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Katherine van Wormer ANYONE WHO READS or watches the news is aware of the spate of murder-suicides taking place. We have seen school shootings, family killings, and adult partner murders--all ending in suicide or attempted suicide. Yet, most of these cases are not reported nationally, they are in headlines in the local paper. For example, in Iowa, a low crime rate state, 106 individuals killed a partner or spouse in a domestic situation over the last decade. The main factor appeared to be a pending breakup. Ninety-six of the killers were men, about half committed suicide shortly afterward. According to the Violence Policy Center (VPC), at least 662 people died in murdersuicides in the U.S. in a recent six-month period. That averages out to about two such killings per day. Three-fourths of the murder-suicides involved "intimate partner" situations, of these, 94% were male attacks on women. In one weeklong stretch, the following occurred: * A 27-year-old Ansonia, Conn., man strangled his wife, then jumped off their roof to his death. The two were Albanian; theirs was an arranged marriage, one reportedly fraught with difficulty. * A Milwaukie, Ore., couple in their 80s. who often had been seen strolling armin-arm, was found dead of gunshot wounds, a case of suspected murder-suicide. * Problems with money and child custody seemed to be precipitating factors in this Union, S.C., murder-suicide committed by a husband in his 20s. * An elderly New Providence, N.J., couple was found dead in what authorities called a murder-suicide. The husband's note seemed to confirm this. * A Lakewood, Wash., couple in their 20s was found shot to death in an apparent homicide and suicide. Police said the man had broken into his ex-girlfriend's home with a hammer. There was a history of stalking. * A Landenberg, Pa., man who shot and killed his wife and two sons before killing himself was said to be suffering from depression. During the six-month period of the VPC study, more people died from murder associated with the suicide (369) than from suicide itself (293). Children in the family were orphaned, and others were left in a state of despair. The pattern of the murder-suicide is predictable: a male perpetrator, female victim, decision by the woman to leave the man, and a gun. The typical Florida pattern, meanwhile-Florida had the largest number at 35 of the VPC total--involved an elderly male overwhelmed by his inability to care for an infirmed wife. There are tour basic patterns or types of these tragic crimes, three of which involve couples--murder-suicide, victim-precipitated murder-suicide, altruistic murder-suicide of the elderly, and suicide bombers. Murder-suicide. A report from Washington State University sees such events as a risk factor distinct to the military in which armed men are trained to kill, and many later carry the invisible scars of war. Soldiers who have fought in Iraq have a high rate of murder and suicide and sometimes both. It is impossible to tell if the externalized (homicide) or internalized (suicide) aggression is primary,
whether we are referring to soldiers or just ordinary citizens. Some researchers argue that murder is the primary motive here. Indeed, the urge to kill is an overwhelming factor. Regarding murder and suicide, it may not be a case of eitheror but of both-and. The suicide impulse also is prominent in mass school shootings, such as occurred at Columbine. The usual scenario is that a boy is teased and bullied at school. He hates himself and is seething with rage. Influenced by media accounts of mass killings about which he obsesses, he gets a gun and goes on a rampage before killing himself. He may be creating a situation in which someone else will kill him. Hurt and anger to the extent of complete disregard for others' lives are key emotions here. The desire to kill as well as to be killed obviously is a major component. However, the most common variety of murder-suicide is the case of intimate violence. The consistent pattern that seems to emerge is that of a couple, usually in the 20- to 35-year-old range, where the man is abusive--psychologically, physically, or both. Obsessed with the woman, he is fiercely jealous and determined to isolate her. Characteristically, suicidal murderers have little regard for the lives of other people: they would be considered, in mental health jargon, to be antisocial. So dependent are these men on their wives or girlfriends that they would sooner be dead than live without them. For them, however, suicide is difficult--they cannot work up the nerve--so they have to find a way to force themselves to do it. They know that killing another is easier than turning the gun on themselves--and after committing a homicide, the only way out is suicide. An alternative scenario is that the urge to kill the source of their obsession is so strong in some men that, if they cannot have these women, they want to end it all for them both. In the intimate-partner situation, the girlfriend or wile makes a move to leave. Her partner is totally distraught in the belief that he cannot live without her. This pattern of dangerously obsessive love often involves a history of stalking. At some point, the man decides that, if they cannot live together, they can die together; if he cannot have her, no one will. He hates the woman because he thinks she is the source of his passion, pain, and selfdestruction. He kills her because he loves her. (O.J. Simpson once was quoted in the popular press as saying that if he did kill Nicole, his ex-wife, it would have been because he loved her.) According to research by Milton Rosenbaum of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, the perpetrators of murder-suicide were depressed and almost all of these killers were men, while those guilty of homicide alone were not depressed and half were women. Other studies by psychiatrists describe the young males in question as intensely jealous with a history of suicide attempts. Women who kill their children and then themselves are almost always depressed and highly suicidal. The case of Susan Smith of South Carolina comes to mind. Here was a woman, a failure at love (she was having an affair) with a history of stepfather sexual abuse who decided to kill herself and take her two children with her. The plan was to drive her car into the water so they all would drown, but only the children did. While confined in jail awaiting trial, Smith was on suicide watch. An interesting fact about murder-suicides is that, as shown in international and national data, the higher the homicide rate in a given location, the lower the rate of murder-suicides. The U.S. has a very low rate of these other-and-self killings (only around four to five percent of murders), while Denmark's rate is about 42%. Victim-precipitated murder-suicide. This often is carried out in a manner known as
suicide-by-cop. This is murder-suicide in the sense that the individual gets himself or herself killed by a third party on purpose as a form of suicide. Here again, the individual does not have the nerve to perform the act of suicide, so he or she sets the stage to help the process along. This might occur much more than we realize since the individuals do not necessarily share their motives. In death penalty states, there are cases where individuals kill several people at random so they can be punished by execution. Altruistic murder-suicide of the elderly. A growing concern today is the difficulties with care at the end of life. Murder-suicide among the elderly-especially with men as the initiators--is increasing, most noteworthy in Florida, with its high proportion of residents over age 65. Researcher Donna Cohen of the University of South Florida has identified various recurring factors in the spousal cases of this sort. Comparing instances of homicide-suicide with those of suicide alone, she says the suicide cases that include murder are distinct in that either domestic violence is involved or the men are caregivers to their wives. Men in both categories suffer from depression. All of the homicide-plus-suicide cases involved use of a firearm. Often, the marriage had been a long and happy one, but serious medical conditions as well as a lack of family and outside support gave the husband a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Suicide bombers. The impetus to kill and destroy takes precedence over suicide: suicide simply is the means to get the job done while providing the road to martyrdom. In testimony given before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jerrod Post, professor of psychiatry, political psychology, and international affairs at George Washington University, presented the results of interviews with incarcerated terrorists in Israeli prisons. These individuals were suicide bombers whose missions had failed. They consistently spoke of the need to defend "the land of their honor," their willingness to become martyrs to a sacrificial act, and the fact that these were not acts of suicide, but actions performed in service to Allah. Interviews in the popular press with terrorist organizers confirm the religious motive combined with political anger against a designated enemy. An element of fanatical indoctrination or "brainwashing" is evident in the drive that these young men have to fight for a cause. The motivation is similar to that of all youths who heed the battle cry. Are these men weak emotionally? Are they sick? "No," declares Post. "Such men are fortified by religion. As a result of ruthless indoctrination, [they] have subordinated their own individuality to the group. Emotionally disturbed individuals are expelled from these quasi-military units as a security risk." Unlike solitary terrorists in the U.S., the members of these terrorist cells tend to have close relationships with their families who support them in their efforts to kill the Zionist or Western enemy. * Katherine van Wormer is professor of social work, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls.
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