The Minds of Killers—and Terrorists

When we are frightened or shocked, we rush to explain what alarms us in some belief that we can defuse it. Nothing is more difficult to understand than killers who destroy lives without one pang of regret. If we can place these aberrant personalities neatly into "boxes," they don't seem as dangerous. Less than twenty years ago, all murderers who killed a number of victims were referred to as "mass murderers." The term "serial killer" came into common usage less than 20 years ago, and even these two definitions didn't cover a third category: the "spree killer." With the horrific tragedies of September 11, we must include a fourth group: "terrorists."

Picture of Osama bin Laden from the FBI's 'Most Wanted Terrorists' posting, issued in 1998, after US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. FBI photo.

Picture of Osama bin Laden from the FBI's 'Most Wanted Terrorists' posting, issued in 1998, after US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. FBI photo.

The first three sub-groups have long been familiar to criminologists. Simply put, "mass murderers" kill many victims at once. These are the psychotic and suicidal killers who open fire in crowded restaurants, businesses, post offices and even schools. They usually die in the carnage, either by their own hands or in "suicide by cop" which they deliberately choreograph.

In the last decade, we have seen a burgeoning number of mass murderers, although they have always been with us. In September, 1949, Howard Unruh, a 28-year-old ex-Army sharp-shooter, destroyed a peaceful morning in Camden, N.J., as he left his mother's house in the grip of paranoid delusions and shot 13 people to death. "I'd have killed a thousand if I'd had more bullets," he said. Charles Whitman climbed the Texas Tower in Austin on August 1, 1966, and shot 46 people—killing 15—before police shot him fatally. In July, 1984, James Huberty announced, "I'm going to hunt humans," and fired on a MacDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, California, wounding 19 and killing 21 people he didn't know. The toll of victims of mass murderers mounts every year.

The "serial killer" is eminently sane but an anti-social personality "addicted" to murder for its own sake. All male to date, they kill one or two victims at a time over long time, with the incidents occurring closer and closer together until they seek victims almost every day. "Jack the Ripper" was a serial killer in 1882. Ted Bundy will always be the poster boy for serial killers. Like Bundy, who murdered dozens of young women in the mid-70s, or the still-elusive "Green River Killer" whose toll since July, 1982 is at least 50, serial killers often destroy more lives in their long careers than mass murderers. Having worked closely with Bundy on the Seattle Crisis Clinic phones, I know that serial killers present perfect façades to the world. And they are not at all what they seem to be.

The "spree killer" isn't as well known. He is a combination of the first two types; he erupts with great rage, usually over some rejection, and destroys victims for a week or two until he is cornered. He almost always suicides at that point.

Every serial and spree killer has his own preferred victim profile, although serial killers stalk strangers and the spree killer begins with someone he knows who has rejected him and moves on to strangers who resemble that first victim. Charlie Starkweather headed west in January, 1957, with his 14-year-old girlfriend in tow, killing 10 people, including her family. Christopher Wilder, a Florida race car driver, cut a deadly swath across America in the spring of 1984, choosing a dozen young women victims at malls. And Andrew Cunanan left San Diego in July, 1997, headed to the Midwest to kill a lover who had rejected him, his rage accelerating. Strangers died, including famed designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his mansion in Miami Beach, Fla.

So, how can we categorize the terrorists who destroyed thousands of lives on September 11th? In some aspects they fit into the three acknowledged groups of multiple murderers. Like serial killers, they killed complete strangers. For all intents and purposes, they were sane. But were they addicted to murder for its own sake? I think not. Although they were suicidal, they were not mass murderers. They weren't paranoid or enraged; they were coldly calm and confident.

Nor were the terrorists spree killers. Apparently, they had not been rejected. Not at all—they were chosen. And, for each, there was only one incident.

Serial, mass and spree killers are loners, with allegiance to no one but themselves. They believe in nothing but perverted pleasure, killing games, and in most instances, they present a deceptive mask to the world. Religious ferver and misguided patriotism are no part of them. They do frighten us, but our chances of becoming their victims are minuscule as they walk their isolated and abberant paths.

Terrorists are what I would call "manufactured sociopaths." Born into a society where there is little hope for the future and surrounded by poverty, they are easy prey to be brain-washed. And they learn how to fool us. They are taught that religious wars are a good thing and that one would be lucky to be chosen. They are not loners at all because they see themselves as part of a grand plan, ordained by their God. Unlike the other multiple killers we have seen, the terrorists share a belief system with any number of co-conspirators. I have little doubt that they view Americans as unworthy of life and have no pangs of conscience when they destroy us.

I think that terrorists who joyfully ride a plane full of innocents into a building with thousands more innocents, believing that everyone will die, are akin to programmed robots. Someone very skillful and very devious has spent years turning them into manufactured sociopaths. Who to compare them with? I can only think of the kamikaze pilots of World War II.

If Osama bin Laden should order his armies of terrorists to till fields and build houses for the greater good, they would probably do so. The serial killer would not. No one has brainwashed him—other than himself. The spree killer would not. His own rage fuels him. The mass murderer would not. He answers to the voices in his head.

But, given any choice at all, I would not want to meet any of them face to face. Not one knows the meaning of compassion.—Ann Rule, '53, is the author of many non-fiction best-sellers on crime, including the just-published Every Breath You Take, the tale of an Oregon millionaire's murder contract on his ex-wife.

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