The mass murder in Atlanta points up the emergence of a disturbing new trend in American culture: The increase in revenge killings.
While mass murder has been an unfortunate blot on the American scene for some time - an average of two a month since the early 1980s - many social scientists say it's developed a new twist. More often now than in the past, the need to lash out at perceived victimizers appears to be a prime motivator. And it's made all the more deadly by the tools people are choosing to accomplish that goal - high-powered firearms.
"We can't ignore the fact that there's a real change going on in society," says Arthur Kellerman, who oversees emergency services at Emory University Hospital, where most of the victims of Mark Barton were brought last week. "Guys aren't going off into the woods [and killing themselves] anymore, they're taking as many people with them as they can."
Several prominent criminologists say the underlying cultural shift can be summed up as "don't get mad, get even." That message is sent in movies, advertisements, and sometimes inadvertently in the schools. "The '90s is the decade of revenge - It's no longer the idea of turning the other cheek, it's evening the score," says James Alan Fox, the Lipman professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.
In notes left behind at his home, Mark Barton wrote that he wanted to kill "the people that greedily sought my destruction." He also blamed his wife, citing her as "one of the main reasons for my demise as I planned to kill the others." Barton killed her and his two children in the days before his shooting spree.
It was the second mass killing in Georgia in 16 days, adding to dismay in the Peach State.
While it may come as little solace to a community still grieving, Criminologist Alfred Blumstein says such mass killings are still anomalies. But it's not unusual for there to be "some degree of copycat phenomenon," he says.
While no one can know with certainty what motivates each killer, criminologists have identified common characteristics. They include a history of failure, externalization of blame, a sense of isolation, access to means of destruction, and a precipitating event. Professor Fox says one mass killing can spark another. But so can a stale bologna sandwich. "This is not someone who just snaps," he adds. "These are well-planned execution."
One solution, experts suggest, is to reduce the availability of weapons. It has always been common for some people to turn to violence to settle problems, says Blumstein. But in the past, they used fists or knives. The consequences change dramatically with high-powered weapons.
But other experts contend that the cultural messages about the validity of using violence to solve problems have changed. "Violence is now thought of as an acceptable alternative to victimization," says Patricia Kirby, a professor at Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore. Ms. Kirby also blames a culture that discourages personal accountability - no matter what happens, someone else is at fault. The atmosphere of competition contributes as well.
Sociologist Lynn Chancer says Americans also need to look particularly at the way men are socialized. "You don't hear about these cases with women as perpetrators," says Ms. Chancer, a professor at Barnard College.
Brad Bushman, an expert on violence and the media at Iowa State University also says there's a myth that people who engage in violent crime have low self-esteem.
"The most violent aggressive people have a grandiose narcissism," he says."If someone thinks they're ... entitled to admiration and respect, when they don't get it, they become angry and ... lash out."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society