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Dietz: 'Rampage Killing' a Form of Suicide

Aired April 20, 2000 - 1:07 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: It's been a year since Columbine and the question is, has anything changed? Are schools safer? Can we spot the symptoms of a potential rage killer? Can we prevent another Columbine from happening again?

Joining us now is one of the nation's leading experts in violence prevention. He's Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, a UCLA professor who also profiles criminals for the FBI. Dr. Dietz specializes in stranger mass murders and workplace, school and family killings. He joins us from Las Vegas.

Good to have you Dr. Dietz.

You took part in this "New York Times" series and the conclusions reached, your reaction to them?

DR PARK DIETZ, FORENSIC PSYCHIATRIST: Well. I find it gratifying to see confirmation of our discoveries from the '80s and the '90s. We've known for some 20 years about the important role of certain kinds of mental disorder in causing these events and it's good to see the "New York Times" confirm it.

We've confined our publication -- the results to professional audiences before, because we thought that's where the chief impact could be had. But perhaps it's good for the public to understand this more broadly today.

WATERS: And for those who did not read the "New York Times" series, homicides of a family nature and such were separated from the rage killers, and the rage killers were analyzed and among the factors, and there were a number of them, and we will get to them, was the problem of mental health with the young.

Now, in the past week or so a letter was issued by the parents of the killers at Columbine saying a year later they are still struggling to find "a glimmer of reason," as they put it, for why their sons committed this heinous crime out at Columbine.

Many folks reacting to that, especially in the Colorado area. How can that be?

DIETZ: Well, there isn't going to be an easily understandable answer. I think what people have to recognize, if they are ever going to grasp mass murders of this kind, is that this is a suicide equivalent. If we think of this as an unusual form of suicide, everything else becomes quite clear.

If we continue to think of it as an expression just of anger or of some kind of rational goal, it can't be understood. Because it's more than that.

WATERS: And parents want to know what the Klebolds and Harrises know about their son's behavior, to see if they can spot some symptoms along the way. How do you know if there's some suicidal tendencies in the home?

DIETZ: Well, the warning signs of suicide are actually pretty well understood. I think the important thing is to realize that this is just one extreme form of suicidal behavior. And that most of the people who are thinking about suicide: feeling hopeless, who are depressed or irritable or angry, are not going to do this, but they are suffering. And it's because they are suffering that we should try to relieve their symptoms and help them.

As we go about helping people who are depressed and suicidal we'll prevent all forms of suicide, help relieve a great deal of suffering, and also by coincidence, prevent these occasional events.

WATERS: We have learned from the shootings in West Paducah, Springfield, Columbine and others that there is a common testimony following them that: this was a sudden outburst, a sudden explosion and we had no idea. We were surprised. These are some of the adjectives used to describe what had gone on in their community. But it isn't just sudden, is it?

DIETZ: Not at all, in fact, we've never seen a case, in looking at this for 25 years, in which there weren't many, many warning signs visible to the people who knew the shooters. The problem is that most people don't know how to recognize that, and we don't have good coordination of information. The friends may know one thing, the parents and other teachers or coworkers or people on the street, yet other information; and there's no way to share it. We've designed systems for sharing information within corporations that are very effective in making sure we that we spot people early enough to help them before they get anywhere near this kind of problem. But it's harder to do that in schools, and it's even harder to do it in dysfunctional families.

WATERS: Another problem or other problems cited by experts in the "New York Times" series, and by yourself, is the problem of media. Two much live coverage, and I'm sure you know that there are many in the media who would agree with you, but what do you do about it?

DIETZ: Well, actually this is an area where I've taken an uncharacteristic advocacy role. For 20 years I have been urging every journalist I've spoken to, to please stop the mass murder propagation by turning off news and regionalizing it.

For example, there's no reason that it needs to be 24-hour saturation coverage during the event, nationwide and internationally. And there's no reason, really, there needs to be coverage of an anniversary a year later. I can understand why the local affiliates would want to cover what was going on for people who were directly involved. But why retraumatize the nation? Why bring this back to millions more? Because every time it's aired, there are in the audience people who right now are angry, paranoid, depressed, armed to the teeth and trying to decide which kind of suicide they will commit in the next 24 hours.

WATERS: You've seen the banks of cameras, we just showed some pictures of the cameras surrounding the Columbine incident, and are you a voice in the wind here?

DIETZ: For 20 years I've been a voice in the wind. It's very frustrating. I think journalists understand that suicide can be propagated through media accounts. They need to understand that this is suicide.

WATERS: The other factor cited by many are the violent video games and the proliferation of weapons, to what degree would you factor that into this culture shock?

DIETZ: Well, The video games very little, if any. Because this isn't limited to people who play video games. With respect to weapons, that probably does have something to do with why we have such a higher rate of these events than the other countries who have been equally exposed to the news coverage.

Although there have been a few occasions in, for example, England and Australia, most of the world does not have anything like this kind of form of suicide. And the U.S. and a few other countries are unique in the availability of weapons.

WATERS: Thank you so much, Dr. Dietz for joining us today. I appreciate it very much.

DIETZ: Thanks for having me.

WATERS: Dr. Park Dietz from Las Vegas today.



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