled kids.

We can work harder at getting kids to share disturbing information with adults with the confident expectation that those adults will help not punish and stigmatize. We can get behind efforts to rid our country of semi-automatic weapons and prohibit high-capacity ammunition clips for any gun.

We can step up efforts to prevent kids from having access to the point-and-shoot violent video games. We can work harder at creating emotionally safe schools where bullying and rejection are antithetical to school spirit. One part of this is teaching boys that being compassionate and emotionally expressive is part of manhood in the 21st century.

If we don't help, there will be more dead and wounded. It has become an American phenomenon. Only by getting close to killers and finding out what we need to do to integrate troubled boys and young men into society do we have any hope of preventing more carnage.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of James Garbarino.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT