Does Mass Violence Unfold Randomly and Chaotic or is There Hidden Order We Can Leverage in Our Prevention Efforts?

“Newton’s laws describe the motion of everything under the Sun and give physics great power in its ability to relate cause and effect. Yet the path of a ball in a pin ball machine seems to defy human control, it seems chaotic.” ~Chaos, Professor Steven Strogatz, Cornell University

Chaotic, a word often used to describe, the acts of mass killings we see happening all too frequently as of late and over the past couple of decades. Although still rare statistically, the randomness, unpredictability, chaos and sheer rage and deliberate violence and lives taken, involved in these acts has us with a laser like focus on, questioning, WHY would someone be so evil and do something like this, something so senseless, seemingly random and unpredictable? Yet when we dig deeper into these seemingly chaotic and random acts there seems to be some determinism, something’s in common, that strangely attracts these killers, towards rage filled outbursts that leads to these horrific and violent acts. Within these acts of violence is there some semblance of hidden order we can harness in the prevention of violent encounters? If so, what are these strange attractors that lead to chaos, hidden within the mind of a mass killer as stress, anxiety, motive and intent? When and how do they manifest themselves in the signs and signals we can read and interpret helping us exploit an opportunity in a timely way to prevent the violence and the chaos that ensues?

The science of chaos asks a critical question I think relevant to these violent acts. How can something be chaotic and random yet follow deterministic laws? I am a non-scientist but I am an avid explorer into violent acts and the people that commit them, who asks critical questions, how does chaos relate to violence and what are the commonalties in these tragedies that can help us prevent more violence from occurring and bring order to disorder? Can we predict violence in its chaotic and disordered form or is there something hidden or fail to see or, see and fail to act on in those who would commit violence in its ugliest form, that can help us prevent violent acts and if so, how?

What is chaos? The ancient Greeks summarized the tension between order and disorder with two opposing words cosmos and chaos. Cosmos means order. Chaos initially meant chasm, the abyss, the bottomless pit. Later, it came to mean the primeval state before creation, a state of utter disorder. This sense of “chaos” as utter confusion persisted into the modern era. Over the past few decades scientist began finding strange, unexpected connections between different forms of chaos. Geologist noticed surprising patterns in the frequency of earthquakes. The same patterns appeared in the variability of human heart rates and bursts of traffic on the internet. The rules of chaos were turning out to be universal, independent of the stuff behaving chaotically, the same for electronic circuits, lasers, chemical reactions, or nerve cells. It was if disorder was a thing in itself. It didn’t matter what was behaving chaotically; the process of becoming chaotic was turning out to be lawful, but the laws were like nothing science had ever seen before. (Chaos, Professor Steven Strogatz, Cornell University, 2008)

Today chaos is defined as “a paradoxical state, a kind of unpredictable behavior in a system governed by deterministic laws.” The term “butterfly effect” derived from a lecture scientist Edward Lorenz entitled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wing in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” (Chaos, Professor Steven Strogatz, Cornell University, 2008) The “butterfly effect” refers to the extreme sensitivity of chaotic system to tiny, imperceptible changes in initial conditions. In the minds of those who kill, could their thoughts, intentions, motives, stresses and anxieties, poor coping skills be the “butterfly effect” influencing violent acts? Could it be that in violent chaotic acts, the vexing or, missing piece of the puzzle in how to predict and prevent them from occurring lies in the strange, unexpected connections between the different people, how they cope with life, and different methods they use to plan and carry out their acts? If so, where do we look for indicators of violence, when is the best time for prediction, how much time do we have to observe and orient to these indicators, which could lead to prevention of violence? My theory is it’s in the pre-attack stage where stress and anxiety are building and the feeling of loss of control over one’s life is building towards confusion, a sense of loss of control that if unchecked leads to rage. The signs and signals begin to manifest themselves in body language and changes in behavior that indicates this person is on the path of destruction. This destruction can lead to depression, mental conditions, abusiveness, and drug and alcohol dependency and, yes at times, violent acts.

People although complex are most of the time predictable. In an attempt to have some semblance of control over our lives we follow daily routines or habits. Think about it for just a second. What do you do when you first get out of bed, do you brush your teeth, put on your bathrobe and slippers, get your coffee and watch television? Perhaps you throw on your workout clothes and do some physical exercise? Whatever your, routine, is it the same on most days? I am willing to predict yes it is, unless something happens on a particular day(s) that cause you to change. The same goes for kids in school or you and your fellow employees in the workplace, unless something alters your situation.

If you sleep late your routine is broken and we often discuss how our day started out wrong and we had a chaotic day. Our determined routine turned unpredictable knocking us off our normal pattern of behavior and “stress out” rules the day. We may feel rushed and upset or perhaps even angry. We look and feel different to others, our loved ones, friends and co-workers, that prompt the question; you look stressed, are you ok? Once we re-establish our routines we begin to calm down and focus on the tasks we need to complete throughout the day which has a calming effect on us and we get back to our normal selves. This is how most of us respond to stress and disorder in our lives. Most of us have healthy coping skills that allow us to adapt to the changes in routine or the feeling of loss of control over our conditions. Even when something is overwhelming like a loved one, who is ill, or bills we struggle to pay, someone has made us angry; most of us cope by adapting to the situation, learning from it and persevere through the problem in a healthy and successful way. People who commit mass violence do not cope, or adapt in a healthy way and that stress of not coping and adapting shows itself in abnormal patterns of behavior, and body language, facial expressions, what they say and how they say it, leaks out as they struggle to regain control or plan and plot their violent acts.

When looking at behavior or behavioral changes it’s important to look at them in context of the situation; there is no profile. Yet there are behaviors to look for based on continuing normal patterns of behavior or a change in that behavior in an individual who may be struggling with anxiety, stress or potentially fixed on violence. Understanding these behaviors and taking action to reach out to the vast array of resources to help the individual may be the bridge between prevention of violence and the act of violence. There must be training and education in this area of recognizing the signs and signals of stress, anxiety that lead to potential violence. Some common patterns and anomalies (behaviors and behavioral changes) you can look for are:

  • Inflexibility
  • Hopelessness
  • Extreme lack of energy
  • Identifies with perpetrators of violence
  • Intimidation of others
  • Need to have control over others, manipulative
  • Paranoia, views self as a victim of society
  • Socially awkward or uncomfortable
  • Adverse reaction to constructive criticism
  • Does not take responsibility for own actions
  • Blames others
  • Dwells on the negative
  • Sense of entitlement
  • Creates unrest for the sake of unrest
  • May have history of disciplinary action
  • Obsession with weapons. Not a strong interest but obsession
  • Police encounters (not always)
  • Stalking others
  • Inability to “let it go”
  • These signs are common and most likely manifest themselves in every one of us at times. It’s important not to lose sight of this and that its recognizing a person’s normal patterns and then changes to those patterns that are what we need to mindful of. There are people who would never hurt a soul who show many of these signs daily because it’s their nature to do so. The context of the situation always must be considered when you’re assessing threats through pattern analysis.

    Recognizing these behaviors help us in our assessment of the person. Threat assessment is situational awareness and management through; observation, orientation, decision and action cycles, on the part of individuals, teams and the organization working together to snuff out risks and threats: Good threat assessments should answer the questions; Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? The process of threat assessment is driven by information concerning the behaviors of the involved individual. In general the more information provided to the assessment process, the higher quality the assessment.
    The process of information and knowledge management brought to a level of actionable knowledge to determine best prevention strategies to promote safety and a healthy workplace or learning environment. Knowledge is the catalyst to awareness; Learn-unlearn and relearn what we know or think we know about violence. Violence does not unfold in a linear way; it unfolds in a non-linear and probabilistic way. It is full of complexity and uncertainty in the potentially violent individual and in the way a violent individual carries out his violent acts. But within the uncertainty, and probabilistic way violence unfolds is some hidden order and determinism that shows itself prior to an attack and we must do our best to adapt and act here.

    When these indicators manifest themselves we only have so much time to determine when someone is spiraling out of control and act to intervene in an effort to prevent violence. Violence in these people takes many forms “mass killing” is the most extreme. Others commit suicide or live abusive lives, gamble, abuse drugs or alcohol, or spend too much money. We call these people crazy, weird, nuts, and when they act out violently we call them evil or monsters. I have used the terms myself but not all of the people who commit violent acts were always monsters or evil. In general people who commit suicide or abuse were not always crazy or nuts. Many lived healthy and predictable lives much like our own until something triggered their spiraling down a horrific and violent path. Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes! There are those sociopaths who feel no stress anxiety or remorse, for their actions, but they are rare and do not manifest the pre-attack indicators in the same sense prior to attack. They do manifest the indicators in the attack stage as they move in like the predators, on their prey.

    The key to preventing violence lies in taking advantage of the time we observe the changes in behavior or behavior so bazaar and out of the norm it alarms others. When we observe indicators of someone struggling and we orient towards the behavior in a confused, puzzled or even fearful state we must act on it before it goes too far. Changes in behavior are a big sign of someone struggling. These changes vary in length and extremes and their seemingly unpredictable acts of violence do not occur instantaneously. People who commit these acts do not just snap most mass killings are planned and, plotted over time. This is the time we need to focus our efforts on threat assessment, prediction and prevention. Many of these killers who have survived to talk about it have described their mental state as, their lives being out of control and their only way of gaining control was to act out violently. Many said they tried to reach out for help only to feel helpless. This is no excuse, for their behavior; in my opinion they are responsible for their horrific acts. Instead I see this as an explanation of why and a catalyst to preventing these acts from occurring.

    When we recognize normal patterns of behavior in a person we can determine and predict the type of person they are. We do this all the time in developing relationships with others. The personality traits we like or see as normal in others attract us to them. This is important to recognize and understand because in people who commit unpredictable and chaotic acts we only have a certain amount of time to intervene before conflict turns to violence. In chaos theory there is another factor known as “strange attractors.” In chaos theory it is known that chaos is order as well as randomness. “Strange attractor is the natural shape of chaos. It’s strange because its geometry is strange.” (Chaos, Professor Steven Strogatz, Cornell University, 2008) It’s extremely complex much like, human beings who are termed as complex adaptive systems. “And it’s an attractor because the system that it describes is always drawn towards the behavior that it represents, as if attracted to it.” (Chaos, Professor Steven Strogatz, Cornell University, 2008) Much like normal human behavior attracts normal healthy relationships and actions, while abnormal or unhealthy behavior attracts stress, anxiety, conflict and violence. The existence of strange attractors, looking at the human condition through the lens of chaos and strange attractors helps us to see when there is order and or disorder in people’s lives. Scientists are encouraged by strange attractors because by revealing the unexpected order in chaos, strange attractors offer hope that this sort of seeming chaos might be partly predictable and controllable. Could this hold some hope for the prediction and prevention of violent acts?

    In violence prevention the “strange attractors” in all of these acts lies in the pre-attack phase, in the anomalies of behavior we all hear discussed in the aftermath of a violent act. Statements like; “He did appear to be stressed.” “He changed in recent months” “He wrote letters and made phone calls that were alarming to others.” He said he was stressed but I never thought he would do something like this.” “He used to be a team player but recently he became a loner.” I knew he was having financial and family problems but this, I never thought he would do!” “He was always friendly and approachable but recently he had angry outbursts at work, that alarmed us but we never thought…” Statements like these and more in the aftermath of a violent mass killing are common in all these cases. Yes the people who carry out the acts of violence are different. The circumstances that lead to the abnormal behavior are different. The locations of the acts are carried out in different places. And the victims are different. But the signs and signals of stress and anxiety in a person struggling are almost always the same and if left unresolved, sadly the results are all too often the same.

    Chaos, randomness, and disorder plague violent acts, as they are carried out in the attack phase. But it is the strange attractors, those signs and signals we observe and orient to in the pre-attack phase and that certain amount of time a person is struggling to cope we can gain the advantage and prevent violent acts from occurring. This time frame, known as the” horizon of predictability” is fleeting and it varies so we must be vigilant, be willing to work together with strength of character accepting risk of possibly being wrong or alienating a friend or co-worker to prevent violence. The “laze fair” and “it will not happen here or to me” approach is no longer good enough.

    Predicting events of violence is a very difficult job but it can be done, not perfectly but in a much more efficient and effective way through planning, awareness and training those in adaptability and decision making under pressure and in recognizing the signs and signals of anxiety and stress that potentially lead to violence that often go unseen. Yes, indeed there are risks involved. But a good comprehensive threat assessment and violence prevention program involving resilient networks of people, and collaborative effort, with strength of character to implement the program fully can make these risks calculated which is far different from rash. The threat assessment is meant to prove as well as disprove the potential for violent action. The threat assessment is also a tool to get early intervention to someone struggling, helping them find their way back to productive, violent free and fulfilling life. Is there a hidden order in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of violent acts? I believe there is and if we leverage these signs early on, disorder and chaos acted out physically in a violent way will be a lot less likely.

    Stay Oriented!






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