Common threads running through recent shootings

Anger at institutions and alienation may be factors. But murder statistics show a drop.

As the nation struggles to come to terms with the recent spate of shootings from Atlanta to Chicago to Milwaukee, some criminologists have found a common theme in the seemingly disparate attacks: They were at least partially aimed at institutions and carried out by frustrated, alienated individuals.

They're a symptom of a society less anchored in communities than it once was, critics say, and one in which some mainstream institutions, from the courts to the local city council, may have grown less responsive to individuals' needs.

"There's a tremendous amount of alienation in America - people feeling that big government and business, even the justice system, are not responsive to the needs of the ordinary guy," says criminologist James Alan Fox, author of the new book "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder."

Professor Fox says that the phenomenon is coupled with an "eclipsing of community," many people who now live alone and lack friends and neighbors to help them through difficult times.

While the incidents remain under investigation and each alleged shooter's story is unique, the themes of alienation and lashing out at an institution, or individuals that represent one, are evident in all three cases.

For instance in Atlanta, Brian Nichols had been in court to be retried for a rape that he insists he did not commit. He later told his hostage, Ashley Smith, that he thought of himself as "a soldier ... and that his people needed him for a job to do. And he was doing it." But a yearning for human contact was obvious, too: He told Smith he wanted to relax and "feel normal."

She, in turn, tapped into his own sense of humanity and told him about how her husband died, how much she loved her 5-year-old daughter, and why she wanted to live. After talking for several hours, Nichols put his guns away and offered to hang up her curtains before letting her go to visit her daughter, Paige.

"After we began to talk, he said he thought that I was an angel sent from God, and that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ," she said.

In Chicago, the man believed to have shot Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow's mother and husband was angry that she'd dismissed a lawsuit he'd filed. He claimed that doctors at the University of Illinois-Chicago Hospital had disfigured his face during cancer treatments. But he also had a history of venting his rage against the government and the justice system. Six years ago, he was investigated after he sent a series of abusive, hostile letters to state and federal authorities. He was also apparently very much alone. After he committed suicide, authorities were unable to find any next of kin to identify his body.

Police in suburban Milwaukee are likewise focusing on anger and alienation as a motive for Terry Ratzmann's alleged rampage during a church service. Recently, Mr. Ratzmann reportedly walked out of a service in a huff. Other parishioners said he may have been experiencing depression, but police have found no evidence of that. Those in his congregation have also speculated that he was upset about his contract job ending, but police say that he'd known for some time that his job was scheduled to end. Instead, they believe Ratzmann may have "executed" the local pastor of the Living Church of God, Randy Gregory, along with Mr. Gregory's 16-year-old son, five others, and himself.

While all three shootings include signs of anger at institutions and alienation, other criminologists see a different common thread: the accessibility of guns.

"The one thing that unites them is the presence and the availability of guns to people who are prepared to do utterly irresponsible things with them," says Alfred Blumstein, a professor at the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

But criminologists do agree on one thing: that this spate of shootings does not signal an increase in multiple or serial shootings. They point out the murder rate is the lowest it's been since the 1970s and that such multiple killings have always taken place. It's just that now, technology and the media bring them into American's living rooms with much more frequency.

"All of the statistics we have show crime is declining dramatically, and so we should be celebrating the fact that crime has decreased very, very significantly," says Joseph McNamara, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. "But human emotions are real, and when it's apparently a random crime, people say, 'Gee, that could be me.' That has an impact."

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