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Posted by on Apr 4, 2009 in Economy | 1 comment

Has The U.S. Economy Crisis Spawned Bloody Murder?

The Christian Science Monitor (now totally online but still one of the U.S.’s most solid newspapers) reports that experts are beginning to sense a troubling trend in the recent mass shootings: the economy seems to have played a particularly negative role in the shooters’ lives.

And, no, before the above assertion starts a string of angry weblog posts and comments about this being an excuse, the Monitor is saying no such thing. The paper merely notes that experts see what could be a common factor:

Details continue to emerge from Binghamton, New York, where a gunman identified as Jiverly Voong, 41, barricaded the back door of the American Civic Association Friday morning, then went in the front door shooting at everyone in the room, killing 13 and then shooting himself.

Early reports say the gunman was deeply upset over being laid off and for being disrespected for not speaking English well.

That event, as well as three policemen wounded in a Pittsburgh shooting after responding to a domestic disturbance call – friends said that gunman was also upset about his recent firing – fit a larger pattern of mass killings which have seemed to proliferate since America’s economic downturn, experts say. Forty-four people have died in a string of five such incidents in the past month, from Oakland, California to Alabama to North Carolina.

The Monitor had another piece earlier in the week that also looked at this issue:

Four Oakland, Calif., police officers shot down. An Alabama man strolling a small town with a rifle, looking for victims. Seven elderly people shot dead at a North Carolina nursing home. And on Sunday, six people, including four kids, died in an apparent murder-suicide in an upscale neighborhood in Santa Clara, Calif.

The details in all these cases are still emerging. In most, the exact motive has yet to be determined – or may never be fully understood.

On a broader level, however, such incidents may be happening more often because an increasing number of Americans feel desperate pressure from job losses and other economic hardship, criminologists say.

“Most of these mass killings are precipitated by some catastrophic loss, and when the economy goes south, there are simply more of these losses,” says Jack Levin, a noted criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Direct correlation between economic cycles and homicides is difficult to prove, cautions Shawn Bushway, a criminologist at the University at Albany in New York. But an economic downturn of this breadth and depth hasn’t been seen since data began to be collected after World War II, he also points out. “This is not the average situation,” Mr. Bushway says.

Still, criminologists do say that certain kinds of violent crimes have risen during specific economic downturns.

PERSONAL NOTE: I was involved as a San Diego Union reporter in the reporting of a massacre story where the brutal murderer also had in his background an economic component.

On July 18, 1984 James Huberty, who had lost his job two earlier and not gotten through to a mental health clinic the day before he went down in criminal history, left his house telling his wife that society “had its chance” and that he was going “hunting for humans.” He walked two blocks down the street to the McDonald’s and his itchy-trigger-finger bloodbath led to 22 deaths (including his own) and 19 injuries. The media first called it the “McDonald’s massacre,” until McDonald’s Corp., clearly worried about both copy cat murders and image problems, emphaticall and consistently insisted it was the San Ysidro Massacre (McDonald’s, fearing a copy cat in the future, and not wanting that restaurant ever to be used again, literally had the restaurant ripped down and donated the land to a college and a victims’ memorial — and rebuilt down the street. ).

I was a reporter at the time — and was eventually called in by an editor to help work the desk since the then-Managing Editor (the late and great) JD Alexander and then-City Editor Marcia McQuern (both left the paper within a few years for higher profile posts) rightly concluded this was the ONLY story people cared about that day. So the paper was essentially one big team reporting effort.

What can you say about tragedies such as this?

Newspaper stories, TV broadcasts and blog posts cannot communicate even the tip of the iceburg of the horror, the grief, the lost and the — a cliche that is true — shattered lives that a mass murder produces.

On this story and the one-year-after story I had to interview family members who had lost relatives. Huberty butchered men, women, children, even a baby. Whoever was there; there was no mercy.

The most haunting image of the time: a fallen bicycle whose owner, a young boy, was shot dead while he rode by outside. Quotes from the boy’s mother and young friends were absolutely heartbreaking. A year later I was assigned to track down family members of victims who lived in Baja California and ask them “how do you feel” a year later KNOWING what they would say. And I was still unprepared for the depth of grief and the overt manifestations of utter personal devastation caused by one nut armed with lots of personal issues, rage — and well-loaded guns.

Huberty had lost his job in Ohio, then moved to California, and lost his security guard job two weeks before going on one of the single most brutal mass murder sprees in American history.

And the point is?

In the case of Huberty, you had a history of mental illness, an inability to keep a job and depression. The economy won’t cause millions of Americans to go on shooting sprees.

But there are a small number of people poised on the edge due to a variety of reasons, or already slowly going over the edge — and economic or employment problems can push them over the edge faster.

And then they fall on all of us.

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