By using this site, you agree to the Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.
Close X

Doctor: School shooting a 'ritualistic' act

  • Gunman shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school
  • Psychiatrist James Knoll: Shooter had an 'obliterative mindset'
Doctor: School shooting a 'ritualistic' act

Sandy Hook memorials offer faith, hope

A memorial was created in Newtown, Connecticut, as the community grieves about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Candlelight vigil in Connecticut

Candlelight vigil in Connecticut

Psychiatrist James Knoll, who researches mass killings, says the man who killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school could have been acting out in what he calls a "ritualistic" manner.

The word is shocking. And it's not a term we've heard much as we struggle to come to terms with what happened last Friday morning in Newtown, Connecticut.  But Knoll explains in an email to HLN: "Rituals invariably have meaning beyond the act itself and communicate a message. The message communicated here is: 'I carry profound hurt -- I'll go ballistic and transfer it onto you.'"

Knoll's research at the State University of New York's Upstate Medical University focuses on mentally ill offenders, sanity and correctional mental health issues. His research is an effort to discover what motivates mass killers to commit heinous acts.

At this point in the investigation, we don't know Adam Lanza's motive for opening fire in that school Friday morning, but Knoll's research indicates there are commonalities among killers and Lanza may have had similar thoughts and emotions as other mass killers like Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in the Virginia Tech massacre, and Anders Breivik, who took the lives of 77 people in Norway in a bombing and mass shooting.

In fact, Knoll says, these killers have enough common characteristics they could be classified as what he calls "pseudocommandos."


A pseudocommando is "driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, in addition to having a paranoid character. He plans out the offense ritualistically, and comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons," writes Knoll in his report "Mass Murder Causes, Classification and Prevention." Knoll also says these killers usually don't expect to survive their attack.

Knoll goes on to write, "[The pseudocommando] most often kills in public during the daytime. And has no escape planned. Pseudocommandos are 'collectors of injustice' who nurture their wounded narcissism and ultimately retreat into a fantasy life of violence and revenge."

Police say Lanza took three guns to the school, a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle made by Bushmaster, a Glock pistol and a Sig Sauer pistol. Law enforcement officials tell us Lanza went to the elementary school wearing black fatigues and a military vest, and committed suicide at the scene.


Knoll says people who commit mass killings usually go through private rituals as they prepare, and the process turns them into the killing machines the public sees on the news. We're still learning about Lanza's actions before the shooting, and it's not clear whether he went through a ritual.

"As [a pseudocommando] comes closer to turning fantasy into reality, he must undergo a process in which he increasingly comes to accept that he will be sacrificing his own life. His obliterative mindset has caused him to feel that his 'self' is already dead and that his physical death is of little consequence," writes Knoll.

These rituals may include buying weapons and clothing, changing their appearance and modeling for pictures of themselves with the weapons and clothing. For example, Knoll writes that Cho sent ritualistic modeling pictures to the media during the attack on the Virginia Tech campus.

"It is possible that the process of engaging in this private ritual, in addition to the practical purpose of preparation, may briefly alleviate tension and enhance feelings of control until the time the offender is ready to commit mass murder," writes Knoll.

Knoll says revenge fantasies of lashing out at the community may be a mechanism that is repeated in a potential killer's mind during these rituals that help the killer overcome an injured self-esteem. "It allows the pseudocommando's 'omnipotence' to rise triumphantly from the ashes of shame, loss and vulnerability. But the revenge fantasy and primitive defenses cannot protect him indefinitely, particularly where strong feelings of persecution and envy lead him down the path of cognitive deconstruction, nihilism, and willingness to sacrifice himself."

The final word

Knoll says during this metamorphosis into a killer, these perpetrators usually prepare a message to the world that is extremely important to them.

"These communications have a great meaning to him, because he realizes they will be the only 'living' testament to his motivations, struggle, and 'heroic sacrifice.'"

It is not clear whether Lanza left a message, and investigators have not commented on whether they have evidence that points to a motive.

Knoll says final communications from mass killers should be studied more: "It is possible to examine such communications for what they reveal about the important aspects of the offenders' 'social and psychological worlds.'"

Studying these killers may help prevent future mass shootings, but Knoll says that the responsibility can't fall solely on mental health professionals.

"As a psychiatrist, I desperately wish that improved psychiatric care and access to treatment could save the day. Yet it seems all too clear to me that this is simply not a problem that psychiatry can solve on its own. No one should expect psychiatry to do the impossible... Therefore, I am suggesting three additional methods of prevention: Careful reflection on gun control laws, responsible media reporting, and agreeing upon a rational means of allowing third parties to report leaked intent or concerns," writes Knoll in his email to HLN.

"We think far too shallow about these events. We concern ourselves with metal detectors, security systems, 'profiles,' preventing 'the mentally ill' from obtaining firearms. This is shallow, facile thinking. Want to make a material impact? Think deeper. Cultivate a respect for how to teach compassion, nonviolence and personal responsibility in individual minds."

Join the conversation... welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.
Did 'mental illness' play a role?
Newtown: Surviving Tragedy | See all 102 items Did 'mental illness' play a role?