Thoughts on the Oakland college shooter

As the KU (where I teach a course) men’s basketball team was preparing to fight for the NCAA championship in New Orleans, Louisiana yesterday, students at a small technical college in Oakland, California were fighting, too…for their lives.  In a scene eerily reminiscent of Cho Seung-Hui’s 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech, a 40-something male former student returned to the campus armed with at least one handgun, reportedly ordered students to line up against a wall, and opened fire, shooting randomly as the students fled for their lives.  He then reportedly went door-to-door inside the school in search of more victims before fleeing the scene (note that he tried to get away alive rather than committing suicide, as has been the more common pattern in recent memory including the Virginia Tech case — I’ll come back to that in a moment), only to be apprehended while apparently trying to blend into the crowd of shoppers at a nearby grocery store a short time later.  At last count, seven victims are dead, and several more are wounded.

Also reminiscent of Seung-Hui at Virginia Tech, the Oakland gunman reportedly has expressed “no remorse” in confessing to police that he committed mass murder because people at the school “were not treating him respectfully” back when he was a student there.  If that report is accurate, it’s illustrative of the malignant narcissism at the core of a psychopath’s personality.  Think about this for a moment — he supposedly felt mistreated, verbally, by people at the school, which in his mind apparently entitled him to go back and murder people there.  In other words, he apparently thinks he’s so incredibly special that anyone who insults him (if anyone even did) deserves to die.  This kind of narcissism is extremely dangerous because those who harbor it tend to rationalize and justify pretty much anything they want to do in life, regardless of the law, regardless of who gets hurt.

Now before anyone goes dismissing this guy as “insane,” please allow me to dispel that probability.  If the Oakland rampage went down as reported, then he clearly thought it through and planned it out in advance.  Then afterward, he clearly tried to escape the consequences of his actions, abandoning the murder weapon(s) as he fled and attempting to evade pursuit by blending into a crowd of grocery shoppers.  Premeditation (my “3 P’s”:  planning, preparation & practice) and consciousness of guilt cut strongly against any defense predicated upon a contention that the accused didn’t know what he was doing or that it was wrong (and I mean “wrong” by society’s standards, i.e. illegal, not “wrong” by some narcissist’s standards — he may think that he should be entitled to kill people whom he perceives to have slighted him, but that’s not enough to make him legally “insane”).  Is he a mentally-healthy guy?  Obviously not, but that’s not the question.  The questions are, was he able to know what he was doing (based on what’s been reported in the media, apparently yes), and if so, was he able to know that it was wrong (based on what’s been reported in the media, apparently also yes).  Many people have mental problems, but very, very few of those people are so dysfunctional as to be legally insane (i.e. not responsible for crimes that they commit).

Lastly, in terms of prevention of future similar incidents, I must repeat, once again, my mantra in these cases:  nobody commits mass murder as his/her first malignantly-narcissistic, sociopathically or psychopathically dangerous, destructive act.  I can virtually guarantee you right now that this guy has a history of deeply-concerning behavior (I’ll bet it even played some role in his expulsion from the school in the first place).  Over and over again in these cases, I make the point that, all too often, we don’t do enough to protect innocent people from individuals who’ve shown clear indications of propensities toward violence.  We’ll have to stay tuned to find out the extent to which this tragic Oakland rampage could’ve and should’ve been prevented, but the larger point going forward is this:  When someone effectively screams out that he or she is dangerous, we need to take that individual at his/her word, and in deciding how then to respond, we need to err more on the side of concern for potential victims’ safety and less on the side of concern for that individual’s liberty.

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