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Originally published Friday, July 18, 2014 at 5:13 PM

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Guest: Do mass shooters believe in the afterlife?

Society has abandoned the collective belief in ultimate accountability, writes guest columnist Megan Glavin.

Special to The Times

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Wow. My first question would be, can Ms. Glavin point to any time, in any age when people who believed in "ultimate... MORE
The old "fire and brimstone" speech - don't go out and shoot people because God will punish you. Really? That's what... MORE
DO MASS SHOOTERS BELIEVE IN THE AFTERLIFE? This is probably just about the most hare brained editorial that I have ever... MORE


SOMETHING is missing in the nationwide discussion regarding what factors lie behind incidents of mass homicides (often followed by suicides) that occur on high-school and college campuses, in other public spaces and in private homes. In the past few months, shooters have opened fire at Seattle Pacific University, a school in Oregon and on the doorstep of a family home in Texas.

The emphasis on mental-health issues, the prevalence of violence in American entertainment and the gun-control issue — while certainly part of the equation — have unfortunately masked an issue related to fundamental beliefs.

As a society, we need to demystify the crazy mass shooter. We have neither identified nor challenged the thought process that might drive these individuals. Why haven’t we?

Perhaps because our culture underestimates the insidious power of dysfunctional belief. Perhaps because our culture has abandoned a collective belief in ultimate accountability — the belief that one’s actions on Earth are somehow tied to one’s experience after physical death.

Ultimate accountability asserts that it does not matter if the evil a person does on Earth is never seen nor detected, and it does not matter if one commits suicide after committing evil. There is still judgment of some kind, and consequences to face, in eternity.

A collective cultural belief in ultimate accountability might have eroded because the concept is often understood to be intrinsically religious.

A 2013 Harris Poll found that Americans’ religious beliefs declined from a previous 2003 poll. The more recent poll found that only 64 percent of Americans believe in the survival of the soul after death. The 2013 poll also reported that almost one in four Americans (23 percent) describes him or herself as “not at all religious,” a figure that is almost double an earlier 2007 poll finding of 12 percent.

This cultural trend away from religious belief might have resulted in reduced attention to the potential existence of ultimate accountability or a loss of belief in the same.

Many Americans may not be too concerned about this loss of shared cultural belief, as they presume any vacuum created by the loss of religious belief would be replaced with something superior by science and the sophisticated intellect of an advanced society.

However, somewhere along the line our society dropped the ball. Perhaps Americans believed too much in the power of science to solve problems as complex and unpredictable as criminal behavior. Perhaps Americans believed too much in the ability of psychology and counseling to supposedly correct people.

Regardless of where our country went wrong, we now have a problem. Many Americans do not believe in an afterlife and divine judgment. Thus, homicide is attractive for revenge and the expression of emotional pain, and suicide is attractive for escape.

One strategy Americans can immediately pursue is to publicly challenge and deconstruct the unacknowledged and underlying belief that homicide and suicide are an advantageous means of exacting revenge, gaining attention, escaping the misery of life and evading all consequences of one’s actions. Our society should appeal to the common human denominator, the egocentric nature we all share, that is primarily concerned with self.

In other words, even if religious beliefs in an afterlife and judgment are not shared by all Americans, committing a number of homicides and then committing suicide remains an extremely rash course of action that is likely under-analyzed by the perpetrator.

Consider the profound reality that every one of us will be dead for far longer than we will be alive. Is this a risk worth taking, especially when the permanence of physical death makes it impossible to return to life if what follows death is worse than earthly existence, or if it turns out there is some carry-over effect from one’s crimes?

Those tasked with resolving this issue of violence have struggled to identify and stop the next shooter — the veritable needle in a haystack. Therefore, they might want to also consider an approach targeted to the entire haystack, which might reach potential, future perpetrators of mass violence.

Megan Glavin has a master's degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Portland State University. She lives in Seattle.

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