When the Gunman’s Motive Remains a Mystery: Does It Matter?

Two months after 10 individuals had been killed in a mass capturing at a King Soopers in Boulder, Colo., investigators have nonetheless not mentioned why the gunman selected that specific grocery store — or why he turned violent in the first place.

An identical thriller surrounds the killing of eight individuals at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis. Was the gunman offended as a result of he had been fired? Was he focusing on Sikhs, who made up half of his victims?

And in San Jose, Calif., the website of the newest mass capturing to grip America, investigators are nonetheless sifting by means of proof to find out precisely why a longtime transit company worker turned on his colleagues, killing 9 of them. “We are not trained to analyze co-workers,” a native union chief mentioned, including, “We will never know.”

In all three situations, the identification of the perpetrators is just not in query. And but the circumstances nonetheless indirectly really feel unsolved as a result of the motive stays unclear.

Every time there may be a mass capturing and a gunman is recognized, the greatest query is what drove him to violence. Law enforcement officers might deploy lots of of investigators, 1000’s of hours and lots of of 1000’s of dollars attempting to know the why.

But some legal profilers have begun to debate the limitations of fixating on motive, questioning how a lot worth there may be in developing a story with a definitive arc, and whether or not perpetrators are even able to explaining themselves.

“I’m one of these weird creatures that is doing research on motive, studying it and then saying that there is no such thing,” mentioned Shuki Cohen, a psychologist and terrorism researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It’s central to our meaning-making, but it’s inaccessible to us.”


Investigators are nonetheless working by means of proof to know why the longtime worker of a transit company killed 9 of his co-workers in San Jose, Calif., final week. Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

The query of motive turned notably thorny in March when eight individuals had been killed at three spas in the Atlanta space. Seven had been girls and 6 had been of Asian descent, and information protection positioned the killings in the context of a wave of anti-Asian violence that was provoked by leaders who exploited the Covid-19 pandemic’s Chinese origin.

But some conservative commentators complained that framing the capturing as racially motivated needlessly stoked Asian Americans’ fears of being focused, insisting that the suspect’s account — that he had been attempting to take away sexual temptation at spas the place he had been a buyer — was the greatest out there reflection of his intent.

Legally talking, motive is irrelevant in most legal circumstances besides inasmuch because it helps persuade the jury. Conviction and punishment normally rely solely on proving whether or not the individual dedicated the crime, no matter his or her causes.

But society has responded in a different way when victims look like focused primarily based on their membership in a specific group, creating a class of crimes through which motive is of utmost significance — hate crimes. The clamor for some killings to be labeled as hate crimes has compelled prosecutors to attempt not solely to know motive, however to show it.

Sometimes there may be broad consensus about the motive. Last 12 months federal hate crimes costs had been filed in opposition to the suspect in the 2019 El Paso capturing through which 23 individuals had been killed. Minutes earlier than the assault, he posted a manifesto on-line railing in opposition to Hispanic immigrants.

In Atlanta, the prosecutor will use the state’s new hate crime statute, making the case that the suspect was each anti-Asian and anti-woman. But in a neighboring, extra conservative county, the place 4 of the killings occurred, prosecutors haven’t but determined whether or not they may classify any as hate crimes.

ImageThe Atlanta prosecutor is utilizing the state’s new hate crime statue in opposition to the suspect in the spa shootings, the place six girls of Asian descent had been amongst these killed. Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The debate over the Atlanta suspect’s motive echoed an earlier one after a college capturing in Stockton, Calif., in 1989, the place 5 youngsters from Southeast Asian refugee households had been killed. The police repeatedly dismissed options that the gunman, who killed himself at the scene, had focused Asians. He had displayed “a distinct dislike for everybody — not a particular race, all of them,” a captain mentioned.

A bunch of Asian American and Pacific Islanders who had been attempting to attract consideration to anti-Asian bias crimes objected. They had been vindicated by the state lawyer basic, who, after a 10-month investigation, mentioned the capturing had resulted from the gunman’s “festering sense of racial resentment and hatred.”

The state investigators’ conclusions weren’t drastically totally different from these of the native police. “He blamed all minorities for his failings,” they wrote of the gunman, “and selected Southeast Asians because they were the ones with whom he was most in contact.” The distinction was in the framing: No, the report assured Asian Americans, the racial animus was not all in your head.

A motive might assist make sense out of the mindless, however in the end it’s only a principle, and one that’s unattainable to check, Dr. Cohen mentioned.

In the case of Stephen Paddock, who dedicated the nation’s deadliest mass capturing on document, the F.B.I.’s famed Behavioral Analysis Unit convened a panel of specialists who spent a 12 months reviewing each out there scrap of Mr. Paddock’s “developmental, interpersonal and clinical history” to find out what led him to kill 60 individuals on the Las Vegas Strip in 2017.

The report cited many elements, together with the stressors of getting old and Mr. Paddock’s father’s standing as a outstanding legal, however famous that “active shooters rarely have a singular motive or reason for engaging in a mass homicide.”

The public considered this complexity as failure: “F.B.I. Finds No Motive,” the headlines mentioned.

ImageWhen the F.B.I. investigated why a gunman killed 60 individuals in Las Vegas, it famous that “active shooters rarely have a singular motive or reason for engaging in a mass homicide.”Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Investigators mentioned Mr. Paddock had gone to nice lengths to maintain his non-public ideas non-public. Yet even when he had left behind a lengthy manifesto, specialists say, it won’t have given them extra to go on — killers aren’t any extra possible than anybody else to be dependable narrators. The clues they plant typically contain a cut-and-paste “salad bar” of concepts quite than a coherent worldview. An F.B.I. report on the bomber who focused Nashville in December cited “individualized beliefs adopted from several eccentric conspiracy theories.”

Understanding individuals’s motives could also be helpful for growing countermessaging, Dr. Cohen mentioned, however it has little worth in predicting who will commit future hurt. Though many mass shooters have purchased into extremist views together with radical Islam, misogyny and white supremacy, a overwhelming majority of individuals in any given chat room dedicated to these beliefs are usually not plotting mass homicide.

(By the identical token, a overwhelming majority of individuals with psychological sicknesses are usually not violent, and analysis suggests that almost all perpetrators of mass shootings had by no means been identified with a psychological dysfunction.)

A 2018 F.B.I. report analyzing 63 mass shootings barely mentions the phrase motive, as a substitute specializing in what specialists name pathways to violence. The report describes stress elements and “pre-attack behaviors,” like signaling an intent to hurt or displaying an uncommon curiosity in weapons. The gunmen in the research exhibited, on common, between 4 and 5 such behaviors.

“We have a thing called narrative bias where people like to construct a story that they understand, that’s fairly simple and straightforward and they can apply retrospectively,” mentioned J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and F.B.I. guide. “Narrative bias can get in the way of us looking at all the possible motivations or contributions to the risk.”

Decades of information present that almost all lone actor killers are usually not motivated by pure ideology, however are nurturing a private grievance — normally a loss, as of a associate or a job, that’s accompanied by anger, humiliation and blame of a specific group, Dr. Meloy mentioned. Of these individuals with grievances, Dr. Meloy mentioned, solely a small subset views violence as a resolution, and a fair smaller subset has the wherewithal to hold it out.

When introduced with the detritus of a killer’s thoughts, the strands society chooses to extract can inform us much less about the perpetrator than they do about ourselves. The fondness of Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal constructing in Oklahoma City in 1995, for “The Turner Diaries,” a ebook describing a authorities overthrow and a race warfare, was initially understood as proof of his antigovernment views. More current accounts have used it to underscore his ties to white supremacy.

After the Atlanta spa killings, the criticism from conservatives was paying homage to one more controversy, over the bloodbath of 49 individuals at a homosexual nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016. The slaughter prompted a international outcry in opposition to homophobia, and an outpouring of empathy for homosexual Latino males particularly, however it quickly emerged that the gunman had known as 911 throughout the assault and informed a dispatcher he was a follower of the Islamic State.

ImageAfter 49 individuals had been killed at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016, there was a debate about whether or not the gunman had deliberately focused L.G.B.T.Q. individuals.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Some individuals argued that even so, it was unattainable to disregard the identification of the victims. “Those who insist the shooting was solely an Islamic terror attack try to erase the L.G.B.T. community from the narrative, causing only more pain by invalidating their experiences in this ordeal,” wrote an editor at USA Today.

In the finish, the proof strongly instructed that the gunman had not meant to focus on L.G.B.T.Q. individuals, and the capturing was investigated as a terrorism case, an F.B.I. spokeswoman in Tampa, Fla., mentioned.

In Georgia, the Atlanta shootings may quickly function a take a look at of what sort of proof would possibly persuade jurors that a hate crime was dedicated, and the way credible they may discover the defendant’s personal explanations of his actions.

The state didn’t have a hate crime statute till final 12 months, when legislators handed one after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. It has been invoked for the first time in the Atlanta shootings.

The bias costs can have no sensible impact on any sentence for the suspect, since he would already face a extreme one if convicted. But Fani Willis, the Fulton County district lawyer, mentioned they nonetheless ship an essential message to her constituents: “We have to make sure that all people are treated the same and all people are acknowledged as having value.”

She expressed confidence that she may show racial animus even when the suspect denied it. “If we just relied on what defendants said, we wouldn’t convict anyone,” she mentioned.