Blind-Sided: Homicide Where It Is Least Expected
by Gregory K. Moffatt
Hardcover, 264 pages
Published Sept., 2000 by Praeger Publishers
ISBN 13: 9780275969295
The topic of this month’s review is an older book I learned about while preparing last month’s review of Andy Brown’s book, Warnings Unheeded. It will prove useful in members’ efforts to sharpen danger recognition skills. Surely, signs are present if victims know what to look for and don’t deny budding problems.
Author Gregory Moffatt’s introduction explains that in the late 1990s he began to study mass murderers, puzzled because, “People who knew them said the perpetrators seemed normal and they were shocked.” As a mental health therapist and college professor, he had trouble believing “that an individual would, with absolutely no warning, commit homicide. My clinical experience with other forms of behavior suggested otherwise.”
While all humans have the capacity to kill, most do not do so, Moffatt asks, what makes the difference? Pressures and not knowing how to cope with adversity are identified as common triggers, as seen when a terminated employee kills supervisors or coworkers, he answers. When trying to assess risk for violence, “consider the perpetrator’s context and coping strategies,” he advises, later adding that while some coping methods are far outside normal behavior and suggest considerable mental dysfunction, if they harmlessly relieve the individual’s pressure, they do reduce the risk of violence.
He asserts that mental disorders are surprisingly common and the sufferers are more likely to harm themselves than others. Of the homicides he studied, however, fully half of the perpetrators had diagnosed mental disorders and he suspected similar undiagnosed mental illness in the others. Moffatt concludes his observations about links between mental illness and murder with cases in which schizophrenics stopped taking medication, and convinced of being wronged, shot and killed strangers in public places. In one case, the killer’s family had tried to have him involuntarily committed; in another, the female killer had been previously arrested and convicted of stalking, and in yet another, the subject had undergone 52 days of treatment at a mental hospital. Still, Moffatt stresses that while the mentally ill are represented amongst those who commit homicide, “The mental illness factor by itself, rarely causes people to kill.”
He cites a case in CT, in which on the day his sick leave ran out, a lottery corporation employee returned early from several months of stress-related disability leave and shot and killed four supervisors he had earlier accused of misconduct. Coworkers ran into nearby woods for safety, and when law enforcement responded, the man killed himself. “Inability to get along with coworkers, his mental health struggles, his weak social skills, and his weak coping strategies all played a role,” suggests Moffatt.
In CO, a Department of Transportation worker shot a superior during a disciplinary hearing, but convinced he was holding a gun beneath his jacket, she devised a strategy on the fly and escaped, though seriously wounded. He killed another woman present to act as his advocate. Interviews afterward revealed that many coworkers were frightened of him and Moffatt explains that he “provided many clues to his instability,” adding up his threatening behavior, treatment for depression, grievances against other employees, and a history of not being able to get along with coworkers. The fault lies not in the job’s stress, but in the murderer’s inability to cope, otherwise, workplace violence would be rampant among air controllers, but it is not, Moffatt adds.
As in Moffatt’s other case studies, those who murdered intimates gave advance warning signs: suicide attempts, criminal activity, mental health interventions, belittling and outright violence toward spouses and children. Job loss or financial difficulties may spur murderous revenge plans. He tells of an Atlanta, GA day trader who, already suspected of having killed his first wife and her mother, later killed his second wife, both of his children, and then killed nine and injured many more at securities and trading firms where he had worked. Family members came forward to relate that they “had known it would happen sooner or later” and “I’ve felt that this has been coming for a couple of years.”
Moffatt addresses homicide by children, explaining that there are children whose upbringing creates such dysfunction that they cannot feel love and destroy those who try “to give it to them as well as others they see receiving it.” He writes that when entertainment shows violence as a strategy for dealing with disagreements, “these children may commit mass murder thinking it will be fun or exciting, or that it will elevate their status among their peers, without regard to the long-term consequences of their actions.”
Like adult killers, children, too, “kill when they make impulsive decisions,” without understanding the ramifications and the permanence of their actions, he explains, detailing warning signs of deteriorating coping skills, manifested through thefts, being expelled or suspended from school, family problems, verbal threats, killing pets and use of violent or pornographic entertainment. Of the popular theory that school shooters kill because they’ve been bullied, he counters, “People all over the country are ridiculed, but they choose a more appropriate means of coping with their frustrations.”
This theme continues in a separate chapter in which he explores the warnings that foreshadowed the Columbine High School killings, of which there were many, recognized by a number of people in that CO community. In conclusion, Moffatt suggests, “It all boils down to two ruthless boys throwing a gigantic temper tantrum to get attention.” I was concerned that an academic’s treatment of violence might be slanted against private gun ownership, but several times Moffatt acknowledges the efficacy of firearms against a mass murder attempt, citing the intervention of Vice Principal Joel Myrick in Pearl, MS who had to first run to his car to get his .45 to stop the school shooter who killed two and injured seven. He adds, “I favor arming principals or other senior administrators in schools where police officers are not routinely stationed.”
About two-thirds of the way through Blind-Sided, in Chapter 8, Moffatt lists what he considers variables that predict violent behavior. These are also found with slight variations, and in different order on his website at http://gregmoffatt.com/law/violence.html. The variables include–
- History of aggressive behavior
- Subjective fear of person by others
- Threats of intent to do harm
- Specific victim
- Social isolation
- Antisocial behavior
- Absence of support system
- Lack of or weak social skills
- Clear feeling of being wronged by target
- Severe situational stress
- Job instability
- Substance abuse
- Poor self-image
- Suicide attempts/ideation
- Fantasies of violence
- Presence of aggressive models
- Divorce/marital instability
- Loss of job
- Available weapon
- Male gender
- Age 23-45
Accurate predictions require considering the totality of the circumstances, not relying on a single variable, which alone may suggest another diagnosis. Accounting the many different ways the Columbine school shooters forecast their intentions, he writes, “The preponderance of the evidence, especially in the year prior to the shooting, without a doubt indicates two very troubled boys. Yet somehow, despite all this evidence, counselors, a principal, teachers, court officers, and at least one judge, friends, the parents of classmates, and the parents of the boys themselves did not recognize the extent of the explosive potential in these boys in the days, weeks and months prior to the attack.”
This is the section for which I bought Blind-Sided. For example, discussing anti-social behavior, he warns about those who are “deliberately violating social rules and norms,” like “sexual harassment, lewd conversation, inappropriate expressions of emotion in a given context, consistently inappropriate dress, invasion of personal space, and so forth. It may also include lying, cheating, stealing, vandalism, and other illegal activities.”
He explains that for the merely socially awkward, supportive social groups–family, church, and recreational activities–help enforce social behavior. People from those venues should step in and guide the individual when stresses beyond his or her ability to cope threaten acceptable behavior before he or she, “has nothing to lose by shooting colleagues and self.” Along the same lines, isolation and not accessing social support is another warning sign. Remember, one risk variable alone is rarely conclusive, “Those who become murderers are dysfunctional in more ways than one, including the adoption of unproductive behaviors,” Moffatt stresses.
Moffatt discusses why family and associates fail to act on worrisome symptoms evident before their loved one commits murder. Moffatt explains, “I am not suggesting that the loved ones and acquaintances of those who take their own lives or take the lives of others are responsible...messages are much clearer in hindsight that they are in the midst of our busy lives. However, while being sensitive to these facts, I do not think we should ignore the possibility that sometimes we can see what is about to happen if we look for it,” he urges. In cases he researched, he identified “points at which intervention was possible, but those who had the power to intervene either ignored the warning signs or did not know what to do about them.”
Individuals, especially parents, need to “pay attention to warning signs,” Moffatt continues, advising parents that teaching coping skills before your kids have to deal with “stress, disappointment, anger and other emotions is imperative in preventing violent behavior.” This includes holding children accountable for their behavior, he stresses, reminding readers that school shooters have left communications behind blaming others.
In his closing chapter, Moffatt focuses on the victims, listing Seven Mistakes That Can Cost People Their Lives. In all of his studies he sought to identify “choices people made that preceded their deaths, their injuries, or the deaths and injuries of others,” stressing that he only wanted to understand what happened and why. “There have been only a very few cases where I was forced to concede that little could have been done to prevent the actions of any angry killer.”
Lives were lost, he continues, because those seeing the signs made mistakes, some of which can be categorized thus:
- Ignoring or failing to respond adequately to threats, both nonverbal and those given voice.
- Failing to help oneself: learn not to leave your fate in the hands of others, Moffatt writes, illustrating one murder when there was nothing to lose by trying to grab the killer’s gun and wrestle it from him. He concludes later, “I suggest that we take action to help ourselves where we can. In our culture, we often lay blame on others and rely on our friends, our parents, the government, or the police to protect us…Our determination to survive and our resourcefulness may be our best tools for survival.”
- Failing to develop or implement a plan: “Once people are aware their lives are in jeopardy, they often have weeks, months, or even years to develop plans for saving themselves…potential victims can develop plans for hiding, escaping, or defending themselves,” Moffatt urges.
Additional mistakes he identifies include attempting to defuse the situation alone and failing to call for help soon enough: Of one case, Moffatt comments, “If they had been trained to recognize the volatility of such situations, they would have known they should call police as the argument escalated. The police could have been on their way even before the first man was shot.” Do not hesitate for fear of over-reacting, he advises.
Moffatt asks readers to “carry some of this book in mind,” even while in unthreatening environments with minimal statistical likelihood of violence. He relates that before starting his study of unexpected homicides, he “almost never thought about becoming a victim of any crime,” but now, he looks around before stopping his vehicle at a gas station, and now considers the possibility of workplace violence. “Some may argue that I am overreacting and blowing circumstances out of proportion. I do not agree… I do not live my life in fear, but I live my life controlling those circumstances that I can. My hope is that in reading this book you have become more aware of threats to your own and the lives of those you love,” he concludes.
Although Blind-Sided is an older book, I think it may be one of the most important I’ve read this year. I believe Network members wanting to better identify, interrupt, avoid or escape dangers should find it just as valuable as I did.
Click here to return to December 2016 Journal to read more.