While doing research on my upcoming post surrounding infamous mass shooter Adam Lanza, I noticed a particularly bizarre historical pattern: mass murder techniques seem to follow historical patterns. In this post I go over these historical periods, as well as what might be the reason behind it.
1910s – 1960s: Assassination
Okay, I suppose this isn’t a mass murder technique, but it falls in line with the same sort of idea. In the first half of the 20th century — and some can argue, most of time before this — assassination was the way to go. In particular, assassinating a particularly important person to make a statement. It’s during this era that we begin with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (a politically-motivated attack which started one of the biggest wars of our time) and ended with JFK (more just mental instability, but nevertheless shocking)..
There’s a few reasons why assassination might have been the most popular form of shock murder tactics at this point. The first is that forms of murder were still not very… well, mass-like. The average person did not have access to bombs, automatic guns, etc. etc. They had at worst a knife and at best a standard, old-fashioned rifle. Another potential reason (which segues well into the rest of our list) is the media circuit before mass media existed. Radio and TV were just becoming things in this era, and beforehand everything was based on mail delivered via horse-drawn carriages. So, if you wanted to make a statement, the best way wasn’t killing a few randos — it was killing someone important. That way, the news got around quickly even in the old days of snail mail.
1960s – 1980s: Serial Killing
Serial killers, really, have always existed. From Jack the Ripper to Albert Fish, serial killing has been the way to go for the particularly demented. Yet, in the span of three or so decades, the majority of the world’s most famous serial killers hatched their plots. Why?
This, of course, lines up to what I mentioned during the assassination section — mass media. The news circuit is always looking for something particularly evil, disturbing, racy, and serial killing fits that bill perfectly. So when news circuits got bigger, the news began reporting on these much more often. I would say its during this time that the “copycat” nature of these mass crimes really got started, thus really driving the sequence of “murder trends”.
There’s also the fact that, following this same logic, mass media made what were once “cheap deaths” more valuable. It’s a lot easier to kill a few random people living in a suburbs than a crowned prince, and if you’re just looking for notoriety than its a fine substitution. Perhaps its for this reason that, for the first time in history, the assassination was displaced.
1990s – 2000s: Terrorism
From here, things began to go rather quickly.
We were just beginning to get used to the new serial killer persona when in the early 90s a new threat began to emerge thanks to threats from religious zealots, whether it be fringe rebel groups in the Middle East or cultists in Japan. Terrorism, just by concept, is interesting. Unlike serial killers — which did, to be fair, always exist — terrorism is a relatively new idea. It is a new idea which, in many ways, relies solely on the mass media build up in the previous decades.
The entire idea behind terrorism goes as follows: you are a small group with a fringe belief. You know you are small, outmanned, and don’t live too deeply in people’s heads. You need a way to make your cause known, to instill fear into others, while at the same time dealing with your issues domestically. So, what better way to go about it than to scare a couple of yuppies in a far away place and have them knocking on the door, charging in and wreaking chaos like a bull in a china shop?
Terrorism came out of a few key technological innovations. The first was the invention of the internet, which even further expanded mass media’s scope — for the first time in history, people in America began to really care about what was going on in a small far off country like Kuwait. The second was that high-powered weapons like bombs and assault rifles began to be cheaply produced enough for even small bands of fighters to use effectively. There’s also the fact that the world became more connected in other ways, such as airplanes — an effect which generated perhaps the most notorious terrorist event of all time.
2010s – Present: Mass Shootings
Finally, we reach the modern day. Assassinations rarely occur (and if they do, they are in developing countries and usually just “attempts”). While serial killers still hold a special place as a fictional bogeyman, they for the most part to not come up in the news. And terrorism seems to come out of vogue. So, what has come to replace these methods of mass murder? Well, shootings of course.
Mass shootings are interesting, because they are in some ways an amalgamation of all the previous trends. They are political like terrorism, they are deranged like serial killing, and they use the same toolkit as assassination. They are also uniquely problems of the modern day: much of a mass shootings potential relies on media spread (where typically higher casualties = longer time in media circuit) as well as the availability of high powered weapons to now very basic citizens of a nation.
Many people believe that mass shootings are a problem of the United States. In pure practicality, they are not — there is a much higher frequency and death count to mass shootings in places like Africa, Southeast Asia, etc. However, in terms of the media circus, it is indeed an American problem. Like terrorism before it, mass shootings are about a small group of people trying to make a statement. That statement ends up leading into political charges, which causes the nation to uproar into chaos. The only difference is that this time it’s all domestically, whereas with terrorism it happened in a far away place and we could do a pretty good job of ignoring it and hoping it all goes away (which, in fact, turned out to be a pretty good strategy). The question of gun rights is something that is unlike the question of Islamic extremism, or capital punishment, or political assassination before it. It is, perhaps, a bit more subjective — something that tugs more at the roots of the American creed than the other threats had previously. But this is beginning to get away from the topic of this blog post — let’s go back and round things up.
Is there really a trend?
I have been hinting at this throughout the article — that perhaps my title is not truthful, and there is not really a trend in mass murder in statistical terms. Indeed, I think if you actually counted the number of assassinations, serial killers, terrorist attacks, etc., you would not see any real pattern in the data. But I do believe there is a pattern when it comes to journalistic trends.
This is all rather interesting. We would like to think we do not choose to read our horrific tragedies in the same way we pick our clothes, but there does seem to be a pattern in media picking up macabre events like fashion choices. In a way, journalism and politics feeds off each other — gun violence leads to discussion of gun rights, which leads to gun violence coverage, which leads to more gun violence, etc. etc.
I do not really claim to have the knowledge of why these trends exist, nor how to stop them. But I do hope this observation provides some food for thought for anyone who might be interested in exploring these problems.