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The Pseudocommando Mass Murderer: A Blaze of Va

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The Pseudocommando Mass Murderer: A Blaze of Vainglory

January 04, 2012 | Forensic Psychiatry [1], Tales from the New Asylum [2], Disaster Psychiatry [3]
By James L. Knoll IV, MD [4]
The term pseudocommando was first used to describe the type of mass murderer who plans his
actions after long deliberation, and who kills indiscriminately in public during the daytime.

The term pseudocommando was first used to describe the type of

mass murderer who plans his actions after long deliberation, and who kills indiscriminately in
public during the daytime.2 He comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons and has no
escape planned. He is sometimes described as having the intent to die in a blaze of glory.
Since glory has been defined as a state of great gratification or exaltation, the clich to go out in a
blaze of glory would seem to be a perverse turn of phrase, considering the unfathomable pain and
tragedy these individuals cause. This article briefly explores what is known about the mindset of the
pseudocommando mass murderer and how he transforms his desire for revenge into a perverse
sense of honor, which allows him to justify his actions.
On July 22, 2011, Norway experienced the immeasurable fallout from a pseudocommando whose
perverted sense of honor and grandiose narcissism obliterated more than 70 innocent people.
Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian extremist perpetrated a dual attack in Norway: the
bombing of government buildings in Oslo that resulted in 8 deaths, and the mass shooting at a camp
of the Workers Youth League of the Labour Party on the island of Utoya where he killed 69, most of
whom were teenagers.3 Breivik composed a 1492-page manifesto he published hours before his
attack.4 He was apprehended alive, and his mental state was being examined as this article was
being written. After his capture, Breivik requested to be evaluated by Japanese mental health
experts because the Japanese understand the concept of honor better than the Europeans
[emphasis added].
Mass killings by such individuals are not new. The news media tend to suggest that the era of mass
public killings began in the 1960s, ushered in by Charles Whitman atop the University of Texas at
Austin tower, and henceforward became a part of American life in recent decades.5 But research
suggests that news media have heavily influenced the public perception of mass
murderparticularly the inaccurate assertion that its incidence is increasing.6 It is typically the
high-profile cases that represent the most widely publicized yet least representative mass killings.
The research on pseudocommandos suggests that they are driven by strong feelings of anger and
resentment, in addition to having paranoid character traits. Dietz2 described these individuals as
collectors of injustice who hold onto every perceived insult, amassing a pile of evidence that
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The Pseudocommando Mass Murderer: A Blaze of Va

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they have been grossly mistreated. To sustain the revenge romance, they must corral the
unwanted, hated, or feared aspects of themselves. This collection is then re-assembled into the form
of an enemy who deserves to be the target of a merciless, incendiary rage. Thus, the
pseudocommando maintains object relations with others, which are heavily based on envy and
. . . as Im rushing through my city, guns blazing, with 100 armed system protectors pursuing me . . .
I know there is a 80%+ chance I am going to die during the operation. . . .
Mullen7 described the results of his detailed forensic evaluations of 5 pseudocommando mass
murderers who were caught before they could kill themselves or be killed. Mullen noted that the
massacres were often well planned out (ie, the offender did not suddenly snap): the offender
arrived at the crime scene well-armed, often in camo or warrior gear. He appeared to be pursuing
a highly personal agenda of payback. Mullens study also found a number of traits and historical
factors that these individuals had in common: They were bullied or isolated as children and had
become loners who felt despair over being socially excluded. They were also described as being
resentful grudge holders who demonstrated obsessional or rigid traits. (The Table lists the most
common traits that are observed in pseudocommandos.)

Narcissistic, grandiose traits were present, along with heavy

use of externalization. They held a generally disparaging view of others, which resulted in spending a
great deal of time ruminating on past humiliations. The ruminations evolved into fantasies of violent
revenge, to the point that the offenders seemed to welcome death, even perceiving it as bringing
them fame with an aura of power. Most of the literature references the pseudocommandos
motivation of revenge, which may be directed at a group (pseudocommunity) or representative
The revenge romance
He piled upon the whales hump the sum of all the general rage and hate . . . and then, as if his
chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot hearts shell upon it.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick9
The desire for revenge is a ubiquitous response to narcissistic injury.10 Greek mythology is replete
with revenge themes.11 Revenge is the central motive in at least 20 of Shakespeares plays and the
main theme in many of todays Hollywood movies (eg, the Death Wish series and, more recently,
the Kill Bill series, which highlight our fascination with the sweet taste of payback).12 Across
almost every culture, the taking of revenge, when justified, has assumed the status of a sacred
obligation.13 In many cultures since biblical times and before, there has at least been the restraining
notion of functional symmetry in seeking redress, such as the Old Testaments admonition of an eye
for an eye.
At this stage of our evolution, affronts to our self-esteem or narcissism are responded to as though
they were a threat to our survival.14 We have maintained the physiological hard-wiring, available for
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The Pseudocommando Mass Murderer: A Blaze of Va

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excessive use in situations that do not involve survival of the body, but instead survival of the ego.15
In individuals with vulnerable, fragile (perhaps overly inflated) egos, threats to self-esteem may
result in the harboring of destructive rage that eventually transforms them into avengers. Indeed, it
is the frustration of the need to preserve a solid sense of self, that is often the source of the most
fanatical human violence [as well as] the everyday anger that all of us suffer.16

However, this type of righteous anger is, in reality, a vainglorious pseudopower, because it is merely
a reaction to intolerable feelings of powerlessness. Nevertheless, there comes a point when this
pseudopower is the only defense the avenger has left to ward off the annihilation of his sense of self.
This is why, when the potential avengers ego is threatened or hurt in such a devastating way . . .
the only thing that remains is to persist in the unremitting denunciation of injustice. At this point, it
becomes almost impossible for him to give up on the crusade, because there is a perverse honor
in refusing to normalize the perceived injustice.17
Revealed here is the hidden logic of the . . . avenger to sustain a perverse and grandiose refusal
to compromise; an insistence against all odds lest his heroic fantasy and fragile ego surrender
to the reality of a self he finds intolerable.16,17 The revenge fantasies are inflexible and persistent
because they provide desperately needed sustenance to the ego. These fantasies may lead the
avenger to experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the
side of some spiritual primal justice. The revenge fantasy gives the illusion of strength, and a
temporary, although false, sense of restored control and self-coherence.18 The type of severe
narcissistic rage experienced serves the purpose of the preservation of the self that has
exceeded its limit of shame, alienation, and aversive self-awareness.14 This pain and rage cannot be
contained by the pseudocommando, who then embarks on a course of self-destruction that
transfers [his] pain to others.
The revenge fantasy helps the pseudocommando obliterate an intolerable reality and aversive
self-awareness. His rumination dominates thought and impels action much as an addiction or
erotomania does.11 The avenger could be said to have fallen into romantic/idealized hate. Just as
Captain Ahab believed he had been dismasted by the whale, he reached the final stages of
narcissistic inaccessibility and plunged irretrievably into a downward spiral of reality-destroying
nihilism. For those who progress to acting on their violent fantasies, they go beyond denying
aversive self-awareness. By stepping across the threshold into an obliterative mindset, the
pseudocommando bestows on himself a false authority. His judgment lacks any sense of symmetry,
and an eye for an eye soon gives way to a life for an eye.11
Obliteration for the glory of . . . me
Shakespeares Richard III is a classic example of a mind committed to revenge, driven by powerful
grievance. His state of mind may be regarded as an obliterative state of mind, in that it functions
to spread more grievance, destruction, and ultimately annihilation.19 Individuals committed to
revenge may come to embrace a self-styled image based on low self-esteem or negative
self-perceptions that may be tinged with an ominous undertone. That is, they embrace their dark,
negative cognitions and fashion them into a recognizable suit of black armor.
Persons driven by envy and destruction tend to see others as in the light and [choose] to stay in the
dark.19 In the case of Richard III, his inner envy and destructive narcissism lead him to consciously
adopt the role of reprobate.20
Toxic levels of envy and narcissism . . . can fracture the personality, hold it hostage and in thrall, by
being fuelled by triumph and contempt. The developing pseudocommando must hold fast to his
hatred of anything such as growth, beauty, or humanity which is an advance over a bleak, static
interior landscape.19 In addition, the pseudocommando may well harbor the notion that Nature has
done me a grievous wrong. . . . Life owes me reparation for this. . . . I may do wrong myself, since
wrong has been done to me.21

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It is this feeling of being an exception to the rules, of being justified in harming others, that fuels the
pseudocommandos obliterative state of mind. Once he has embraced this mindset, he cannot
envision rescue from this commitment to a killing field externally or internally.19 The narcissistic
injury that is utterly intolerable is essentially nihilistic: nothing matters, all is despair. . . . all
goodness and substance are obliterated, so that nothingness defines the domain.
For some, the motivational trail may end with obliteration and annihilation. But for others, it is
possible that the trail does not end here. For these individuals, there is more to revenge than
annihilation. By their behavior and communications, they suggest that they are willing to die so as to
not lose under any circumstances, their constructed, yet fragile, sense of self. It is not an option to
submit or concede that his heroic sense of self is not righteous or transcendent. Indeed, to do so
amounts to a humiliating, damning reality that exceeds death in its promise of torture.
For comparison, consider the genuine commandothe soldierwho has the notion that he or she
may be dying for a greater cause outside of himself or herself. The vengeful pseudocommando must
believe his cause is great as well, but in the case of the former, we have altruistic motivations
focused on others. In the case of the latter, we see self-concerned motivation and grandiosity. What
could be more grandiose than sacrificing oneselffor the glorification of oneself? The subtext would
seem to be: Ill kill myself so I will never face losing my falsely constructed selfand, Ill sacrifice
many other peoples lives to get what I want. But of course, in getting what he wants, he must plan,
ruminate, and bide his time until he can abruptly go out in a contemptible flame. In doing so, he
leaves behind a charred crater of voided humanity as testament to the depth of his
Future directions
Regarding prevention, the sobering reality is that such events are extremely hard to anticipate and
thwart.22 Retrospectively, one sometimes discovers windows of opportunity that if taken
advantage of, may possibly have represented chances to avoid the tragedy. Such windows may take
the form of family members or social contacts who take steps to have the potential
pseudocommando evaluated and treated.23 In terms of media response, it is important to have a
thoughtful set of reporting guidelines. For example, it has been suggested that news media should
avoid glorifying the perpetrator and not disclose his methods or number of victims killed.24 Rather,
media should emphasize victim and community recovery efforts and deflect attention away from the
One promising avenue of future research includes studying and understanding the presence of
identification warning behaviors that may appear and suggest impending or accelerating risk.25
Hempel and colleagues26 were among the first to note that pseudocommandos will often convey
their central motivation in a psychological abstract, a phrase or sentence yelled with great emotion
at the beginning of the mass murder. To date, the actual communications of the pseudocommando
mass murderer have received little detailed analysis.8,27 The study of both pre-offense (ie, leaked)
and after-the-fact communications may assist in gaining insight into the psychology of the
pseudocommando that can inform preventive efforts. Risk assessments of individuals with strong
revenge fantasies will have to consider the intensity and quality of the revenge fantasies,
vulnerability to ego threats, and relevant biopsychosocial risk variables.15

1. Oslo Terrorist Anders Behring Breivik Manifesto. http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=89a_1311444384
. Accessed December 12, 2011.
2. Dietz PE. Mass, serial and sensational homicides. Bull N Y Acad Med. 1986;62:477-491.
3. MinnPost.com. Norway attacks: What happens if Brievik is deemed insane?
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eemed_insane. Accessed December 12, 2011.
4. 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explor
Q4&hl=en_US. Accessed December 12, 2011.
5. The Associated Press. Mass public shootings on the rise, but why? While some see connection to
guns, others blame erosion of community. April 21, 2007. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18249724.
Accessed December 12, 2011.
6. Duwe G. A circle of distortion: the social construction of mass murder in the United States. West
Criminol Rev. 2005;6:59-78.
7. Mullen PE. The autogenic (self-generated) massacre. Behav Sci Law. 2004;22:311-323.
8. Knoll JL 4th . The pseudocommando mass murder: part I, the psychology of revenge and
obliteration. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2010;38:87-94.
9. Melville H. Moby Dick. London: Random House UK; 2007:chap 41.
10. LaFarge L. The wish for revenge. Psychoanal Q. 2006;75:447-475.
11. Rosen IC. Revengethe hate that dare not speak its name: a psychoanalytic perspective. J Am
Psychoanal Assoc. 2007;55:595-620.
12. Cargill CR. Revenge is a dish best served cold. August 30, 2007.
http://www.film.com/features/story/revenge-dish-best-served-cold/16169619. Accessed December
12, 2011.
13. Watson L. Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc; 1995.
14. Menninger WW. Uncontained rage: a psychoanalytic perspective on violence. Bull Menninger
Clin. 2007;71:115-131.
15. Baumeister RF, Smart L, Boden JM. Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression:
the dark side of high self-esteem. Psychol Rev. 1996;103:5-33.
16. Leifer R. Vinegar Into Honey: Seven Steps to Understanding and Transforming Anger,
Aggression, and Violence. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications; 2008.
17. Zizek S. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador; 2008.
18. Horowitz MJ. Understanding and ameliorating revenge fantasies in psychotherapy. Am J
Psychiatry. 2007;164:24-27.
19. Anderson MK. The death of a mind: a study of Shakespeares Richard III. J Anal Psychol.
20. Shakespeare W. The Tragedy of King Richard III.
http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MobRic3.html. Accessed December 12, 2011.
21. Freud S. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol 14.
Strachey J, trans-ed. Toronto: The Hogarth Press, Ltd; 1981:314-315.
22. Saleva O, Putkonen H, Kiviruusu O, Lnnqvist J. Homicide-suicidean event hard to prevent and
separate from homicide or suicide. Forensic Sci Int. 2007;166:204-208.
23. Orange R. Anders Behring Breiviks sister warned mother about his behaviour two years ago.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/norway/8934136/Anders-Behring-Breiviks-sisterwarned-mother-about-his-behaviour-two-years-ago.html. Accessed December 12, 2011.
24. Preti A. School shooting as a culturally enforced way of expressing suicidal hostile intentions. J
Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2008;36:544-550.
25. Meloy JR, Hoffmann J, Guldimann A, James D. The role of warning behaviors in threat
assessment: an exploration and suggested typology. Behav Sci Law. August 24, 2011.
will+be+unavailable+17+Dec+from+10-13+GMT+for+IT+maintenance. Accessed December 13,
26. Hempel AG, Meloy JR, Richards TC. Offender and offense characteristics of a nonrandom sample
of mass murderers. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 1999;27:213-225.
27. Knoll JL 4th. The pseudocommando mass murder: part II, the language of revenge. J Am Acad
Psychiatry Law. 2010;38:263-272.

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