Why did he do it? In his own mind, Omar Thornton and other men who go on rampages did to others what he believed had been done to him. He experienced hurt beyond his capacity for reason. He hurt back. This article is a case study of Omar Thornton who killed colleagues at his workplace in August 2010. What I say about Omar fits many other men who go on murderous rampages. This is a chapter from the book The Logic of Murderous Rampages and Other Essays on Violence and Its Prevention.
He snapped, so he did, when he learned his company planned to fire him based upon a video that showed him stealing beer at work. He was a driver for a beer distributing company. He retrieved two handguns he had hidden in the company kitchen and shot and killed his supervisor and seven others. He called his mother to say goodbye. He asked her to tell “everybody” he loved them. Then he shot himself dead.
This is a 34 year-old man with a clean record and who worked long hours. Relatives and friends described him as a good person. They also said he had complained of racial harassment at work. Company spokespersons had no official record of his complaints. His name was Omar Thornton.
Complex Automatic Emotions
Shamed and enraged, Omar experienced thoughts and emotion that arose so powerfully that they overwhelmed his common sense and decency. He reverted to blueprints for action etched in his brain, laid down over the years through hard times whose meanings he shared with no one: experiences of racism, discrimination, lack of opportunity, bankruptcy, hounding of creditors, and difficulty with intimate relationships. His bedrock response was to kill. He owned nine guns, legally. He told a friend the guns were for protection.
His automatic reactions were complex. They may have included rage at being fired for actions he considered minor and that many other people get away with--white people. He may have believed he could take beer whenever he wanted. Many people who work for beer companies believe beer is one of perks of the job. He also may also have prided himself on being a good person. The video showed he had stolen. He may have prided himself on being a good worker. Being fired devastated this image of himself.
Shamed and enraged, he did what his blueprint for action guided him to do. He protected himself at all costs—murder and suicide. The thought never occurred to him to find someone to talk to about his latest shame and outrage. Never in his life had he worked through his rage through talking things out. Doing something constructive with his hurt and rage was not etched in his brain. Instead, he followed his version of the Golden Rule: Do Unto Others What I Believe Others Have Done to Me.
Facebook Likes and Interests
On his Facebook page, he listed his “likes and interests” as the video game “Mafia Wars, “ Best Buy, two bodybuilding companies, and a gun range. The YouTube video on Mafia Wars shows 14 gangsters stalked and gunned down at close range in about a minute. He did what the video game shows.
He graduated from high school in 1996 and attended college for a while. His aunt said that as a child he followed her around every Sunday at her Pentecostal church. His parents worked hard, too, raising three children. He was the “baby.” The man who shared a home with him for several years said, “He was a quiet person, not a mean bone in his body.”
Sure, he was quiet. He never told anyone what was on his mind. He had many hard times. He never worked out what those hard times meant to him. Instead, he believed that he was no good, inadequate, and a failure. He was filled with rage. He told no one. Without realizing it, he programmed himself to become a mass murderer.
No one helped him understand that real men talk about their feelings and share their rage with others in constructive ways. Real men deal forthrightly with whatever is on their mind. Omar lived in circumstances where this kind of masculinity was unknown.
Do Unto Others
This is a man who tried to make it, but who fought failure throughout his life. He wanted others to think well of him. To be confronted with his act of theft was too much. To experience one more instance of unfair treatment was too much. To fail once again was too much. Up arose images of shooting his way out of a scorching hell. He was going to do unto others what others had done unto him. He did just that and took eight other people with him.
He was too much of a man to tell others when he felt hurt, rejected, frustrated, inadequate, no good, and worthless. As a boy and then a man, he thought real men didn’t feel these feelings. Only punks, sissies, and bitches do. He was not that. He was a man.
Had he learned in his family, neighborhood, school, and through the media that real men indeed feel these feelings and real men talk these feelings out with trusted people. He would have learned that real men face their feelings with the help of others.
Instead, he learned to stuff his feelings. He learned to believe that he was worthless, useless, and less than a man. He did not learn the great masculine—and human-- paradox: we become free of our fears and inadequacies when we face them and deal with them. If we don’t face them and deal with them, we will act out our fears. We will become what we fear the most. Omar became a mass murderer.
A Senseless Act?
The reactions of the governor of Connecticut, where the murders and suicide took place, were the same reactions that many people have and have had for years. Governor Jodi Rell called the shootings a “senseless act of violence” and said she joins many who ask, “How could someone do this? Why did they do this?” It’s time to stop asking questions like these and take actions that prevent such horrific events.
Why Did He Do It?
Too many risks and not enough within him to offset the risks--that’s why he did it. The main risk he had was his belief that his fears were unshareable. He thought that if he shared them, he would be less than a man. No one showed him that it takes a real man to share his deepest fears.
What can we do as individuals and as a society to create conditions where children grow up willing to talk to trusted others about their deepest fears? What can we do to show them the way out when they believe they are boxed in with no exit?
“I am hurt. I feel inadequate. No one respects me. I’m no good.” These words are a start. Many people, especially men, would rather die than say them. We have to figure out a way for boys and men to realize that real men own up to their feelings no matter what the feelings are. Real men find someone they trust to talk to.
Real men know that if they don’t deal with their emotions they may hurt someone. Real men protect others. They do not hurt others, no matter how much they hurt and no matter how much they think other people are laughing at them.
We can teach boys and girls to own up to their feelings and to talk to someone they trust. Boys and men especially need to know that real men face their feelings and deal with them. They are not ashamed of their feelings. These ideas are very different from what most boys and men believe.
When real men and women do something wrong, they say, “I did it. I was wrong. I’m sorry. How can I make up for this?” Simple words. These words need to be etched into brains to replace images of shooting your way out of trouble.
We can teach children and encourage each other to say these words each time they do anything wrong. Eventually such words could be as automatic as pulling out a gun and killing people. We need to learn to say these words, even when we believe that others are treating us unfairly, as Omar did and as so many other mass murderers do.
Blueprints for Action
Many people believe others treat them unfairly and the deck is stacked against them. Often, this is so. As a society, we have to decide what to do about unfair treatment on a personal level and through policies and practices. We must figure out what to do so that fewer people have blueprints etched in their brains that tell them that
1. the odds are against them and
2. when they get to a point where they see no exit, they must do whatever it takes to right the balance of the injustice they have experienced.
These blueprints tell them they must give as they have gotten. What can we do about these blueprints?
We must replace these blueprints with blueprints of honesty. We have to teach and show boys and men that real men express their deepest fears and deal with them constructively. That takes guts. Only real men can do that. We have to do all we can to make sure that constructive actions of expressing fears to trusted others is the action etched in brains when we feel hurt, enraged, and vengeful.
Omar S. Thornton was 34 years old and grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. He killed Victor James, Craig Pepin, Bryan Cirigliano, Louis Felder, Francis Fazio Jr., Doug Scruton, Edward Kennison, and William Ackerman. These men leave shocked and grieving families and friends. Lost lives and tragedy result when we fail to replace blueprints of violence with blueprints of accountability.
Craig Pepin, Hero
Craig Pepin was a hero. He shouted to co-workers to listen to him if that were the last thing they would ever do. “There’s a shooter. Get out!” he roared. He stayed behind to make sure everyone got out. Thornton shot and killed him. He may have lived had he been less concerned about others. This is a real man.
Thornton walked by a woman in a wheelchair. She did not know why he spared her. His blueprint for action must not have included killing people with obvious disabilities.
As Was Done to You
In his own mind, Omar Thornton and other men who go on rampages did to others what he believed had been done to him. He experienced hurt beyond his capacity for reason. He hurt back. Is this what we want?
14 dead, 50 wounded in shooting at Colorado theater, police chief says (2012). CNN US, July 20. http://articles.cnn.com/...
Connecticut shooting horror (2010). New York Post. August 4. http://www.nypost.com/...
Gilgun, Jane F. (2011). Evil feels good: Think before you act. Chapter in present book. http://www.amazon.com/...
About the Author
Jane F. Gilgun, PhD, LICSW, is a professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. She has many articles, books, and children's stories on Amazon and scribd.com.