Probing the Mind of a School Shooter

The Jewish Week Interviews Dr. Jonathan Fast on the Tragedy in Newtown

Jonathan Fast, an associate professor at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, is the author of the 2009 book Ceremonial Violence: A Psychological Explanation of School Shootings (Overlook Press). The six-year research project involves case studies of school rampage killings since 2000. He believes such incidents stem mostly from the inability of young people to cope with a sense of shame that is too common in a society in which people feel easily excluded. Fast, 64, who lives in Greenwich, Conn., spoke to The Jewish Week about the Newtown elementary school massacre. This is an edited transcript.

Dr. Jonathan Fast

Dr. Jonathan Fast is an associate professor at Wurzweiler.

Q: You became fascinated by the topic of teen rampages after counseling a student who wanted to blow up his urban Connecticut high school. What happened?

A:  I didn’t think he would carry it out and I don’t think he had bombs, though he certainly did know how to make them. My feeling was that if he came in and told me about it, it was a sign that he wanted me to stop him from doing that. I had a choice between reporting him and ruining the therapeutic relationship he was trying to start with me. The outcome was that I helped him, and today he has become a very successful chef.

Your studies have involved kids who attack their own schools. In Newtown, it was an adult who came to a school he didn’t attend. What can you apply from your research?

I believe he grew up in this community [in Newtown] and that he was taken out of the school system and [partially] home-schooled. As a hypothesis, comparing him with what happens in a lot of other school shooting cases, he apparently had a lot of difficulty with communication. It appears he had some difficulty talking and in one [report] I heard that while he was not bullied, people would sometimes giggle when he spoke, which would make him extremely self-conscious.

So he kept to himself and avoided situations where he might be humiliated. I bring this up because a common theme in school shootings is [that the perpetrators have] an enormous amount of shame. Sometimes from bullying or some kids also develop a really fine radar and at a certain developmental point after adolescence, it becomes clear to the person they are permanently damaged goods. [Once you become] suicidal, you can do anything you want with little fear of consequence.

It’s very hard to understand the details why he had this rage toward little kids. Maybe they represent him at another time in his life and he felt killing them was killing himself. Read full interview in The New York Jewish Week