Psychologist Thomas W. Phelan Comments on Why We Need to Rethink Our Response to Sandy Hook

CHICAGO, Dec. 20, 2012 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- As a registered Ph.D. clinical psychologist in private practice since 1972, and a member of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Phelan has seen and worked with many people with serious problems. His opinion on what can be done to stop or slow down the type of tragedy we saw in Sandy Hook is different from what the media has been doing since the incident.

Another "school shooting" becomes history. This one is more horrible than any other. Since October 1, 1997, you can count at least fifteen school killings that have left over eighty people dead, many more wounded, and many more people than that emotionally scarred for life.

What's our response? Well, we do the usual automatic news coverage. Horrible, gory, extremely upsetting headlines all over the place—you can't escape them; extensive TV coverage including interviews with third graders regarding their direct experience of the murders. This stuff is repeated daily over and over. People wring their hands and say, "What are we going to do?" The President appears on TV and says the same thing.

What's wrong with this? Three things. The first two are bad enough, but the third is crucial. The first thing wrong with our response is that extensive news coverage is deeply and horribly disrespectful to the parents and family members who lost little children and loved ones. Let them grieve without the fanfare. The second is that extensive news coverage traumatizes parents and grandparents all over the country. These adults don't want to send their kids to school. When will the next maniac walk into a classroom?

The third thing wrong with our handling of the calamity, however, may be the most important. You can't undo the tragedy, but we should be interested in preventing further tragedies. But we just don't get it. We just go round in circles wringing our hands and talking about greater physical security measures. There's a big difference, though, between protecting schools and playgrounds and sealing up the cockpit of an airplane. Why? Because you can pretty much seal up the cockpit of the plane.

Whatever else we do, if we're really, really interested in preventing future events like this, we need to try to understand the motives of these killers. Or at least make our best guesses about why they want to kill large numbers of innocent people. I've been a practicing clinical psychologist for forty years and I want to share my thoughts on this question.

The Foes We Face

Who are these guys? Well, first they are guys. All of them. Second, they are all young. And third they are all frustrated with their lives. Bitterly, absolutely frustrated. They see their lives as cesspools of failure, and at some point they give up trying to make a positive mark on the world. This decision makes some of them suicidal. To their way of thinking life is no longer worth living.

But here comes a tragic catch: a subset of these young, frustrated young men see other people as the cause of their failure. In their opinion, the reason they have not been able to make their deserved mark on the world—and believe me, these intense fellows do want to make a mark!—is that they have been screwed by others.

Let's sort further. A few of the last group are so mad about their perceived maltreatment that they want to kill. Some will, in fact, target and murder individuals they know—like their own parents. Others are sick enough, however, that they simply blame everybody and they want everybody to pay. They want revenge, they want to shock, they want blood. They want all the other people on earth to feel the bitterness they have felt. So now some of our young fellows are suicidal and indiscriminately homicidal. They want all of the rest of us to pay and they want us to know who did it.

One observer put it very well recently: "Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he'll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody."

Try to crawl into the brain of one of these future killers. A little more than a year from now, the next mass murderer will be sitting in a Starbucks sipping coffee. He'll have big plans for the next day, and one aspect of those plans will be to achieve a higher body count than any of his predecessors. As he ponders with unbelievably intense excitement his imminent killing spree and suicide, he glances over at a pretty young girl. Oblivious to him, she's reading the news on her iPad and sipping a vanilla latte. They've all been oblivious to him, he recalls. But then he thinks to himself: "Tomorrow you will know my name. Tomorrow I will make you scream."

If future events follow the pattern of the last fifteen years, the next mass murders should occur in the next nine to sixteen months. Today we're setting the table very nicely for the next killer. Great spread—he can imagine an opulent feast. His name will be in all the headlines, he'll be on the TV and radio news, the President will talk about his accomplishment. In an orgy of negative glory, he will have nailed the bastard society that caused his failure. He'll revel in the event and savor his epic revenge for weeks and weeks—before he dies.

To us it will be pure horror, sadness and grief. When are we going to learn?

The Quest for Depraved Glory and What to Do About It

What to do flows directly from what we can conclude about the situation we are in and about the killers' motivation. This information includes the following:

  1. The killers are suicidal and homicidal—very difficult beasts to control.
  2. The killers' motives likely include a vicious, indiscriminate desire for revenge and a quest for depraved glory. As these guys check out, they want to make a huge, horrible and memorable mark on the world that screwed them.
  3. The desire to murder and the quest for depraved glory in the next killer, who is now alive, is currently being fed by our treatment of the last killer, who is now dead.
  4. Our treatment of the last tragedy punishes us further by traumatizing current parents of small, living children. Our coverage repeatedly bombards young moms, for example, with horrific images regarding a situation they feel they can do little or nothing about.

Whatever we decide to do regarding gun control or arming school personnel, in my opinion we have to address the motives of these deranged murderers. They are like terrorists. You can't identify them or predict exactly where and when they will strike. And a suicidal/homicidal foe is extremely difficult to counter. We can't control nearly as much as we'd like to control.

To me several key strategies are generated by this insight: The desire to murder—the quest for depraved glory—in the next killer is currently being fed by our treatment of the last killer.

If this is correct, the idea dictates several courses of action:

For the President: The President should not go on national TV to discuss the tragedy. If he wants to express sympathy, it should be done privately. Why? Look again at motive. How many sane people in this country would love to be recognized by the President for an accomplishment of theirs? Lots. So would the next killer. And remember: He'll appreciate the imagined adulation before he dies.

For the media: Headlines, print space, TV time, repetition. We're looking at a major, tasteless, and disrespectful overdose in the coverage. So is the next killer. We don't need all this and, yes, it is traumatic even for people not directly involved. And no we don't want an anniversary story/replay in 2013.

Think about it. People can't commit crimes and then make money writing books about them No one should make money on mass murder. And that includes newspapers, TV, radio and online news folks.

A seemingly trivial example may be enlightening. Decades ago producers of TV sports shows made a decision to not show on camera fans who chose to disrupt games by running around on the field. Two questions: 1) Why did they do this? and 2) Did the policy work? Is there a lesson from this sports silliness that may apply to the issue we're talking about here?

Here's an obvious suggestion. The killer wants depraved glory. Don't put the next guy's name and picture anywhere.

Don't masquerade as a public service by feeding on people's fascination with horror or by using the First Amendment to cover or confuse whatever obligations you have to protect little kids and their parents. The next killer is passionately interested in your coverage.

Can you be a thought leader in your industry? Would you consider actually losing money to your competition the next time a murder happens by not covering it? You can still do simultaneous mass deaths like plane crashes, explosions or huge traffic accidents. It's mass murder we're talking about here.

For the rest of us: You have to admit we all play our parts in accomplishing the twin jobs of 1) setting up the next murderer and 2) traumatizing ourselves. We watch the President's address and we turn on our TVs or computers to get the latest. So what can we do?

Turn off the news and turn off things like the President's well-meaning but horribly naive address. Protect yourself and your family. Ask something more from the news and media folks than a steady diet of bad, worse and repulsive. Don't grovel in tragedy. Do what you can to solve a problem and then go on with your life.

Summary: Here's my pitch. There are more of these sick, young, potential killer guys out there. They will never go away and we can't ever totally get rid of them. We can't even identify them in advance, and a suicidal and homicidal foe is the worst kind you can imagine. Whatever physical restraints (gun control, armed schools) we try to put into place, let's do whatever we can to take away from future mass murderers the depraved glory that may be their main motivation. Doing this will require some really strange changes in thought and behavior; but the bottom line is the safety of our kids.

Contact: Kate Bandos,, 800-304-3269 or 616-676-0758 (MI), Learn more at

Source: Author Thomas W. Phelan