“The greatest predictor of future violence is a past history of violence. The roots of violence lie in unremitting anger and an inability to cope with it.”
Until the shooting of Representative Scalise and others at the GOP baseball practice, I was working on a different article, though related, one on civility and the inflammatory turn in our public dialogue. I still hope to get there, and I am cheered by those in Congress who are trying to reset their responses to each other because of this horrifying event.
As a Clinical Social Worker who worked for more than 25 years in the field of child abuse and family violence, countless times, when violence erupted, I have been asked the same somewhat unanswerable question, “Why? Why do things like this happen.”
Every shooter is unique, but I learned a lot from victims and perpetrators of violence, and focused my Master Degree studies on the roots of violence. In my experience, abusive people have often been exposed to violence or experienced abuse or neglect.
We all begin life programmed with a survival instinct expressed as fight, flight, or freeze. As infants and children, when we feel frightened, or threatened, or needy, anger erupts. If an adult responds and helps in positive ways, we begin to learn how to gain safety and control anger. If the adults in our lives are erratic, fail to protect us, or respond in angry ways, if they abuse us or ignore us, we can fail to learn these lessons.
Like mice in an experiment who are unrelentingly shocked, children with these backgrounds experience life as beyond their control. Some learn to fade into the woodwork, to run, to freeze. Those who go on to become abusers are mired in an anger that solidifies into rage at an unresponsive world. As adults they can go on to try to control this by controlling those around them to create a (false) sense of safety. When their relationship crumbles as a result, rage builds.
Now, obviously, the above paragraphs are reductionist and simplistic in the extreme. There are untold books and research on this topic. Not every abused child goes on to be an adult victim or abuser, nor is every perpetrator an abuse victim. But consider the above as a possible context.
Now, add in poverty, a poor education or learning disability, a neighborhood where crime is common, performance anxiety or threat to a job or job failures or loss, simmering resentment at your lot in life, or some other perceived threat including divorce or romantic breakup, life stressors or loss. Clearly, poor coping skills, mental fragility, or mental health issues (depression or addiction) can be a dynamic as well. Altogether, these can be a potentially dangerous combination.
I don’t know if (James) Tom Hodgkinson’s background fits all of the above, or the warning signs at the bottom of this post. I do know he had many run-ins with law enforcement, that in 1996 a 17-year-old foster daughter committed suicide by dousing herself with gasoline, killing herself in his car, that a 2006 arrest was for forcing his way into a neighbor’s house and breaking down a door and punching a grand-niece in the face there. Later, Hodgkinson threatened a friend of hers with a shotgun in his face before hitting him with the butt of the gun. Recently, he had gotten really involved in the toxicity of the last election and let his home inspection license lapse. And it is also reported he was an alcoholic whose wife was talking about waning a divorce. Mainly, a fit. (See NY Times)
So, what do you do if you know someone like this? How do you help? Listen….but not until you are drowning. Suggest help. If there are insurance problems, try free hotline and crisis response numbers including NAMI, and though not every clergyman is as well-trained as my husband, often a minister or priest can be a resource. Check your local area for non-profits and charities who may be able to provide support. If you fear a situation call the non-crisis police line, or if violence is about to erupt, call 911, and get yourself and others to safety.
Lastly, to change this world of anger, harsh words, and harsher judgments, let’s all breathe a little and practice tolerance, civility, and the Golden Rule.
Warning Signs That May Precede or be Indicative of Future Violent Behavior
- Threatening statements about killing/harming self or others
- Preoccupation with other incidents of violence.
- Intimidating, belligerent, insubordinate, defiant or challenging behavior
- Confrontational, angry, easily provoked, unpredictable, restless or agitated behavior
- History of violent, reckless, or antisocial behavior, arrests
- Alleged fascination with firearms, access to weapons
- Feelings of persecution.
- Blaming others for anything that goes wrong, disavowing personal responsibility
- Intolerance of differences
- Marked decline in school or job performance
- Changes in personality, mood or behavior
- Excessive crying, depression, or mood swings
- Decline in personal grooming
- Crosses interpersonal boundaries
- Alcohol/Substance abuse
- Cultural issues
- Mental health history, suicide attempts
- Significant personal stress or recent experience of loss, humiliation, or rejection
Composite from University of Oregon and NY Office of Mental Health