Intimate massacres and terrorist attacks. Varieties of transformations of chaos. An interview with Jack Katz [EN]

This interview with Jack Katz – Professor of Sociology at UCLA, author of landmark works such as *Seductions of Crime* (1988) and *How Emotions Work* (1999) – was presented on June 23rd 2016 as part of the first session of Metrolab Brussels’ "Cities in shock" conferences. This session titled ** Ecologies of violence ** featured other talks by Joan Stavo-Debauge (Uni.Lausanne) and Kamel Boukir (CEMS-EHESS, Paris).


Interviewed by Mathieu Berger (Metrolab Brussels, UCLouvain) on his 2015 piece « A theory of intimate massacres: steps towards a causal explanation »1, Jack Katz discusses the relevance of this paper for the interpretation of events such as the shooting in the Orlando nightclub on June 12, 2016. These kind of events, while labeled as terrorist attacks, show signs of a strong biographical connection between the attacker and the site of the attack. In the course of the interview, Jack Katz proposes analytical distinctions in order to differentiate experiences of mass violence according to the pragmatic, interactional and emotional dimensions of the act. Special attention is paid to the third process – the emotional level or « transcendence level » – as Katz sees in different forms of violence (lone-wolf terrorism, jihadism, gang crime, school shootings, etc.) varieties of transformations of a social-psychologically shaped chaos in the life of the individual.

About "Cities in shock" : Some of the terrorist attacks we have witnessed recently in democratic countries were not only directed towards groups or populations ; they targeted cities and what is at their core : the liberal public space and urbanity as a way of life. Today, these tragic events require interdisciplinary descriptions, dialogical interpretations and explanations, involving specialists in urban studies, sociology of terrorism and criminology. This series of conferences is an attempt to start such a dialogue.

Mathieu Berger (MB) : What was your intention when you started writing this piece of work on "intimate massacres" ? How does it relate to your own prior work ?

Jack Katz (JK) : I ran seminars for a couple of years and I tried to collect whatever evidence I could on what happened in series of school attacks. And then, as always, the approach that seemed most productive was to define what we are trying to understand based on the actor’s project, what he or she is trying to do. From school attacks, the definition of the project became expanded to include workplace attacks also. The phrase "intimate massacre" represents an analytical transformation from a focus on school shootings to something more general, something that occurs outside the school but that has the same contradictory characteristics of (i) having an intimate meaning, an autobiographically reflexive meaning to the attacker, and yet (ii) being a massacre, an almost random or almost undifferentiated attack. You would expect the aggressor, in doing intimate violence to be selective based on an autobiographical connexion, as occurs in domestic violence or payback violence. But in intimate massacres, the autobiographical meaning is found by the attacker in the site, whether it is school or workplace or a public setting ; the last occurred in Los Angeles, at the airport, LAX, in an attack on security personnel by a guy who had some history of having been offended by security personnel in airports. So, it is not the nature of the institution itself that defines the explanandum - what we try to explain - but the attacker's sense that there is an intimate connexion between his biography and the site. And that’s a distinct enigma: how can a site itself become provocative of violence?

So the seminar became an opportunity to collect lots of cases, whatever information was available. Sometimes there have been investigations done by state authorities that have been quite detailed. And then also there have been some studies done under Kathy Newman – a big project funded by the US Congress. Lots of these case studies were helpful too.

MB : How did you approach such a complex and delicate matter ?

JK : I just approach it personally the way I approach almost anything. As I wrote in the article « Start Here » 2, I pursue three paths of inquiry. First I look for interactional components : how would people – whose activity we try to understand – how would they understand themselves being defined by others, seen by others, and how is their action an effort to change how they are seen by others, on an interactional level. Then I investigate along a practical level : what is the sequence of events, and the practical, the tactical and physical challenges of reaching the end of performing the violence. Finally, an emotional or kind of a transcendence level : What do they try to achieve ? What is the project? How does this overall make sense, as an act that's going to have a meaning that is compelling?

I am hoping that your conference or your research group might be part of a process to put people together to extend a general approach. The general approach is to ground explanation in the meaning of the action to the actors when they are doing the act.

In almost all approaches in social sciences and in almost all commentaries in journalism, the media and politics, the focus is about events as understood by victims and onlookers who identify with victims. And often there are political and policy debates going on: so you get things called terrorist attacks, other things called school shootings. You get people focused on guns, on Islamic radicalism... all sorts of empirical questions get generated. But they are not coming out of what I would understand as a fundamental effort simply to get the explanation right, which requires redefining the thing you are trying to explain from the subject's perspective... and public discussions, politics and to a large extent the academic social sciences are driven from the victims' perspective.

What we need to do is compile cases, create data sets and get communities of researchers organized to try to work out the different sorts of acts of "mass violence" that we try to understand, rather than have some people studying terrorism, some people studying school shootings and so forth. We need to build more differentiated data sets about "mass violence", and maybe that term itself has to get redefined as we go on.

You know, we can talk about each of these causal processes (the interactional, the practical and the emotional/transcendence process), how they may differ in some of the attacks that aren't school shootings, that aren't workplace shootings. We can speculate about what is going on and what went on in some of these, but the point would be to just get sensitive to the kind of distinctions that we have to make and the kind of data that we have to try to obtain.

MB : In my opinion, your theoretical work on "intimate massacres" can be relevant to approach some events labeled in the media as terrorist attacks. Do you agree ?

JK : The kind of things we need to explain in these recent attacks, like the one in Orlando, has something to do with "intimate massacres". But the facts are very tricky to work with, before you've nailed things down in the wake of these events. To understand who the person was, what they did, what their tactics were, what their prior experiences were... In the Orlando event, there are some suggestions that the guy was in the club, in this venue before, that he had some sort of experience there. If he did that might make it an intimate massacre, that is to say the site reflected his biography, his identity, in ways not unlike what happens when people return to schools that they attended. On the other hand, at the last minute apparently he invoked some affiliation to ISIS.

MB : The fact that he did pledge allegiance to a terrorist organization is not incompatible with the possibly biographical meaning of the site.

JK : Yes, forms of violence that used to be separate are getting mixed. People who contemplate violence against masses of strangers now have a range of types they choose from. And they make a mish-mash. They can do combinations of different types of violence that try to make sense of this course of conduct, and find it appealing. This is constantly evolving, very rapidly apparently.

One way of looking at this and try to differentiate the kinds of violence is to look at these three types of causal conditions or processes. If we look at the practical, the praxis, what you have to do to get it done: it is not easy to do violence for various reasons, you have to get there, acquire weaponry and know how to use it for the attack to come off. And those requirements aren’t to be taken for granted. Not everybody can do that, as Randall Collins shows very well 3.

So it is quite common that people have some sort of prior experience of violence to get a sense of themselves in doing violence. Now, that may be through domestic violence. So it shouldn’t be uncommon to find intimate one-on-one violence in the background of the salient act. Or some sort of experimentation with guns. The idea is that there’s an appreciation on the part of the attacker that, in a way, they are not ready to do it until they have a feel for violence. And often they don’t know quite well what will go down. The young attackers often bring a whole lot of weapons with them, as if they are anticipating any number of different scenarios that might play out.

And then this practical level has to be considered in relation with the two other levels, the interactional and the emotional. Using a theory of social ontology 4 to shape research is very useful when you’re not content to take the thing you’re trying to explain from either popular culture or the history of research up to the point you’re starting your investigation... And the history of research doesn’t offer us too much, because the research on crime and violence has been so much taken from the victim’s perspective. You can take official statistics or you take events sorted out by the news media. All of that is going to be found from the victims’ perspectives, not from the attackers’ perspectives.

It would be great if people could collaborate across national contexts and across the sensationalized forms of violence to try to build data sets. It would be very helpful to understand what the contingencies are in these sorts of violence that we don’t have much help in understanding by the broad background factors that are usually used to explain violence.

A distinction that may be useful is the one between acts of mass violence that are actually suicides masked by the attacks, and acts of mass violence that anticipate a kind of persistence or continuation of one’s identity after the attack is over, in one form or another. A lot of school shootings or workplace shootings are much closer to suicides; they're like thinly masked suicides where the attacker has no expectation of going on... And basically here the massacre is an attempt to destroy how you have been personified by others, but not an attempt to build a self, if you think of an identity that is a kind of a lamination of who you are as defined by others and who you are as defined by your own actions. The former is how you're personified; the latter - who you are as defined by your own actions - is the self.

A lot of the school shootings, workplace shootings, some shootings at malls and airports or other public places, are events where the person doesn't expect to survive and doesn't have a kind of manifesto to explain what went on or what message to take out of the violence. They seem to be efforts to destroy how the person was personified... to destroy that aspect of identity. And the intimacy in the site selection is attractive to the person and meaningful to the person because that's where the personification has been kind of lodged. Why schools, not other places? There are all sorts of other places that don't seem to get targeting for these kinds of events... Social settings differ to the extent to which they personify us in an enduring way. And schools are very good at that. It is very effective in branding somebody and locking his identity in a way that can't be escaped. So if you take this 'interaction' theme: how you try to get yourself seen? Is it that you're not trying to get yourself seen so much as you're trying to annihilate how you have been seen? That difference could be used to differentiate incidents of violence, and different violent actors.

Some of them – like a Breivik – they want to be seen through their manifestos however confused they may seem to be. There's a lot of work put in by them to create a self, not just destroy it. And indeed, not so much destroy the personification before, but to build on, in a way you put your identity out in some neo-fascist, violent form on the internet, and work with that. So it is a very different kind of project. So Breivik's may appear to be like a school shooting – because it's a youth camp and so forth – but it is really a different kind of event.

It is different from most terrorist events because in a terrorist project, you join others who will do the definition of your identity for you. You're part of a network of people in which there is a hierarchy, as to who has the right to say what the meaning of this act is. That's controlled at the center. You're the author of a particular act but you don't try to control the manifesto, you simply tap into kind of a generalized meaning. A community that you are joining chooses the site, like airports, like airplanes, even if you have never flown out of an airport: there's nothing autobiographically retrospective there. You give over control of the meaning of the act to the network, to the community. By dying in the attack, you continue to hand over the meaning of the attack to the community. The potentially pathetic features of your life don't spoil the message.

In the intimate massacres, the attackers who have survived don't have much to say, after the event. It's not like they had a message worked out. A kind of sub-pattern in a number of school shootings is the destruction of the attacker's family, his mother, or other family members, which emphasizes the kind of intimate nature of the event. The person is re-writing the way he has been personified, known by others. The attacker becomes the sole author of the story and doesn't allow others to come in after the facts and kind of pollute the story. Let's say you are not part of a terrorist network and nobody is going to give the meaning to the act. Well then how do you make that violence your final statement? Well, one of the ways: you eliminate anybody else, like Mother, who is going to be turned to, predictably, to give an account, and who knows all these unattractive, pathetic things about you – all these failings. The whole effort is to destroy the way you have been personified, the way you think you’ve been seen. It’s a real problem that you have to plan, to take care of.

That is part of the interactional process going on: how you are shaping the action to shape how you are going to be seen. If you are part of a terrorist network, they will select the site, you kill yourself in the attack and it becomes the definitive statement about your life. And the terrorist network will broadcast – they are offering these facilities with increasing efficacy. They will broadcast the meaning of this act as the meaning of your life.

A lot of people get caught up in this theology of radical Islam, but whatever that means, it means that the network is defining this as who you are, for all time. And it is wiping out, making irrelevant all these other pathetic things about your life, that you might be ashamed about, humiliated about, uncomfortable in being defined as. And so it is not odd that some of the terrorist attackers have some criminal background, are losers in various senses of having been caught and punished for petty crime, because this act can overplay all of that.

MB : In the paper, you write : « Intimate massacres attempt to negate a negation. In that respect, they are not simply nihilistic ».

JK : Right. You might think of nihilism as destroying anything of value. They have a more modest, less philosophical perspective of destroying how they have been negated, how they have been looked down upon, underappreciated or miscast. Terrorists are closer to nihilism, at least in the emotional appeal. Often they have little affiliation or comprehension of the theology or political philosophy behind the movement they join. What is appealing is the destruction of others’ values and the jaw dropping silence that they imagine ensues.

There is another theme that gets to the multiple categories and their convergence and that has to do with the "emotional process" I referred to, the whole dynamic of transcendence. It is very important to consider this third dimension and often researchers are tempted not to : you start the analysis from a search for chaos in the life of the individual.

And that means a clash, cacophony, inconsistencies in how others have seen them. There's not just ONE way they have been defined, or treated. There's not just ONE way they have been acting, they have been bouncing from one thing to another, and these different courses to build a self don't necessarily work. That is why some of those who knew them refer to them as just ordinary people. Because the attackers were not consistently anything.

Now that chaos can be created by poverty : you don't know who is going to be in the household, who is going to be accepting or beating you up from day to day ; who your friends are, who your enemies are - people are turning on you. If you look at Alice Goffman's On the run 5: a life "on the run" is a life of chaos, in the practical senses. You don't know when you are gonna be called on to take the back of a friend, and that could get you in all kinds of trouble. You don’t know where you are gonna be sleeping night to night. Whether your girlfriend or even your buddies are gonna turn on you. I mean, this has been insufficiently appreciated, just the fundamental phenomenon of chaos. (It used to be. There was a long line of research into the association of poverty and psychosis. That fell out of favor, perhaps because it became impolitic to picture poor people in so degrading, stigmatizing a manner. Instead the favored analysis was resentment, like rational Marxist opposition.)

Now, there's a lot of chaos in the background of school shooters or workplace shooters, and it is often glossed as mental illness. And that's a problem that we have to resist. Because it only restates the question. What do we mean by mental illness? One of the things that methodologically is very important to keep in mind – and I don't think people usually do : a lot of these events, we look at them and we say "Oh, there are all sorts of idiosyncratic factors, we can't possibly understand them. These are mentally ill people. This particular club... this particular event at school meant something to him. Who could predict that?".

Often with school shootings, we get to appreciate the chaos in the person’s experience only after we first investigate a more rational, revenge-like cause : "Oh maybe it's because they were bullied", and we try to see if there is a pattern in bullying. But it turns out that doesn't work very well : some were, some were bullies themselves, some weren't different than anybody else, and some were bullied because they were weird !

Now the methodological warning is : it's not clear that, compared to the "crazy" oddness in the backgrounds of school attackers and others who do intimate massacres, there is more or less idiosyncrasy than in the causal background of anything else that social sciences try to explain. What we usually do when we try to explain, let's say, the relationship between the educational achievement and material status achievement or the class status you achieve, is that we use data sets that are so large that idiosyncrasy doesn't matter. It's not that it's not there. It's that we are wiping it out from our ability to recognize it. And for the kind of events we are talking about we can't get that data sets of that size. So the idiosyncrasies stand out to us because we can't wipe them out with massive statistics but it's not as if the path to these violent events is more idiosyncratic than the path to occupational status – where you end up.

So by arguing that there is chaos in the backgrounds of a variety of violent actions, I do not mean to say there is more or less idiosyncrasy than in the causal process leading to actions we admire. Chaos should not be confused with idiosyncrasy. "Mental illness" seems intractable to sociologists because it’s presumed that mental illness creates idiosyncratic motives.

In any case, if you start with the chaos or, as I have written with some other things, "the fall" – like you fall out of an embrace and you try to make sense of it – there's a lot of indications of how our research can proceed. You know, people may be grabbing for different ways of "make sense" that to us, who see from the outside, seem to be inconsistent. You attack at a club where you have been humiliated or treated in ways you can't accept. And then you're also throwing at the last minute a claim of allegiance to ISIS. Well, if you're starting at the chaos, you're grabbing whatever you can.

Now, one of the little arguments I have in the "Intimate massacres" piece is a kind of argument with Kathy Newman 6 and the somewhat political agenda behind that form of research, that really gets revealed if you look at chaos as a starting point of the motivational process. Newman's whole research project was funded by the US Congress, in part because the Republicans represent the areas were these events were much more frequently occurring than in the areas represented by Democrats. They weren't occurring in the inner-cities, in poverty areas, they were happening in the suburbs, in rural areas with low levels of violence. And so the Republicans joined with the Democrats in funding research, which is rare in our country. Her own writings and those of others came up with the conclusion that there is something in the nature of these "red" communities, that they are too repressive. And that makes sense as long as you don't look at forms of violence that happen in the inner city, where the rate of violence is much higher.

But if you look at each inner-city violent event, it may appear no less crazy than a lot of these school shootings. After all, you may ask: what are people in poverty areas in cities getting out of their violence? Attacking somebody else in a neighborhood, killing the bystanders like, perhaps, a young child in the vicinity... These are sorts of violence that have appeared a lot in the news in Chicago in the last couple of years. That occurred at much higher levels in these "blue" areas than in the "red" areas. Well if you take chaos as your starting point and see that chaos comes up in all forms, lots of different forms in the background – so lots of different violent people – , what you see is that in the close-in city there are lots of ways of making sense of acting violently that are readily at hand.

So let's say you are a poor African-American living in a poor black neighborhood and you are in a kind of chaotic state and you're looking for a way to try to shape an identity you can hold on to... Well, you're probably involved in the vice network or it’s easy to get involved in one, drug dealing or gambling. Violence seems rational when used to repay debts or to accomplish revenge but that doesn't really mean that the violence is any less crazy than what goes on in the – quote – "red" communities.

Another narrative readily at hand for making sense of your violence: there are gangs, gangs are available, so gangs make sense of violence. In a paper I wrote with Curtis Jackson-Jacobs: Gangs do not cause violence; gangs are were you belong if you are somebody for whom violence is attractive. Because they make sense of violence for you. Readily. And the cops play right into this and the media plays right into this, by saying, "oh, there's another act of gang violence."

In other words, there isn't necessarily more chaos in the usually tranquil conservative small-town where everybody cheers for the high school football team, and parents are involved with the schools, and the religious organizations are strong, and the barbecues, communal events, are well attended… Places where on 4th of July the fire department takes the town’s queen through the area where they have the firework display… You know, the quintessential American place! There's not necessarily more chaos there, but there are fewer ways of making sense of using violence for chaos. So people grab. They grab something from the internet. They grab a cartoon character that they portray... and it looks crazier.

So this notion that chaos comes first. And a way of making chaos – through violence – respectable is to grab all that can make it coherent, that gives reasons for violence, like gang affiliation, or like the violence in contraband markets. Everybody is willing to say « Oh of course : this is an illegal market, so they can’t go to the court to resolve their dispute, so they use violence ». So if you want to be violent and you’re in a community where there are these contraband markets, where there are gangs around, where this high violence level already is, you can be seen as maintaining a self-image for rational self-protective purposes, all kinds of reasons that make sense of violence. You won’t be seen as crazy, which is humiliating.

Now if you’re in one of these « red » places, your violence won’t be defined as « Oh, he was in a gang », or « Oh, he was trying to collect debts in a contraband market ». Those aren’t available. So you look like a nut ! Or you will look like a nut, and they’ll portray you that way unless the violence is the last moment of your life, at least, of your public life.

The young people who survive these are often taken to facilities where the media no longer has access to them and, until today, very few of the school shooters have tried to make public statements about what the meaning for them was of that violent action. They want that violence stands as the last statement about them.

So that's a long kind of response to the mixed forms of mass attacks that are evolving. That they would be a mixture is not so surprising if you think that, starting with chaos in their social lives, people are grabbing for ways of making coherent what they experience. Violence in effect is a projection out to the world of the chaos that's in them. And violence promises the transcendance of chaos, by being a way of saying "This is what it means. I am not chaotic. My life means this, or that." And they make that statement. I mean this guy in Orlando made a statement. Now people after the fact don't necessarily get satisfied with his statements and they try to figure out who this guy was. But his actions show an effort to seal the deal, to characterize the event in a way.

  1. Katz, Jack, 2015, « A Theory of Intimate Massacres. Steps Towards a Causal Explanation », Theorerical Criminology, 19, pp. 1-20. 

  2. Katz, Jack, 2002, « Start here : Social Ontology and Research Strategy », Theorerical Criminology, 6 (3), pp. 255-278. 

  3. Collins, Randall, 2008, Violence. A Micro-Sociological Theory, Princeton, Princeton University Press Katz, Jack, and Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, 2004, « The Criminologists’ Gang », in  

  4. Katz, Jack, 2002, « Start here : Social Ontology and Research Strategy », Theorerical Criminology, 6 (3), pp. 255-278 

  5. Goffman, Alice, 2014, On the run. Fugitive Life in An American City, Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 

  6. Newman, Katherine, 2005, Rampage. The Social Roots of School Shootings, New York, Basic Books. C. Sumner (ed.), The Blackwell Companion To Criminology, Malden (Mass.), Blackwell, pp. 91-124. 

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