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Excerpt from Clinical Practice Today (January 2014)
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Making Sense of “Senseless” Violence

Edited by Bet MacArthur, LICSW

“[The film] captures a universal fear – that of losing the power to respond, emotionally and morally, to the evidence of one’s own senses.”

—Michael Sragow,
Reviewing ‘The Conversation’ (1974)
in The New Yorker, September 9, 2013

“We don’t need more metal detectors in schools, we need more human detectors.”

—William Pollack, PhD
Cambridge MA

This article is the first in a coming series (2014-2015) on risk assessment and violence-reduction in the spheres of personal safety, clinical assessment, and future public policy. We initiate the series this month in tribute to the recent first anniversary of the Newtown, CT school massacre.

To call the peculiar American phenomenon of massacre/suicide “senseless violence,” as the media and public discourse do, is a tragic error.

Personal massacres (a term that refers to the increasing American incidence of mass shootings followed by suicide) are the opposite of senseless – they are flamboyant acts of communication. Any one such event can represent multiple communications by the actor – of despair, envy, grandiosity, shame – – and every one has its own internal context – it is only when observers do not know the context that they can label a violent act “senseless”.

It is troubling, too, that personal massacres most commonly are the shooter’s final communications. After many it is the end point of an inner journey which is almost always littered with outward signs and signals – flags that were seen clearly by many, often for a long time, before the violent ending; but to whose significance our culture and policies block us from responding.

Thus labeling such events “senseless” only reinforces our denial and helplessness in a context of cultural and psychological factors which keep on offering this form of expression specifically to men in our society. (While there have been 18 such shootings in the US in the past year alone, not all of them publicized, instances outside of the US are infinitesimally rare.)

In stark refutation of the ‘senseless’ narrative, behind the scenes over the past forty years forensic and behavioral scientists have developed vast data and quite-sophisticated insights about the etiology and context of personal massacres. A greater tragedy is the way our cultural attitudes and social policy lag so far behind this forensic wisdom, both in our practices and in our communities...


Full article includes...

  • Predicting and Preventing
  • The Gift of Fear
  • Personal Awareness and Clinical Training
  • Institutional Barriers to Prevention
  • Cultural Changes to Intercept Violence
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