Mass shooters often chase fame and suicide: "These are not people who want to ... live with the crimes they commit"

Salon speaks to a sociologist who studies mass shootings and martyrdom about what could have driven Omar Mateen

Published June 14, 2016 8:19PM (EDT)

Omar Mateen   (AP)
Omar Mateen (AP)

The shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, the largest mass shooting in American history, continues to baffle and upset people. Clearly, it was motivated by hatred and made possible by easy access to military weaponry, but what else might have contributed?

Salon spoke to Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama and whose research concentrates on mass shootings, social deviance, criminology, terrorism, and counterterrorism. He’s also the author of the book “The Myth of Martrydom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.” We spoke to him from outside Washington, D.C; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

These shootings have become sadly regular over the last few years. What does this one have in common with others we’ve heard about recently?

It’s similar to other acts of mass shooting which had a perpetrator who espoused Islamic fundamentalist ideology. We’ve seen that before, most recently in San Bernardino and at the Chattanooga military shooter last summer. But if you look beyond the stated ideology, there’s a lot of similarities with the Charleston church shooter, who espoused a racist ideology, or a variety of other offenders, whether they claimed to be ideological or not.

Is there anything that makes the Orlando shooting unique or atypical, besides the obvious fact that each incident is a little different from every other?

Of course it stands out because of the number of victims killed, and because it was a delayed crisis before the police were able to shoot the offender and bring the incident to a close. I’ve been studying a lot of these incidents, both in the United States and around the world, and I cannot remember an incident that lasted more than three hours, like this one, since Columbine.

In the coverage of this case, we see talk about Islamic terrorism, about guns, mental illness… But is there a factor or issue here that we typically overlook when we discuss this kind of case?

Just in the last five years there’re been more of a conversation about fame seeking and attention seeking, and that’s something I’ve studied in depth. Sometimes the fame-seekers explicitly admit that as a motive, and sometimes they don’t.

But in this particular case, this was a guy who clearly had delusions of grandeur – he celebrated after 9/11, he claimed that Osama bin Laden was his uncle… And he was talking about martyrdom, about joining Al Qaeda. The FBI thought he was just doing that to get attention. I guess the sad irony is that they were right – but trying to get attention is one of the classic symptoms of a mass shooting.

His father said that the talk about ISIS and other terrorist organizations was just a boast, that he was really just trying to latch onto something. A lot of these attackers realize the more victims they kill – especially if they do it in a dramatic way, like at a nightclub on a Saturday night and Sunday morning – the more likely you are to get attention.

And as far as the cultural factors, a lot of scholars have done research that suggests that fame seeking is more prevalent in the United States than anywhere else. And the father of the perpetrator appears to have been a fame seeker himself, so he grew up in that context. The father claimed he was a candidate to be president of Afghanistan, and he was hosting a television show, and he had all these Facebook followers.

It’s a confluence of things, but I’d like to see our culture move in a way where celebrity is less of a priority.

I know it’s hard to tell for sure, especially after a shooter has been killed. But can you even estimate how often a mass shooting is motivated by fame-seeking?

That’s a good question, but it’s essentially impossible to know… I have done a study of this in which I’ve found 24 examples of offenders who made explicit statements that acknowledged fame seeking. Of course there are many other cases where they didn’t say something – for example, the case with the Aurora theater shooter, he never said explicitly, “I want to be famous.” But he dressed up like the joker and showed up on the premiere night of one of the Batman movies – clearly a theatrical and staged attack.

Not exactly someone trying to keep a low profile.

That’s right. So there are a lot of things like that. And you add in ideology – people who claim they’re fighting for neo-Nazism, or Islamic fundamentalism, or something like that – they often justified their personal desire for attention as a way to get attention for their cause.

There’s a debate in the media whether we should publicize the names of shooters and killers, especially those who seem to be chasing fame. How do you see it?

I think it makes sense to look at the overall coverage of the offender rather than just the name. It makes sense to release the name in the initial coverage – I’m even okay in releasing the photo. Where it starts to bother me is when two months later every story continues to show the picture, and list the name… It seems like the organizations or blogs are looking for more clicks rather than providing newsworthy or new information.

You mentioned your hope that American society becomes less celebrity-obsessed. What other things might limit this kind of violence? We can’t stop it completely, but are there societal factors that might make it less common?

Certainly, we live in a culture with a tremendous number of suicides – more than 30,000 a year. If we can make general social progress to reduce the number of suicides, get better treatment for people with suicidal thoughts… That’s the main goal, and as a side benefit, I bet you’d see fewer people committing mass shootings that ended in their death.

There’s an interesting element we see with mass shooters who claim to be motivated by Islamic fundamentalism and end up dead – they almost never shoot themselves in the head. And by contrast, other school shooters and rampage shooters often do shoot themselves in the head.

More broadly, there’s a huge discussion in this country about police use of force, and use of deadly force. It’s kind of a complicated thing, with a lot of moving pieces. But I think if there was a way to resolve the situation, so that the offender could survive – could be taken alive – I think that would deter some of these offenders, because they don’t want to live through their attacks. They want to go out in a blaze of glory. And as we saw in the case of the Fort Hood shooter, he was shot in the spine, and was paralyzed but survived. And he’s since tried to sabotage his defense so he can be executed. These are not people who want to face the music, and live with the crimes they commit. If there were more lethal ways to resolve these crimes, I think they might function as deterrents.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Celebrity Fame Omar Mateen Orlando Shooting Sociology Suicide