The 2 key factors that explain why people commit violent hate crimes

Charleston church cryingJoe Raedle/Getty ImagesKearston Farr comforts her daughter, Taliyah Farr, 5, as they stand in front of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Dylann Roof’s motives for initiating a mass shooting this past Wednesday are clear.

The 21 year-old admitted to investigators that he wanted to start a race war, and killing nine people at a bible study in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, was meant to be the catalyst.

Roof’s racism-fuelled act doesn’t square with a racist slip of the tongue, however.

Psychologists liken it more to terrorism, and for acts this large and destructive they refer back to two main motivating factors: childhood trauma and exclusion.

Childhood trauma

The hardened killers whose faces are splashed on TV actually have loads of untreated psychological trauma, says Dr. James Garbarino, a psychologist who has spent more than 20 years listening to killers’ criminal testimony.

Many of the criminals grew up in homes and neighbourhoods where drug-addicted parents and violent gangs used physical and sexual force to get their points across. The innocent child that lives in this environment stands little chance to develop properly.

Still, sometimes humanity shines through, Garbarino says.

For instance, Roof told police
he almost didn’t go through with the shooting because people at the bible study were being so nice to him. Garbarino
says this fleeting sense of doubt is fairly common among terrorists.

“You have at least a moment of emotional connection that gets overridden by this larger point you’re trying to make,” he tells Business Insider, “whether it’s a larger delusion you have or a larger political agenda.”

Unfortunately, the violent tendencies that have been ingrained in the criminal’s mind take priority over those brief emotions, says Dr. Ben Michaelis, psychologist and author of “Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy.”

“People, or should I say, men, since the vast majority of these people are men, who perpetrate these types of crimes may have been traumatized in early childhood and are lashing out against others,” he says.


Even if someone has a stable upbringing, that doesn’t guarantee mental health for life.

Social isolation can be crippling, experts argue, to the point where mild frustration with the in-group can turn into violent rage.

Former classmates of Roof’s have told sources he would routinely make racist jokes, but that they didn’t seem overly threatening. He also adopted the pro-Apartheid imagery used up until the late twentieth century in South Africa. Then, on Wednesday, survivors recall Roof told a male victim, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country.”

“Hate can oftentimes present a haven for people who are not accepted by other people,” says forensic psychiatrist Dr. Howard Forman, of Montefiore Medical Center. “So they split off and find these communities where they find closeness to each other but extreme destruction to others.”

Sometimes exclusion can lead to self-delusion, to which many of the psychologists we spoke to made reference.

“[This crime] is the deranged action of a disturbed young person,” says clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer.

But it’s also “a product of social and environmental forces in his world that called him to think and then act out in this heinous manner,” Mayer says. “His statements about igniting a race war were just a deluded rationalization to give his mind permission to do this evil act.”

Gun accessibility is the final factor in causing a planned hate crime to actually happen.

“Even in a situation where you’re filled with hate, without access to firearms there’s a limit to the damage you can do,” he says. “Firearms allow impulsivity to get out of control.”

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