The Psychology of the Active Killer

Daniel A. Modell, Lieutenant, New York City Police Department



Recent research has done much to delineate patterns typical of the Active Killer (Borsch, 2009). What remains wanting is a general account of why the Active Killer does what he does—that is, an explanatory framework against which we can make sense of the abid-ing peculiarities of Active Killer events, par-ticularly the scale of violence, the randomness of violence, and the striking propensity to suicide. In what follows, I propose a possible framework and elicit its tactical implications. The proposal is intended to open new ave-nues for the exploration of what has become a vexing phenomenon of modern society.

Preliminaries: Definitions and Postulates

The Active Killer is a mass murderer. Not all mass murderers are Active Killers. Noting the similarities and differences among several types of mass murderer will help to refine our focus and, ultimately, to define what we mean by Active Killer.

Mass murderers defy traditional criminal cat-egorization. The goal of the mass murderer is neither to defend nor appropriate turf, neither to initiate himself into nor elevate his status within a criminal organization. The mass mur-derer does not kill for drugs or money. The Serial Killer is one kind of mass murderer. He claims many lives in multiple events across time. The events are discontinuous, punctu-ated by “a cooling-off period” (Morton, 2008). By contrast, the Active Killer claims many lives in a single event along a compressed frame of time. In brief, the Active Killer seeks a moment; the Serial Killer, a lifetime. This dif-ference entails a host of contrasts. The serial killer seeks anonymity; the Active Killer, noto-riety. Repetition through multiple events across time slakes the pathology of the serial killer. Savage as they are, his acts are not designed to excite publicity. The Serial Killer will conceal a corpse, bury evidence. He means to elude capture so that he may kill again. By con-trast, the Active Killer seeks infamy through slaughter. He means to fuse his name forever to a place, a date, and an event. Thus, his acts are designed to maximize publicity; he has but one moment. Accordingly, he plans no escape. For the Active Killer, meaning finds expres-sion in the horror, the terror, and the obsession bequeathed by the event.

Even the similarities conceal deeper contrasts. The Serial Killer murders at close quarters. He delights in experiencing the horror of his vic-tims as he shares their space. In his distorted estimation, his victims “mean” something to him. Thus, the Serial Killer may prolong expo-sure as his victim suffers in a state near death. He may even linger over his victim after death or secure keepsakes to memorialize the “rela-tionship.” The Active Killer also murders at close quarters. He delights in experiencing the horror of his victims as he shares their space. Crucially, however, while the victims of the Serial Killer “mean” something to him, to the Active Killer they mean nothing. The Active Killer moves with breathtaking speed from one victim to the next.

I propose that the peculiar form of abuse each suffers largely accounts for the differences. The serial killer is a victim of physical/sexual/emotional abuse (de Becker, 1999). Such abuse is administered at length, over time, by those who, through relation or connection, should care for the abused. The Serial Killer, after a manner, models this behavior. The Active Killer is a victim of bullying (Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002). Though bullying may persist over time, it is delivered in discrete, relatively short-lived acts, often by multiple actors with no special relation or connection to the abused. The Active Killer, after a manner, models this behavior.

Let us further sharpen our portrait of the Active Killer by contrasting him with another type of mass murderer, the Ideological Killer.The Oklahoma City bombing exemplifies the type. On April 19, 1995, a killer with ties to a disorganized militia movement parked a Ryder Truck packed with explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in down-town Oklahoma City. The explosives deto-nated. The resulting blast ended 168 lives while wounding 680.

The Ideological Killer is driven by adherence to ethico-political or religious orthodoxy. His actions are an expression of that orthodoxy. By contrast, while the Active Killer may conceive of himself as “making a statement” of sorts, his motives are invariably more personal and desultory.

Like the Active Killer, the Ideological Killer plans multiple murders within the confines of a single event. But the Active Killer seeks to experience the horror of his victims at close quarters; the Ideological Killer does not. He kills at a distance. He plants a bomb. Per-haps he plays the sniper. Killing at a distance suits his primary motive—the expression of adherence to an abstract orthodoxy. Creed is the end; victims are the means. For the Ideo-logical Killer, victims are of incidental sig-nificance. He need not “know” them, as the Serial Killer must, nor experience their horror, as the Active Killer must. For the Ideological Killer, abstraction is reality. The individual is but a construct in an interminable struggle of dogmas.

Since he is motivated by adherence to ortho-doxy, the Ideological Killer typically seeks notoriety for his cause through carnage. While the Active Killer too seeks notoriety, and while he too maps a careful plan of the event, there is a crucial difference in the pur-suit. The Ideological Killer generally means to elude capture, to live beyond the event (as does the Serial Killer). The Active Killer merges his identity with the event and sees nothing beyond it.

Fusing the elements elicited by comparison and contrast, let us define the Active Killer as a mass murderer who kills (or attempts to kill) at close quarters, in multiples, at random, in a single, planned event.

A Misconception

Some contend that vengeance drives the Active Killer (McGee & DeBernardo, 1999). The contention springs from an understand-able drive to think of the Active Killer as an extreme example of some familiar form of motivation. Yet, this misconceives the issue. The Active Killer’s savagery is random; his hatred is diffuse. These find neither root nor resolution in “vengeance” as traditionally conceived.

Vengeance is harm done in retaliation for a perceived wrong done to oneself. Suppose, for example, that John and Mary are married. Mary has an affair with David. John discovers the affair. He is incensed. He seeks revenge in his own affair. Perhaps John advances false or exaggerated allegations designed to embar-rass Mary and David. If John’s psychology is sufficiently distorted, perhaps he maims or murders Mary or David (or both) in retaliation for the “wrong.” Damage for damage. Notice that John directs the act of vengeance against those who wronged him. Now, consider an apparently related but importantly different scenario. Suppose that John embarks on a kill-ing spree. He murders Mary and David. He also murders many others having nothing to do with the affair. In fact, John kills until he is stopped. He, or someone else, declares “It was vengeance!” Puzzled, one may ask in response, “Vengeance against whom? In retal-iation for what?” The questions admit no sen-sible answers. John misconceives his motives. He is not seeking to balance a wrong; he is not seeking “damage for damage.” His bloodlust signals a more savage pathology.

The Active Killer does not seek to redress a specifiable wrong. He does not seek the destruction of some one or few but that of any or all. The vast majority of victims at Colum-bine High School; Virginia Polytechnic Insti-tute and State University; Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea; and Erfurt, Germany, did the killers no wrong. Most, indeed, were unknown to their killers. So against whom is the Active Killer seeking vengeance? The answer would have to be those whom he knows not. For what is the Active Killer seeking vengeance? The answer would have to be sleights not done. His motive is manifestly not vengeance.

The theory cannot be revived by arguing that the trigger is vengeance, but in the heat of rage, the Active Killer “snaps,” suffering a moment of insanity. First of all, characteriz-ing vengeance as a mere trigger concedes the case. If vengeance is a mere trigger, then it has limited—or no—explanatory value. Second, even cursory scrutiny of Active Killer events reveals a depth, detail, and meticulousness of planning incompatible with a “moment of insanity.” Nor can the theory be saved by claiming that the Active Killer harbors feelings of “vengeance” against the wide world, whole communities, entire races, genders, or other abstract categories. The Active Killer does not know the wide world, whole communities, or entire races; nor do these abstractions “wrong” him in even a remote or marginal sense. The attempted explanation, then, merely highlights the puzzle without elucidating it. Hatred of the world, of communities, of races is, of course, a pathology. But the acts grounded in such hatred are not meaningfully parsed by catego-rizing them as acts of vengeance.

Why offer vengeance as an explanation then? It is comfortable, familiar—the frequent sub-ject of news, art, professional, and personal relations. Comfort suggests understanding; in any case, it is preferable to the uneasy dark-ness of incomprehension. Yet, the phenom-enon is round, our understanding square. We must seek answers in a different space—the mental world cultivated by the Active Killer.

Scale of Violence

From April 26 to April 27, 1982, a police offi-cer rampaged through Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea, attacking, shooting, and murder-ing anyone upon whom he chanced. When, at length, the police closed in and the prospect of an armed confrontation became inevitable, he killed himself. The result was 57 dead and 35 wounded (Stokes, 1982).

On April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado, two students rampaged through Columbine High School, attacking, shooting, and murdering anyone upon whom they chanced. When, at length, the police closed in and the prospect of armed confrontation became inevitable, the pair killed themselves. The result was 13 dead and 24 injured (excluding the killers).

On April 16, 2007, in Blacksburg, Virginia, a stu-dent rampaged through Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, attacking, shoot-ing, and murdering anyone upon whom he chanced. When the police closed in and the prospect of armed confrontation became inevi-table, he killed himself. The result was 33 dead and 25 wounded (Massengill et al., 2007).

The Active Killer kills, but his killing finds no terminus in the death of particular individu-als. His end is more diffuse, more abstract; his bloodlust more unyielding. The Active Killer will kill anyone. The Active Killer will kill everyone. Why?

Part of the explanation finds its basis in a dis-torted sense of competition. Active Killers ref-erence one another, often by date, weaponry, or location. A peculiar subculture emerges out of such “referencing.” Notoriety is achieved, within and without, by amassing—in quan-tity or outrageousness—greater carnage than others. Thus, among other proximate motives, the Columbine Killers sought to “outdo” the carnage and mayhem excited by those at Jonesboro; and the Virginia Tech Killer sought to “outdo” the carnage and mayhem excited by those at Columbine (Massengill et al., 2007). The existence of a subculture in which killers study and reference one another accounts for many of the incidental similarities between Active Killer events. The competitive dynamic of the subculture establishes a trend toward an expanding scale of violence. But this obser-vation simply raises another question, hinting at something deeper and more malevolent. In what is the competition to murder rooted?

The Active Killer interprets his world as defined and exhausted by a dialectic of victim and victimizer. In such a world, success is vic-timization. Pursuing the distorted logic to a corollary: greater victimization means greater success. Victimization finds its most dramatic expression in acts of physical violence—and the ultimate act of physical violence is murder. The Active Killer “sees” evidence for his worldview teeming within and through-out the culture (Grossman & DeGaetano, 1999). He cloisters himself in a monastery of violent movies, books, and video games, watching, reading, and playing them obses-sively. The Columbine Killers watched Natu-ral Born Killers dozens of times (Columbine Documents, 1999). The Heath High School Killer obsessed over the Basketball Diaries and the violent video game Mech Warrior (Moore, Petrie, Brags, & McLaughlin, 2003). The killer in Grayson, Kentucky, obsessed over Rage by Stephen King (McGee & DeBernardo, 1999). In the dark world of the Active Killer, scale of success is proportional to scale of victimiza-tion. The Columbine Killers were fascinated by the Nazis. Oddly, they did not appear at all enticed by the ideology of Nazism; neither appeared to be especially anti-Semitic or oth-erwise bigoted. Rather, they were mesmer-ized by the magnitude, mechanics, and scale of violence perpetrated by the Nazis.

So all-consuming is the Active Killer’s world-view that it extends even to the deity. In the world of the Active Killer, God is a victimizer. Here is how one puts it. “I am a gun. A Wildey .45 semi-automatic. I am God” (Columbine Documents, 1999, item marked JC-001-025996). They ply the theme repeatedly: “We, the gods, will have so much fun w/NBK!! Killing ene-mies ...” (item marked JC-001-026327). One penned a short fictional piece, submitted as a school project, about a man dressed in a black trench coat who marches into town and starts killing residents. Here is how the story ends: “If I could face an emotion of god, it would have looked like the man. I not only saw in his face, but also felt eminating [sic] from him power, complacence, closure and godliness” (item marked JC-001-026522). The Virginia Tech Killer compared himself to Jesus. One may counter that he so compared himself because he suffered. Yet, the fact remains that he made the comparison knowing that he planned mass murder. In the world of the Active Killer, God is a victimizer. The Active Killer out of Paducah, Kentucky, murdered a group at prayer. The selection surely was no coinci-dence. It highlights a stark contrast of world-view. The Active Killer in this case answers a gentle act of supplication with a merciless act of brutality. Conventionally, prayer represents godliness. The Active Killer answers with his conviction that murder represents godliness. In Red Lake, Minnesota, a killer blew a hole through a classroom door with a shotgun and entered the class. A teacher exclaimed, “God be with us!” The killer shot her. He then took aim at a student and asked, “Do you believe in God?” The student answered “No.” The killer turned away and found another victim (Sevcik, 2005). One might interpret this last as an expression of godlessness. I would argue that the exchange captures something rather deeper—the expression of an antithetical belief in a deity that scorns spontaneous pleas for mercy.

Thus, in his own distorted world, the greater the scale of victimization, the more godlike the Active Killer becomes.

Randomness of Violence

The randomness of the Active Killer is at once what is most unfathomable and most terrify-ing about him. Randomness erases identity. Gavin de Becker (1999) observes astutely about the horror inspired by the randomness of shark attacks, “To the shark, we are with-out identity, we are no more than meat, and to human beings the loss of identity is a type of death all by itself” (p. 283). In the case of the Active Killer, we naturally long for an intel-ligible explanation. But the explanations most often proposed are plainly inadequate. The Active Killer hated “jocks”—as if that could possibly explain the close-quarter murder and maiming of a few dozen young people most of whom were not “jocks.” The Active Killer felt the keen sting of racism—as if that could possibly explain the close-quarter murder of eight people none of whom exhibited any sign of racism (Ablow, 2010). The Active Killer felt profoundly alienated from women—as if that could possibly explain the murder of 15 people, not all of whom were women (Hall, 2009). Many bristle at the crudeness of ath-letes or the sting of bigotry. For all that, they do not murder.

Such explanations are but temporary balm. The Active Killer carries a pathology many times more disturbing than anything cap-tured by standard “explanations.” Exploring that pathology reveals that the randomness of violence perpetrated by the Active Killer is, in a sense, merely apparent. He is intimately familiar with all his victims. They have iden-tity to him. They are he.

The world conceived by the Active Killer is defined by the dialectic of victim and victim-izer. In such a world, success means victimiza-tion. Conversely, victimhood is failure. Prior to his murderous action, the Active Killer is a bullied victim (Vossekuil et al., 2002). Under his conception of the world, he is a failure. To interpret the import of one’s being in this way, consistently, chronically, over the course of a lifetime, yields a self-contempt immea-surable by rational standards. Superficial bra-vura notwithstanding, the Active Killer hates himself.

When the Active Killer erupts onto his stage with armor and weaponry, adopting the posture of “Victimizer”; when he feels the power of exploding rounds driving metal slides; when he hears the deafening sounds of gunfire; when he absorbs the reaction of his victims—sees them flee in terror at the victim-izer—as he always has; when he sees them cringing, crying, and pleading—as he always has; when he sees them yielding without resistance—as he always has, he sees in their faces, their postures, their bearing everything that he has ever been. In every victim, he sees himself. In killing them, he kills everything that he has ever been. He kills the failure. He kills the loathing. He kills himself. For the Active Killer, the murder of every victim is an act of suicide. In this sense, his killing, while random, is intelligible.


As a victim in a world interpreted as consist-ing exclusively of victims and victimizers, the Active Killer hates himself. He is racked by self-contempt. The preceding section pro-poses that the Active Killer sees himself in all victims. In this sense, each killing is an act of suicide. Ultimately, the qualifying phrase can be dropped. According to some sets of data, 90% of Active Killers commit suicide on site (Borsch, 2009). Why?

Active Killers plan in meticulous detail. They stockpile weaponry and ammunition. They construct improvised explosive devices. They purchase items needed to secure entrances and exits. They invest thought in selecting a date, referencing grand historical figures or footnoting one another. Active Killers plan. Strikingly, the one contingency for which they do not plan is confrontation with respond-ing law enforcement. Although an otherwise meticulous planner and a heavily armed actor, the Active Killer crumbles when law enforce-ment responds, almost as if, senselessly, he had not anticipated the one inevitable even-tuality, the one thing known with absolute certainty before the event. When the prospect of confrontation with responding law enforce-ment becomes unavoidable, the Active Killer kills himself. Why that moment?

In a world of victims and victimizers, success is victimization. The victim in such a world is enshrined as a metaphysical underclass.

Psychologically, his self-image is unstable and unsustainable. The Active Killer is a victim—bullied and beaten. He craves metamorphosis. In his world, there are only two choices. He cannot live as a victim, so he dies as a victim-izer. The role of victimizer provides momen-tary transcendence. But the Active Killer’s sense of victimhood is deeply entrenched, fixed in place by years of assumption and interpretation about his experience. Bravery is unknown to him, so he targets the defense-less. He knows that against a “victimizer,” he cannot prevail. Established patterns of behav-ior will betray him. He ends them before they do.

In his brief role as victimizer, the Active Killer experiences a moment of “success,” a moment that will inspire talk, study, and horror. In this one moment, he will not lapse again into the role of victim; in this one moment, he will not be “bullied.” But he also knows that as the victim he has always been, his is not a soul made for battle. So, finally, in his one moment of transcendent metamorphosis, the self-as-victimizer obliterates the self-as-victim. He kills the nothing that he has always been. He dies a “something."

Tactical Implications

The Active Killer does not negotiate. He vic-timizes. A victim has nothing to offer but his life. More, to negotiate under the threat of mass murder is, in the nature of the case, to adopt a posture of conciliation, pleading, and begging. The posture serves to reinforce the victim’s status as a victim.

The Active Killer does not lie in wait to battle responding law enforcement. No law enforce-ment officers have been killed responding to Active Killer incidents in the United States. Few have even been injured. As noted, more often than not, when the prospect of con-frontation with responding law enforce-ment becomes unavoidable, the Active Killer commits suicide. And when citizens—even unarmed citizens—resist, the Active Killer crumbles. Ron Borsch (2009) sums the matter neatly:"In reality (not theory), and round num-bers, rapid mass murder has been aborted primarily by a single coura-geous actor. 50% have been UNARMED citizens, 25% were armed citizens, and the remainder have been police offi-cers (also primarily initiated by a SOLO officer). (p. 1)"

Borsch’s (2009) statistical analysis recom-mends a tactic: aggressive action. For law enforcement, respond and engage the killer without delay—the affected orthodoxy of cumbersome team formations fails to answer the rapid temporal dynamics of Active Killer events and fails to grasp the nature of the threat involved. For citizens, when necessity or obligation calls, attack.

The data amply attest that the tactics work. The apparatus developed here explains why. The Active Killer conceives himself as a victim in a world of victims and victimizers. He craves metamorphosis, but he is conditioned by a lifetime of conceding, cringing, and yielding. Swift, aggressive action exploits the condi-tioned behavior. In his brief role as victimizer, he will attack a victim; he will not attack—not effectively, in any case—those who adopt the posture and action of victimizers in his pecu-liar interpretation of that term. In his world, aggression is the province of the victimizer, and he sees himself, finally, as a victim. Thus, attacking has proved strikingly successful.


The world conceived by the Active Killer is a dark dialectic of victim and victimizer. His impoverished ontology brooks no nuance, admits no resolution. The two categories, isolated and absolute, exhaust and explain his world. And the peculiar logic driving the dialectic yields a fatal inference: in a world of victims and victimizers, success means victimization.

The cultural forces orbiting the Active Killer phenomenon are complex, fed, lamentably, by the sad fact that mass murder is a path to celebrity in this celebrity-obsessed cul-ture. But, whatever cultural forces feed the phenomenon, I propose that the explanatory framework accounting for the phenomenon finally is rooted in a worldview—an interpreta-tion of the world—that accommodates victims and victimizers and nothing else. The world-view may develop consciously or subcon-sciously. In practice, the difference makes no difference. Either way, the result is blood.


In grateful acknowledgment to Professor Edwin B. Allaire, whose wise counsel shaped this piece. Though his ashes now lie silent, his voice speaks still in the students he touched.


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Lieutenant Daniel A. Modell is a 19-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. He is currently serving as Training Coordinator for the Firearms and Tactics Section. Lieuten-ant Modell is also an adjunct professor at the State University of New York-FIT where he teaches self-defense. Lieuten-ant Modell secured a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from New York University in 1989 and a Master of Arts degree in Philosophy from the Univer-sity of Texas–Austin in 1994. He studied under Fellowship at Fordham Univer-sity in 1994-1995. Lieutenant Modell may be contacted via e-mail at either or at