By now it's become a cliche -- a newspaper story we can almost write before it's been written.
Who? Leading off with the most recent, Ariel Castro, Jerry Sandusky, Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Philip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, David Berkowitz, Lee Boyd Malvo, Andrew Cunanane, Jeffrey Dahmer, Aileen Wuornos, Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, Albert DeSalvo, John Wayne Gacy, Henry Lee Lucas, Dennis Rader, Richard Ramirez, Joseph Kallinger, Ted Kaczynski, Gary Ridgway, Joel Rifkin, Danny Rolling, Charles Manson.
And so many more...too many to count.
What? Murder, of course. Not always in the physical sense -- Castro's victims survived, as did Garrido's, Sandusky's and Mitchell's -- sometimes attempted murder of the soul. Notoriety. Outrage. The Stuff of Nightmares.
When? All throughout history, but particularly in the last 60 years. With the exception of Gein, all of the above attained their notoriety during my lifetime, i.e. the last 55 years.
Where? All across this glorious, diverse country -- though, notably, the majority came out of the more sparsely populated suburbs or countryside.
How? The details are horrific, but not especially important.
Why? We don't really know. That's the detail that underlies our morbid fascination -- their only true legacy.
We hate them, but they're so, so pathetic. Bundy might be an exception -- he never had that hang-dog aura that so many of his peers seem to share. But Dahmer, Loughner, Holmes, even the defiant, wild-eyed Manson of the 1970s, represent the end product of a dysfunctional childhood, with few attempts to hide it, once they were brought to justice in front of the cameras.
Plenty of critics are quick to condemn any hint of sympathy. "Oh, sure...bleeding heart...feel sorry for them? What about their victims?" as though you had to choose one or the other.
Lanza, Loughner, Kaczynski and Holmes appear to have had undiagnosed or under-treated psychiatric conditions, so it is possible, if not desirable, to classify their outrageous behavior as a cry for help.
Dahmer, Sandusky and Bundy had relatively normal childhoods -- they appear not to have been abused or to have suffered undue chaos. Malvo was under the spell of John Allen Muhammad, a political religious fanatic.
Manson, Wuornos, Rolling and Ramirez had early exposure to brutality and abuse. They're what we've come to regard as "classic cases."
Is there a common denominator?
Impulsivity is one that comes to mind -- lack of planning. Yes, many of them meticulously planned the crimes ... but did any of them set out to be career criminals? I'm sure that somewhere along the way, once their names began to reside in the front-page headlines, they accepted their notoriety and decided that no matter the consequences, their activities had to continue as long as possible. Eluding law enforcement became part of the scheme. But what about way back in the beginning?
I think almost all of them probably envisioned happy futures, as they drifted along in childhood. But there was a disruption, or a series of them -- broken homes, the pathology of poverty, violence, life-changing illness, rejection -- and for this subset of humanity, the detour took them down a darker road, to a place from which there was to be no return.
Sometimes, but not always, there seems to be depression, or something that looks like it. Dahmer, Wuornos (also described as having manic episodes), Kaczynski, Ridgway ... were they predisposed to the disorder in any case, or was it a response to circumstances? Dahmer was a high school alcoholic, and he voiced a belief that his unhappy mental state had much to do with his parents' preoccupation with their failing marriage.
And here's where the continuing debate finds a center: We know this stuff. The "warning signs," the "red flags." And yet, we still stop short of taking action because for every Harris and Klebold, there's some harmless goofball nerd who finds him/herself on the receiving end of overzealous "zero tolerance" rules, imposed with the aim of preventing another Columbine or Sandy Hook. The problem of the would-be serial or mass killer is like mercury. You think you've got a way to prevent it, and then someone else slips through the net and the headlines blaze once more.