By all accounts, Derrick Bird - the man on Tuesday who went on a murderous rampage in Cumbria killing 12 and injuring a further 11 - was a normal bloke. Unlike the withdrawn lonesome figure of the "typical" serial killer or mass murderer, Bird appeared to defy the profile. He was well liked and sociable. There are reports of petty squabbles with other cabbies but nothing any different from the arguments that bedevil thousands of other taxi ranks. It's also emerged Bird was in dispute with his twin brother over an inheritance, and that he was being investigated by the Inland Revenue. But again, nothing out of the ordinary.
Looking at the pattern of victims, it suggests Bird was motivated by score settling. He shot his brother first, followed by the family solicitor and then his fellow taxi drivers, wounding three and killing another. After this the shootings become random and apparently incomprehensible, ending only when Bird turned the gun on himself.
Mass shootings are thankfully very rare in Britain, which makes them all the more shocking when they do occur. Their senseless and random character seem to defy explanation. But as appalling as they are should we just accept that out of six billion people, someone somewhere on the planet will occasionally flip and kill large numbers of people? That seemingly normal men (for it is almost always men) walk among us liable to detonate at any moment is somehow part of the human condition, as libertarian blogger Charlotte Gore claims?
In the first place, these phenomena are not inexplicable: in their own perverse way they're perfectly logical. In an illuminating discussion on Thursday's This Week, celebrity psychologist Linda Papadopoulos applied some watered-down Freud to the Cumbria shootings. As a man who perceived himself powerless and hemmed in by his work and financial situation, the murders could be interpreted as Bird reasserting control over his life. First he shoots those he holds responsible for his feelings of powerlessness - his brother, the solicitor, and the cabbies. With the situations "resolved" his psychosis spills over into imposing his will on the world beyond his control. To the outsider gunning down random people makes no sense, but within the terms of Bird's state of mind this was the logical progression. And the final act - Bird's decision to take his life - affirms his control over the situation, underlining it from start to finish.
Similar features can be read off other shootings. Massacres like Columbine and Virginia Tech have been interpreted as particularly grisly ways for Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and Seung-Hui Cho to achieve celebrity. To an extent this was true - in the videos filmed prior to the shootings Harris and Klebold fantasised about their own post-massacre biopics. Cho saw himself as a Jesus-like freedom fighter. But this is part of a broader psychopathology of 'taking control' and self-assertion vis an uncaring and indifferent world.
In her brief talk and subsequent discussion, Papadopoulos broadens the question out - why are the perpetrators of mass shootings always men? Women too are subject to the same social processes and psychological states as men, albeit with added gendered oppression on top - but women do not commit these crimes. The reason for this is not men's innate capacity for violence: for Papadopoulos it is rooted in gendered socialisation processes. This should not be reduced to giving boys toy guns and girls dolls to play with: it is about building emotional capacities. Despite being the 21st century and with real progress made on gender issues, hegemonic masculinity still remains structured around strength, leadership, heterosexuality, paternalism, dominance, and reason/rationality. Emotion, or more properly, emotion associated with weakness and vulnerability remain very much the property of hegemonic femininity - if a man is expressive and empathic his sexuality automatically comes into question. For Papadopoulos the perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity leaves many men ill-equipped to handle their emotions. Bottling them up is how a real man handles frustration, disappointment and sadness. Small wonder it's men are more likely to suffer depression, be diagnosed with a mental illness, and commit suicide. Or find violent outlets for the tumult building up inside them. In other words, traditional masculinity does not explain why a man picks up a gun and goes on a killing spree. But it does condition the lives of all men to greater or lesser extents. It provides a frame for interpreting and dealing with (or rather, not dealing with) emotions, and a guide/ideal showing how real men should handle their problems. It's for reasons rooted in Derrick Bird's psyche that this complex of masculinity and personal life history turned him into a murderer.
It's no accident that Papadopolous's argument is derived from psychoanalysis, which has always stressed the importance of social processes (particularly language) in the constitution of the ego and the unconscious. Nevertheless her account is bounded by focusing on the individual perpetrator and each case is treated as a self-contained tragedy. And this is accepted by conventional sociology. Psychoanalysis does blur the psychology/sociology boundary somewhat, but sociology is generally content with leaving questions like this to the psychologists. Crude caricatures of pop sociology does appear in the mainstream media at times like these to explain mass murders in terms of celebrity (as per the Time article above) or copycatting news coverage. But sociology can draw attention to something psychologist and other commentators have missed: that murderous rampages have a history, and it is one that is relatively recent.
In the US, the first mass shooting understood in terms of its use here was in 1966. The first high school shooting was in 1979. In the last two years there have been five such killing sprees. To help explain this the spate of similar killings China is currently reeling from may point toward an answer. The writer of this piece suggests the lack of mental health provision and China's rapid pace of social change are contributing factors to these attacks. Analogous processes in Western countries could also be having a similar effect.
This isn't to glibly "blame society" for what happened in Cumbria on Tuesday. No one is responsible for the shootings but Bird. Nevertheless his actions did not take place in a vacuum. His character was shaped by the complex frames and expectations of masculinity like any other man. And, like everyone else, he was conditioned by what's happened to British society over the last 30 years: a restructuring that has seen deindustrialisation, the decline of established social solidarities (particularly working class solidarity), the dismantling of the post-war settlement and the rise of neoliberal individualism as the cultural dominant. There's no such thing as society. You're all on your own now.
For millions Britain of the 80s, 90s and 00s was and is to live life at the sharp end. Money worries, precarious living, social isolation, alienation and anomie, frustration. The existence of these social pathologies are nothing new but it seems the scale of their cultural influence is of greater than was the case in the post-war period. It's not beyond the realms of possibility the lived presence of these developments in the every day is what for a few individuals, combines with their individual mental states and relationship to masculinity to produce a Derrick Bird or a Michael Ryan. How else to explain their comparatively recent appearance?
Ultimately we can never be absolutely certain why men like Bird take the decision to start killing. But a creative mix of a psychological approach married to a sociological appreciation of the social relations that condition and structure our lives can go some way to approximating a state of mind and explain how it came about.