Imagine, in the dead of night, a soldier slipping off the Army base in Tacoma, Wash., and walking into a local neighborhood. He leaves footprints along the way that indicate he may have tried to kick in other gates until he found one open.
He enters that home and shoots 11 people; confusion reins among locals about how many were shot in their sleep in the 2 a.m. home invasion and how many were gathered into the same room before being killed. Regardless, the victims are all of the same family.
He then walks some two miles away to another neighborhood on the other side of the military base. There, he enters two homes and kills five more.
With a death toll of 16, including nine children and three women, the shooter walks back to his base and turns himself in.
The mass murders would elicit shock and outrage across the country. The suspect would be remembered by old classmates as happy-go-lucky or as co-workers as generally pleasant, while darker bits of his past would abate some of the surprise over the allegations: a domestic violence incident with a past girlfriend in which he agreed to complete anger-management counseling to get the charges dropped, a hit-and-run incident. One official would bring up alcohol as a factor in the violence; the high-profile defense attorney would bring up a number of other mitigating factors to try to spare his client the death penalty.
Inevitably, comparisons would be made to other mass murderers in American history: Charles Whitman, who climbed the clock tower well-armed at the University of Texas in 1966 and killed 16; James Huberty, who killed 21 patrons at a San Ysidro McDonald’s in 1984; George Hennard, who shot 23 to death at Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in 1991; Seung-Hui Cho, who methodically killed 32 on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. Candlelight vigils would be held. The community would, to some futility, try and try to grasp for the reason why he snapped, but they’d stop far short of excusing his murderous rampage.
To the criminologically minded, the pieces aren’t a bad fit. Mass murderers are primarily white, male, prefer guns as the killing weapon to swiftly take out victims, and have myriad motivations, I confirmed by pulling an old college textbook off the shelf, “Serial Murderers and Their Victims” by Dr. Eric Hickey. “Unlike serial killers, the mass murderer appears to give little thought or concern to his or her inevitable capture,” Hickey writes in this second edition. “…In some cases offenders surrender to police and offer no resistance.”
Many others in history have also been passed up for promotions; it’s the textbook mass murderer who, frustrated by perceived injustices, lashes out at people to whom he has no relationship in an attempt to regain control over his life.
Now take that scenario and drop it into Afghanistan. It’s March 11, and Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, stands accused of committing those crimes and turning himself in. The victims are Afghan, and speak Pashto instead of English.
“The social impact of mass murders tends to be restricted to the communities in which they occurred,” Hickey writes in that textbook. “…Recognizing potential mass murderers is usually a matter of hindsight; we are quick to attach motivating factors and personality defects to offenders once they have vented themselves on their victims.”
The location of Bales’ alleged crimes, however, ramps up the political impact for those who would use the textbook slayings as means to an antiwar end.
A post on Iraq Veterans Against the War called it “just the latest example of the U.S./NATO failed military strategy in Afghanistan and are calling on elected officials to stop funding the war, which now costs taxpayers between $1 and $2 billion per week. …These veterans hope that the Kandahar massacre will be a turning point in the U.S. occupation.”