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Mass Killings and Anger Management

How to Cope as a Society with Violence in the Workplace

One week after Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter, killed 12 people and wounded 8 others in an incident of workplace violence, questions have been raised about his mental health. The red flags were there. In the weeks before the attack on the Navy Yard, Alexis reported hearing voices and said that three people were sending vibrations through the ceiling to keep him from sleeping.

Police in Newport, Rhode Island, said that Alexis called them to a Marriott hotel on the morning of August 7 and reported that he was being followed and was worried that the people were going to hurt him. Alexis told police that the three talked to him through the walls, floor or ceiling at three hotels — two commercial hotels in Rhode Island and one on a naval base there. He told them that they used a microwave machine to send vibrations and keep him awake.

Why wasn’t this disturbing behavior reported? I believe it is because we have become afraid to report people who seem at risk, mentally, for fear of being labeled as someone who is insensitive to those with these issues or, worse yet, as prejudiced against a person or group of people. However, we need to recognize that what is occurring with increasing frequency cuts across all ethnic lines and threatens to destroy our traditional societal ethic of loving one’s neighbor.

Of course, the Navy Yard shooting is the latest in a long line of mass killings that is increasing at an alarming rate sometimes fueled by workplace conflict. For those too young to remember, on August 20, 1986, Patrick Sherrill, a full-time substitute letter carrier, reported to his postal job and carried a mailbag over his shoulder. On this day, though, his mailbag concealed two loaded, .45-caliber pistols he had checked out from the National Guard Armory where he was a member of the marksmanship team. He also carried in excess of 300 rounds of ammunition and a .22-caliber handgun. Just minutes later, Sherrill had killed 14 and wounded six others. His act led to the expression “going postal,” which has come to mean becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence, and usually in a workplace environment. Between 1986 and 1997, more than forty people were gunned down in at least twenty incidents of workplace rage.  

To be sure other motivating factors were present in some of the mass shootings. A good example is Nidal Hasan, the former U.S. Army Medical Corps psychiatrist who fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others in the Fort Hood mass shooting on November 5, 2009. He was disturbed about his impending deployment to a war zone where he might have to kill fellow Muslims. It’s ironic that someone who treated returning soldiers from the war zone for mental issues goes on a shooting spree and kills innocent bystanders. There were Internet posts that gave a glimpse into a troubled man. There were statements he made to fellow soldiers that should have raised the red flag.  Perhaps those who had an inkling that Hassan was ready to burst wouldn’t say anything for fear of being labeled as having Islamophobia.

Other more recent acts of mass murder also raise questions about whether mental health education might help to stem the rising tide of senseless violence. I have previously blogged about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old former student at the school, killed 20 children at the school and six adults while shooting over 100 rounds of ammunition. Early reports describe Lanza as "remote" and "one of the goths" by classmates. Being a goth can be a sign that an individual feels rejected by mainstream society: in this case the school he attended. As we all know, youngsters of school age who think another kid doesn’t fit in can make that kid’s life miserable.   

So, in the recent examples I cite we have a white person, a black person, and a Muslim committing mass murder. If that is not enough to convince us that our societal ethic of knowing right from wrong is under attack and it affects all of us, then nothing will.

The scary thing for me is that random acts of violence are occurring more frequently in students and young adults, including the Columbine shootings. And, in an Aurora, Colorado move theater, James Holmes killed 12 people and injured another 70 at the premier of The Dark Night Rises. Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and had been treated by a psychiatrist before the attack.

What can be done about this problem? Is mandatory mental health counseling the answer? I think it is a good idea, especially if we start the education early on in K-8 and continue it throughout our children’s school years; and let’s include bullying and cyber-bullying training as well.

In mandatory mental health education, youngsters can be trained to spot the red flags, seek help if they are mentally troubled, and look for the signs that another student may be at risk. Moreover, the school should provide a specific process to follow to bring the matter to the attention of school authorities. Will schools take it seriously? No school wants to have on its record that it was warned about a troubled child, did nothing, and then that child commits a mass murder.

Is there an approach we can use to improve mental health in our society? I believe a good start is anger management training. In my opinion each of the mass killers was angry about something. Alexis had a history of gun violence, according to two police reports. One incident took place in Seattle in 2004, when he shot the rear tires of a car belonging to construction worker who was working on a building site near Alexis’s home. According to the police report, Alexis fired three rounds from his Glock pistol at the back of the car. At the time, Alexis told police that he had been angered because he thought the victim had mocked him earlier in the day. 

It was reported by a relative of Adam Lanza that he never seemed emotionally right after his time at Sandy Hook. The relative said he came home from school with bruises all over his body but, when questioned, he wouldn’t say anything. I think he was a target of bullying and that was part of the dynamic that led him to commit mass murder. He had anger management issues and let it out in one loud and continuous burst at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Doubters will say anger management and mental health education in the schools won’t make a difference. Perhaps not but it is better to have tried and failed than do nothing at all.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 24, 2013