Concept of the Month -- December 2009

The Search for a "Motive" for a Crime

In the Washington Post of December 10, 2009, the sub-headline of a story is "Va. Professor Target: Suspect irked about poor grade, police say."
The news article is about a community college student who allegedly tried to shoot his math teacher. He failed in his objective because the weapon malfunctioned. The article states, "Anger over a poor grade drove [him] to target his college math teacher with a hunting rifle." The report was that this student was "having trouble in his math class." Thus the conclusion cited was that anger over a prospective failure was the "motive".

Clearly, citing a student's rage over an impending bad grade does not reveal much about the underlying motives of the alleged shooter. Such a formulation may be descrptive of what transpired, but it offers no in-depth understanding of the situation. Thousands of students receive bad or even failing grades. They do not shoot their instructors. In fact, in the Post article, a student commented, "A lot of people are having a problem in that class."

It is typical after a crime to search for a motive. Was it jealousy, lust, financial need, seeking revenge, etc.? When a husband finds his wife in bed with another man and shoots his spouse's lover, the motive seems clear. However, most people who discover that their spouse has been unfaithful do not shoot the paramour.

There is a difference between what appears to be the catalyst for a crime and a true understanding of the perpetrator of the crime.

In the case of the Virginia shooter, one would want to know what is there about this young man that resulted in his reacting as he did.

A number of issues need to be explored. Why was he failing? What was his academic performance like overall? How has he handled situations in life when they did not go as he wanted? What other sorts of situations have triggered anger? What form did the anger take? Has he created difficulties for himself, then blamed others? What other irresponsible or arrestable conduct has he engaged in, even if it did not come to the attention of law enforcement authorities? If we had a 24 hour DVD of his daily life, how would we see him reacting to disappointment and frustration? These are just a few of the questions we might ask.

Sometimes one reads about a crime with no identifiable motive behind it. For example, a group of youths attacks a man sleeping on a bench in a park. The
man clearly has nothing of monetary value. The teenagers do not know him. Robbery, lust, or revenge are not motives. They attack him just because he is there. Thus it is described as a "senseless" crime. But if we knew the personality makeup of the perpetrators, we would indeed discover a "motive." An understanding of who these youths really are would reveal a great deal about the crime.

Looking for an easily described or observable motive rarely illuminates anything about the crime or the criminal. Such an exercise may conceal far more than it reveals.

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