overwhelmed, grief, man covering fsce and crying, monochromatic image © Igor Stevanovic/

Horrific Synagogue Shooting Precursors

Are the issues with guns, mental health, or current politics?

The standoff between powerful and influential groups with conflicting positions continues while there seems to be little change or constructive action taking place in public discourse or government. Perhaps a fresh overview of this tragedy would be helpful, along with the examination of possible contributing factors. Getting caught up in debate or dialog can polarize people. Rigid positions or ideologies interfere with meaningful action or needed change – a type of “insanity” in itself. How can our outrage and “position taking” channel itself into an effective dialog and constructive actions?

The senseless killing of worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburg leaves many unanswered, perplexing questions.

1. Why has there been another mass murder by a social misfit with a military type assault weapon?
2. Why hasn’t the government moved towards better protective gun laws?
3. What drove the hatred and distorted mental ideas of the perpetrator?
4. What led to the radicalization of an individual to act out and kill innocents?
5. What was the role of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate directed towards minorities and immigrants?
6. What are appropriate societal responses and recourse for tragedies of this enormity?

An earlier blog post from October 2015, “Mass School Shooting – Insanity or Guns?” remains relevant and has been updated in the light of recent Pittsburg shootings. Many of the same issues still prevail, without adequate societal or governmental actions to prevent recurrences.

The U.S has a disproportion amount of mass shooting.

Although the U.S. has about 5% of the world’s population, an estimated 31% of mass shootings occur in this country. A mass public shooting, gun violence and murder of multiple victims appear to be occurring with increasing frequency in the U.S. A violent act against the innocent is not supposed to occur in a rational society of intelligent people and laws, where the respect for the rights and beliefs of others is expected. While compassion and support for the victims and their families always come forth from the local and worldwide community, there continues to be little movement in public policy to help remedy the situation.

© nejron/

Is the shooter a radical extremist, a terrorist, or a mental health deviant?

Many people point at guns and lack of gun control as the main problem while others look at mental health issues: such as the deficiencies in mental health programs, non-adequate screening, and poor identification of an individual – who is at risk for acting out in an irrational, violent or deadly way. The lack of mental health services has been ascribed to underfunding. Some relate the problems to a poorly functioning political system and the indifference of many large profit-driven corporations

Many strong opinions get expressed and argued while there is the continued recurrence of these irrational, violent acts. As the debates and discussions continue, the victims and their families are left with the emptiness and darkness of loss and despair, from the senseless and merciless act against their loved ones. In the case of anti-Semitism resurfacing its ugly head in the current tragedy, it remains as virulent and toxic as in earlier times; although, many believe it to be more of an undercurrent and not a significant threat. The JDL has noted, however, a steady rise in recent years of anti-Semitism and incidents in this country. The focus of hatred is on identified minorities – with the blaming and scapegoating of Jews, Moslems, Blacks, foreigners, migrants and now the caravan coming up through Mexico. The bigoted, malcontents, and haters blame outside forces and identified others, for all their personal issue and problems.

This blaming or projecting out on others often stems from personal inner feelings of vulnerability, inadequacies, worthlessness, despair, depression, anger, hate, fear, guilt and shame. Issues such as these are well studied in psychology and sociology. When these negative emotions develop into a more fixed or rigid perception or belief system – that gets stoked, supported and reinforced by outside groups, media, politicians or peer groups – it takes on virulent and potentially deadly forms with negative acting out by individuals or groups. The extreme would be what is being seen now in terrorists’ groups like Isis or in the past as in Nazi Germany.

Mental health issues continue in the foreground as a critical consideration.

Even though lethal weapons – semi-automatic guns – are now frequently involved in injury and murder, the recurrent acts of horrific violence towards unprotected individuals certainly appear to be “insane behavior”. Survivors, victims’ families and the shocked public wait for more information about the murder. The expectation is that there will be something in their mental health history to explain the murderer’s behavior. Significant elements in a mental health history may certainly contribute to the development of non-normative, dysfunctional thoughts and irrational behaviors – that can have tragic outcomes when not recognized and addressed.

According to the 10/3/15 USA Today article: The 26-year old school shooter, who killed nine students and himself at the junior college in Southern Oregon, left behind an angry rambling statement that glorified mass killing. He lamented a lonely existence with few human contacts outside of the Internet. He felt that his isolated “bitter and hate-filled” life had little promise. He subscribed to an online support group that glorified violence. The above is a poignant reminder that if any person, with these difficulties, is not identified and the situation is not remedied – there is the potential for tragedy to ensue for all at risk.

The combination of vulnerability factors can lead to violent belief development, delusional-like thinking, and the potential for violent acting out.

The seduction and capture of vulnerable minds do occur when there is repeated exposure to radical ideas and ideology. The results can be the fixation on sets of non-normative ideas with the development of an inflexible, anti-social and misguided mindset. Although ideas as above may give some perspective, more is needed to gain a fuller picture of the issues, and importantly – how to move towards some action and resolution.

Vulnerability factors and contributors to radicalization or violent behavior:

  • Insufficient support as in a dysfunctional family, social network or community
  • Overly influenced by media, their personal social network and culture, especially when there is a glorification of violence, guns or exposure to extremist ideology
  • Growing up with rejection, low self-esteem, trauma, and social isolation
  • Coexistence of developmental handicaps and lack of socialization skills and abilities
  • Marginalized – with the perception that one is not accepted, lacks the ability to fit in or cope
  • Feelings or the experience of being oppressed, bullied or victimized by others
  • Depressed with feelings of hopelessness, shame, guilt, and helplessness
  • Chronic resentment, blaming others, and anger
  • Exposure to violence
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Dysfunctional personality problems with paranoid or anti-social features
  • Depression, bipolarity, PTSD, paranoid type schizophrenic illness or related impairments
  • Obsessional accumulation of grievances of the wrongs done by others

The common attribute or vulnerability factor – making for fixation and entrapment in deviant, non-normative ideas, radical beliefs, or concepts – is the loss of ability to learn from social contact or context. There is an inability to learn from reliable and positive information sources. The individual or groups that have the inability to have positive “enculturation” or learning, fail to become a full, productive and participating member of society. Such individual, when the above factors are extreme, lack the intrinsic checks and balances, the ability to adequately learn and modify behavior or to participate in normative social discourse and group activities.

The individual vulnerability may be related to many factors. Genetic influences, for example, in psychological, behavioral or developmental difficulties, may leave an individual, less able to integrate social information and more prone to misinterpret communications. They have a greater vulnerability to the trap of “influence by disinformation.” Such individuals are often subject to bullying, rejection by others, and become victims of undue manipulation by other. Similar vulnerabilities can exist as well in persons with a history of:

  • Significant trauma
  • Exposure to violence, abuse, depravity, or neglect
  • Individual with compromised mental capacity due to mental illness as severe depression, substance abuse disorder, paranoid condition, or schizophrenia

A vulnerable or impaired individuals’ ideas can easily go from being concepts to becoming an ideology or fixed rigid beliefs. There is then the potential for acting on these dysfunctional ideas, which could result in violent behavior or killing. Our society has available a larger “diet” now of more radical information and ideologies – with their propaganda and message – being easier accessed via media and the internet. There is more availability of “dangerous influencers” of the vulnerable in our society than ever before. The disinformation and seductive messaging have the growing potential to captivate the minds of our most vulnerable citizens who often feel unsupported, disenfranchised and left out of mainstream society. There is more potential for “homegrown” perpetrators of violence or terrorists.

To the vulnerable, the seductive message is often about revolution, retribution or violence against the perceived perpetrators of suppression, conspiracy or oppression. The message also supports the idea of indifference and rejection of authority or of the guidance of significant others. There is the promise of gaining notoriety, fame or importance in serving some perceived higher cause. Gratification is sought by acting out or serving the negative peer group and propagator of the deviant ideology.

What moves the young terrorist to put on an explosive vest or the lone gunman with high power weapons of war, to do a mass killing when it is known that their death may be imminent? The lines get blurred between what is called suicide and homicide. With the Internet and media, vulnerable people while in relative social isolation can find support and encouragement in online forums for radical ideology.

In the past, the extreme and radical ideology of the Nazis regime, for example, led to the capture and the control of an entire nation. The silence and indifference of many people at the time, who considered what was going on as not their problem, probably contributed to the mass murder of over six million Jews. The current Pittsburg incident is a reenactment of some of these same dynamics on a much smaller scale, but equally deadly consequents for the individuals victimized.

The influence of anti-social and hate focused ideas and ideologies are similar to what occurs in negative peer groups and results in gang violence. The radical Islam and terrorist groups are an example of the same phenomena on a larger scale. Our society’s fascination with guns and violence, the notoriety of prior mass shooters and the attention given to extreme radical groups in our media, by political entities, or other vested interests, have been a definite influence on the radicalization and seduction of the most vulnerable individual in our society.

Guns make it easier to inflict harm or kill larger numbers of victims.

If the shooter had more powerful, rapid-fire assault weapons with him, there is always the potential for a greater number of causalities. Access to guns, improving gun control laws and enforcement would certainly be a necessary step for lawmakers to take with the support of our citizenry, gun owners and the gun industry.

60168810 - dramatic sky and sunsrise over old lonely tree - lonely tree
© Dmitry Pistrov/

Increasing awareness of mental health issues needs to happen in all sectors of our society: 

including individuals, government agencies, companies, and corporations that have much influence on our ideas, consumption patterns and behaviors. When mental health problems exist and go unheeded, there can be attachment and adoption of radical, rigid ideas, ideologies and behaviors. Ideas for change will hopefully be constructive, adaptive and flexible in order to foster more cooperation and compromise to bring about new solutions and change. However, when rigidity of ideas set in, strong position-taking happens, and the value of ideas as an adaptive and flexible mechanism of change is lost.

So where to start?

Everyone needs to be in the conversation, including some the rather strongly opinionated, polarized, and those who put monetary profits and self-interests above people. There needs to be a greater awareness that some of our individual, corporate or government actions may inadvertently foster the climate for more violent ideologies to get traction, and further the victimization of people at risk by violent perpetrators.

There are many elements of this crisis to be considered. If you have personal concerns for someone in your life that may be a victim or perpetrator, reach out for help – get involved, study the issues from reliable, conscionable sources and take actions that are appropriate and available to you. Give time for remembrance, prayer, and support for the unfortunate people that lost their lives and for their grieving families affected by this most recent tragedy. Hopefully, this recent tragic event will motivate a better understanding of the issues and promote the changes that are needed – to allow for the remedy and prevention of future recurrences.

By Ron Parks, MD and edited by Shan Parks

(featured image top of the article: © Dmitry Pistrov/


Where should our focus and energy be directed to help make a difference and prevent recurrences of these tragedies? I would be interested in your comments.




Anti-Semitism, depression, deviant behavior, gun violence, mass murder, mental health crisis, mental illness, personality disorder, PTSD, trauma, vulnerability factors

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