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Published 23 July 2012 12:29, Updated 23 July 2012 12:30
When a man with a gun murders a crowd of innocents, the world is shocked and horrified. The first questions are invariably: “How did this happen?” and “Could this have been prevented?”
As the police in Colorado try to unravel the motives behind the massacre by James Holmes of the cinema audience, killing 12 and wounding 58, Norwegians mourn on the anniversary of the killing of 77 young people, most of them teenagers, by Anders Behring Breivik a year ago.
At times like these, it is only natural that people should, retrospectively, look for clues. Is there any way of telling is someone capable of such monstrosity is walking among us?
The answers appears to be: Probably not.
There are many signs that things are going badly in another person’s life. They may be depressed, show signs of psychosis, have an interest in weaponry, or a history of violent behaviour. They may also be loners, or have a history of trouble at school or be “well-known” (as they say) to police.
People like this have their problems, but almost all of them will never take another’s life. In Australia, for instance, we would have to go back 16 years to the Port Arthur massacre (35 dead) or 12 years to the Childers Palace fire (15 dead).
The managing director of employee assistance firm Converge International, Dr Lindsay McMillan, says people who commit mass murder often appear to be operating reasonably normally until they commit their crime.
With James Holmes, the crime is more than usually perplexing because he was a high achiever, from what appears to be a loving family. He was a student of neuroscience – which would normally attract people who are more concerned with saving lives and doing no harm, McMillan says.
“He was well regarded within his immediate circle of friends,” he says.
Now, a couple of days on, news reporters and online pundits, digging for motives, have started unearthing clues that things were not quite as they seemed.
Holmes has failed an exam and was in the process of withdrawing from his studies. At the same time, he started stockpiling guns and ammunition. Other students at the university said he kept to himself. He did not have a Facebook account. Someone who lived in his building called the police the night before because of loud music coming from Holmes’s apartment – the same song played again and again. The owner of a gun club refused to let him join after receiving a weird Batman-themed voicemail from him. Holmes posted a video, asking “Will you visit me in prison?”
However, McMillan warns that trying to piece together a jigsaw of the murderer’s life to make sense of the crime does not always work. People try to look for patterns that often do not exist.
“They are jumping at shadows,” he says.
“You need a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist to look into someone’s heart and soul to find out what is the purpose and meaning for someone to do something like that.”
In the workplace, as in life, people may wonder if a colleague is “quite right”. Often it is difficult to know when to step in and interfere.
McMillan says warning signs may be a dramatic change in behaviour, a withdrawal from contact with others, or an uncharacteristic decline in work performance.
In these cases, managers and leaders have a duty of care to inquire if they are OK and offer assistance – through an employee assistance program if they have one or, perhaps, through a community program such as Lifeline. Workmates too need to overcome their reluctance to get involved.
“I think we always need to be cautious about asking the questions . . . but we need to ask if there is something we can do, rather than just accepting it as just the way they are.
“Don’t hold back if you feel there is someone close to you who is disengaging in some way,” McMillan says.
“We all have a responsibility to each other”.
If the person in question refuses to acknowledge their troubles, or refuses help, then a manager may have to use disciplinary processes related to behaviour and work performance to try to force the issue.
“Luckily, we are a much more open society than previous generations when it comes to dealing with mental illness]”.