Killers who deliberately commit their acts in public places are often motivated by revenge. Reuters/Chris Keane

What motivates public place murders?

Few details have come to light about what motivated Vester Lee Flanagan, the shooter of two Virginia television reporters, to commit his atrocious on-air crime. Reports suggest he was a disgruntled former employee of the TV station who nursed grievances about his perceived treatment by ex-colleagues. Racism, bullying, and harassment on the basis of his sexual identity, could have played a role.

At first glance, this fits neatly with research suggesting perpetrators of public acts of lethal violence fall into distinct typologies or categories. These “types” include the “disgruntled employee”, who murders people with whom they had a workplace association, the “pseudo-commando”, who goes on a militaristic “killing mission”, and “set-and-run” killers, who use methods such as bombs and leave the crime scene before the murders occur.

Classifying killers into particular types is intuitively appealing. It helps us make sense of what otherwise seems senseless. However, this approach tells us only the smallest fraction about what motivates public place murderers. It says little about what factors may lead to public acts of lethal violence.

Murder has many motivations – money, interpersonal conflict, and even love. But killers who deliberately commit their acts in public places are often motivated by revenge. This may be against individuals, certain groups of people (based on race or gender, for example), or the world in general.

Mental illness – particularly psychotic illness such as schizophrenia – is often blamed for public place murders. It is common for killers to be described in public discourse as “deranged”, for instance. In some cases, this is accurate. But although mental illness provides an “easy” explanation for lethal violence, evidence suggests that there are many killings where mental illness is not present.

Instead, perpetrators typically have a long and complex history of frustration, failure, and limited capacity to cope with setbacks and problems. They often “externalise” blame for those frustrations and failures onto others. This process of externalising is how co-workers, peers, or society as a whole can become the targets for revenge.

Perpetrators tend to have limited family or social connections and support, and are often socially isolated. In many instances, a significant event such as job loss or relationship breakdown will precipitate the violence. However, that event is generally the culmination of a lengthy series of negative life events and circumstances.

In the Virginia case, it seems the perpetrator felt profound anger about racism and racial tensions. Based on the perpetrator’s own writings, the recent mass murder of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston seems to have been the catalyst for his acts. The experience of racism and race-based discrimination can, in itself, feed in to the commission of violence.

However, the perpetrator’s online expressions of hatred towards white Americans also raise the disturbing possibility that the killings may represent an extreme form of hate crime, with potentially deliberate selection of victims based on race.

Another factor that can motivate perpetrators of public acts of lethal violence is a desire to gain notoriety through media coverage of their deeds. For individuals whose lives have generally been characterised by obscurity and lack of success, the prospect of “everyone knowing their name” may be highly appealing. The Virginia perpetrator’s use of live TV, and then social media, to spread footage of the murders, exemplifies this desire for attention.

The perpetrator’s apparent admiration for past acts of lethal public violence, such as the Columbine massacre, is likely to spark debate about the role that media reporting of violence may play in spawning further violence.

It also raises questions about copycat killings – acts inspired by past crimes. Although copycat killings are a subject of ongoing debate in academic literature, factors such as the amount of media attention given to murderers, or the highly specific and detailed way in which killings are reported have often been held up as areas of concern.

It is important that we look closely at responsible ways in which the media can report on violence. Also, because social media can make footage of lethal violence far more accessible to audiences than traditional forms of media, we need to carefully consider the ways viewing graphic violence may affect different members of the community. The occurrence of lethal violence is inherently confronting.

Over and above this, though, media and social media coverage of such violence can have further impacts on the public, for example through amplifying community perceptions about the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime. This, in turn, can lead to heightened feelings of fear and anxiety.

Because the perpetrator took his own life as well as the lives of others, we may never know what motivated this act of appalling violence. But if we seek to understand why such acts occur, and to find ways to better prevent violence, we cannot attempt to reduce lethal violence down to one motivation, one root cause, or one solution.

The challenge ahead is whether, as a society, we are able to accept that despite the monstrous deeds some individuals may commit, they are nevertheless complex human beings – just like all of us.

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