Tennessee church attack spotlights scapegoat mentality
Economic hard times also may have played a role in this week's attack on a Tennessee church.
Attacks on the innocent – especially those in churches – may seem irrational and horrific to all but the attacker. But beneath the details can be a deep sense of victimization and scapegoating that may be tied to something as specific as hate based on race or sexual orientation or as broad as economic hard times.Skip to next paragraph
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"There's a whole category of mass killers who are seeking vengeance against a group of people who they feel are taking away their birthright, their opportunities, and making it difficult to succeed," says Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, author of "Extreme Killing." "They don't see themselves as criminals, but ... as striking a measure of justice, winning one for the little guy. This case may show that [Jim Adkisson] perceived that society has been bending backward to favor disenfranchised groups so they're trying to get some justice for their own victimization."
Police say Mr. Adkisson, an unemployed mechanical engineer, left a note listing his own inability to find a job as one reasons for his attack. He also railed against the Unitarian Universalist denomination as being "liberal," including the church's advocacy for gay rights. The FBI is investigating the shooting as a hate crime.
"This is not just violence in a vacuum," says Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "When they perceive themselves to have played by the rules, they will lash out indiscriminately not just at innocent people, but innocent people who symbolize what they believe has done them wrong."
To be sure, any direct connection between the shootings and the nation's economic woes is hard to verify, says Cecil Greek, a criminologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee. More likely, Mr. Greek says, Adkisson's alleged outburst may have been tied into suddenly jarred expectations – in his case, his ability to find a job and even stay on food stamps – at a time when a majority of Americans are questioning the country's course and many are feeling an economic pinch.
"It's not as much if things are good or bad economically, but more whether people know what the limits are, and what they can expect," says Greek. "If it's a period where everybody downsizes, or a period of raised expectations where nobody knows where the upper limits are, it can be a more dangerous period to live through in terms of the potential for people to act out strangely."