Suicidal Mass Murderers: A Criminological Study of Why They Kill

By John A. Liebert and William J. Birnes; Reviewed by Steve Albrecht, CPP

***** Suicidal Mass Murderers: A Criminological Study of Why They Kill. By John A. Liebert and William J. Birnes. CRC Press,; 335 pages; $59.95.

John Liebert, a psychologist, and William Birnes, an attorney and professor, bring their training and experience to the subject of why some people commit mass homicide and then suicide. The authors’ backgrounds give them the ability to provide insight into these events in ways that are especially useful to security practitioners.

The authors first note that preventing workplace and school-based violence starts with the understanding that no one can predict violence; rather, the goal is to assess dangerousness based on observations and reports of a person’s behavior. In their discussion of the final report from the panel that investigated the Virginia Tech shooting, the authors write that gunman Cho Seung-Hui had many diagnosed and undiagnosed psychoses. His problematic behaviors were seen throughout his formative years by his parents, teachers, classmates, and mental health clinicians.

The authors cover a lot of ground in their book. Besides their in-depth look at Cho’s life and crimes (which dominates the overall text), they examine the narcissistic pathologies exhibited by serial arsonist Paul Keller, the blogs and writings created by August 2009 workplace shooter George Sodini (who killed three women and himself at a fitness center outside Pittsburgh), the post 9-11 anthrax cases in the United States, and the behaviors and actions of the 9-11 hijackers.

The book has a strong legal-medical slant. Both authors are highly critical of the U.S. healthcare system in general and the mental healthcare system in particular. They highlight the many occasions where Cho’s psychotic behaviors and accompanying warning signs of potential violence were missed, miscommunicated among the stakeholders, and rationalized; and they note that not enough time and resources were applied during his multiple contacts with the criminal justice, medical, educational, and mental health communities.

The authors paint a bleak picture of our collective pre-attack responses to the many challenging and chilling behaviors displayed by Cho, Sodini, Columbine kill­ers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and other attackers.

For security professionals, this book may reinforce what we already know: the response to violent behavior is always easier in the aftermath, and observations without interventions don’t stop bad people.

Suicidal Mass Murderers is a dense book, full of medical and psychiatric terminology used to describe the behaviors of past perpetrators, and to describe what others might be like. The closing sections of the book offer prescriptive help and describe behavioral warning signs that will make sense to security professionals.

Reviewer: Dr. Steve Albrecht, CPP, is a San Diego-based author and security consultant on workplace violence prevention. His books include Ticking Bombs; Fear and Violence on the Job; and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops.



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