To watch on NOVA: "Mind of a Rampage Killer"

On Feb. 20, PBS' long-running science series NOVA airs "Mind of a Rampage Killer," an hour-long documentary on the neuroscience of teen rampage shootings: Newtown, Aurora, Columbine, and on the list goes.

What makes a person walk into a theater or a church or a classroom full of students and open fire? What combination of circumstances compels a human being to commit the most inhuman of crimes? Can science in any way help us understand these horrific events and provide any clues as to how to prevent them in the future? As the nation tries to understand the tragic events at Newtown, NOVA correspondent Miles O’Brien separates fact from fiction, investigating new theories that the most destructive rampage killers are driven most of all, not by the urge to kill, but the wish to die. Could suicide–and the desire to go out in a media-fueled blaze of glory–be the main motivation? How much can science tell us about the violent brain? Most importantly, can we recognize dangerous minds in time—and stop the next Newtown?

Miles (who's also my boyfriend) showed me the rough cut. It's really a powerful documentary. Do tune in. NOVA "Mind of a Rampage Killer" premieres Wednesday, February 20, 2013, 9p.m. ET, as part of "After Newtown" special programming.

Above, an excerpt: Miles interviews Andy Williams and his father, Jeffrey. Andy was convicted of the 2001 shooting at Santana High School. In the shooting two students were killed and thirteen others were wounded. Andy is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years. Related: Miles talks with John Hockenberry about the doc, on the public radio program "The Takeaway."


  1. Just study the bumps on their skull. Different patterns tell you different things about them. You can totally convict someone before they become violent criminals.

    See: phrenology.

    1. Seems like some kind of composition fallacy, really. All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. 

  2. Sorry, but it’s a total fantasy to think there is any way to identify these people without a 1984 style police state locking up 10,000 harmless odd ducks for every 1 potential rampage killer.  Although in light of today’s Supreme Court decision, perhaps we can just rely on German Shepherds to identify who gets locked up before they’ve done anything wrong.

    1. So, should we ignore it and not study the behavior and reasons behind the behavior? Should we ignore it? Not talk about it?

      No one is saying we should “identify these people”, but rather that we should study and discuss these things and figure out if there are things to be done, or ways society can be changed, to prevent tragedy such as this. This is a complex issue and there is no one “fix” or even really a “fix” at all.  That’s not the point.

  3. I find it weird that there is such an opposition to studying this phenomena. Personally, I think we should study human behavior in it’s most mundane instances, and in when the behavior is an extreme outlier. I was listening to some science podcast recently where they discussed these issues (can’t remember which one) and they were stating there simply isn’t enough data to come up with anything cohesive yet about how this phenomena plays out. 

    To me, that means we should be studying it when it does happen. The fact that this keeps occurring means it’s very much a regular part of human behavior, and perhaps understanding why, and what triggers it could help people who obviously really needed that help before they hurt themselves or others. 

    1. It’s not opposition to studying it. The opposition is to publicizing those studies in a way that hurts and stigmatizes more people than it helps. You’re right, they don’t have anything cohesive. So the last thing they need to be doing is floating that statement out there like a Fox news caption.

      I mean, just in this clip one thing that strikes me is that they gloss over the “suicide by cop” thing as if it is the exact same as “suicide by cutting in a remote forest” but there seems to be a big difference here. In one person you’re seeing extreme care to limit the amount of people affected, and in the other you see such a complete disregard for other people that it doesn’t even seem to register that suicide by cop might hurt *the cop that shoots you* some. Or for that matter, that it seemed perfectly acceptable to terrorize people with weapons, even if you don’t mean to kill them.

      1. I didn’t see any evidence that NOVA was the kind of publication to do that. 

        Also, I’m not sure you can stop willfully disingenuous organizations like Fox from doing nasty things. I’m not sure how researching, and trying to find answers translates directly into Fox’s irresponsibility. If anything I welcome NOVA’s involvement because I seem to recall them having a good scientific track record. 

        1. I’m not going on their reputation, I’m going on what they actually just said. Which is “based completely on speculation and correlation, as well as only certain aspects of what this guy who killed people said we will hang a leading question out there that suggests suicidal people are all likely to be mass murderers” and that is a shitty irresponsible thing to say. It is honestly as shitty as saying “based on the pedophiles we have analyzed, and the testimony of this one pedophile… are all gay men pedophiles?” 

          1. “As it turns out about 60% of all rampage killers end up killing themselves. Some experts believe understanding and spotting the suicidal mind is a key piece of the puzzle” 

            Nope. I think I’m hearing that right.  Sounds pretty much like “let’s get them before they get us” to me. As for projecting, I’m kind of curious whether you think I’m projecting a fear of suicidal people or an urge to murder random strangers :/

            Question: what is “the suicidal mind” for instance. Who are these deviants among us!? Dun dun dun dun plays the piano underneath. What happens if we reverse the question and ask what percentage of people who report feeling suicidal kill anyone else? Or even themselves?

            Why then would this statistic “There are 3 female attempts for each male attempt” not result in more mass murderers who are women?

            “Suicide rates increase with age and are highest among age 65 and older.”

            Or old people?

            Hypersensitive, perhaps, but to me the bullshit in this video is neck high.

    2. Phenonmenon.  Sorry, I can’t help it.
      There may be a little resistance to studying it if the evidence starts to mount up that there are basic defects in the culture of countries producing more spree-killers than average, and fixing these defects would hit the revenue of some large industry, or if these defects were strongly-held values of one of the major political tribes.

      I’m not seeing that kind of resistance here though.

      Having said that, I’m not expecting the program to go into the evidence particularly thoroughly anyway. 

  4. High level observation – The “go out in a blaze of glory” couples with the “Is press coverage of these events eventually spawning more of the events” question.

    There has never been a good unambiguous answer to that one; it’s been looked at a lot.  It may be the one thing we CAN do about them – if the motivator the the escalation to killing many strangers is noteriety in death, then it’s partly an issue of press responsibility.  How do we as a society and how does the press as a profession inform, without making an environment that then makes another very damaged suicidal person later want to go emulate a mass killing.

    On the other hand, if it’s not proven that that effect is real, then getting our nuts all twisted up over what the press is or isn’t doing is not relevant to solving the problem.  And societally, changing how the press does things is a pretty problematic thing to try to do, so if it’s not actually a stimulus or causative agent in the mass killings, we’d be much better off leaving it alone.

    I’m looking forwards to some more professional examination of the causation.  It matters.

    1. If you ask me, you want your culture to reexamine the whole idea of the gloriousness of death in combat in all contexts, and reject it for the bullshit it clearly is.

      Also, what the fuck is with all the violent revenge themes in American movies? From the outside, it’s a little creepy. Like listening to some mental guy in the pub talking about all the fights he’s been in, and how he doesn’t take any shit from anyone.

  5. Yawn, first world problems.

    What makes a person walk into a theater  OF WAR, for money.  Mercenary or simple stupid tribalism?  If so, we can screen for that in schools and redirect these future criminals.

    The very very rare violently suddenly mentally ill are not worth worrying about.   Though awesome press.

    But invasions elicit enemies.  By the thousands.  

    Folks in glass empires ought not fly drones.

    Never even mind the rarest  Dorner, McVeigh, Mohammed DCSniper, or other mil trained friends of anarchy
    and blowback.

    Worry about the families of those you kill or intimidate overseas.

    Or don’t.   Didn’t worry the Italians (Romans), why us?   Hey, who’se on Idol tonight? 

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