Could Targeted Violence in Europe be on the Rise?

Stephen White, Ph.D.      Bram van der Meer, MSc.      Reid Meloy, Ph.D.
Spring 2011 Newsletter

Collaborating with us on our feature this quarter is Bram van der Meer, a new colleague in The Netherlands.  Bram recently co-founded his own consulting service, Black Swan Forensics, after a 6 year career as a clinician in a forensic mental health facility, followed by an 11-year career as a  threat assessment professional  and profiler with the Netherlands National Police.

On a recent Saturday morning in the Netherlands a young man from the town of Alphen aan den Rijn went to a local shopping mall and staged what is rare for Europe – a public mass murder.  The shooter, Tristan van der Vlis, fired over a hundred rounds, killing six shoppers and injuring 17 others.  He then turned one of his firearms on himself.   As one of the town mourners said, “A shooting like that, you only see them in the cinema or in America — not in the Netherlands.” The President of the Netherlands declared the event “a national tragedy.”

Indeed the Alphen shooter is all too familiar to those of us in the threat assessment field, as well as to the American public in general.  It could have been the description of a mall shooting in the US.  In media accounts 24 year-old Van der Vlis is described by family and his few friends as having a long history of violent delusions, anger toward police and authorities, and immersion in violent video games.  Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he was involuntarily hospitalized for a time in 2008 after a serious suicide attempt by poisoning.  A local prosecutor stated that Van der Vlis stopped taking his anti-psychotic medications about a year before the attack, and dropped out of treatment with his psychiatrist about seven months ago.  He owned several firearms, had five gun licenses, and was a member of a gun club.  He talked frequently about M16s and machine guns, the deadlier the better in his mind, and how to get them illegally in the Netherlands where firearms are more rigorously controlled.

Van der Vlis worked sporadically, mostly in supermarkets, but often provoked his being terminated by causing disruptive conflict.  He took his breaks in his car and his coworkers avoided him (Is it coincidental that he committed suicide near the mall’s supermarket cash registers?)  He had not worked for some time and was becoming increasingly disorganized and isolated.  He never dated or even discussed girls.  More than once he talked about “going into the city hall or a police station and shooting everyone.”  An old school friend when informed of the incident said, “I thought it must be Tristan.”  He lived with his father, but left a suicide note for his mother, who described it as spiritual and focused on his wish to die.  He planned and prepared for his killings.

Angry, delusional, immersed in weapons, preoccupied with violence, leaking his intent to attack to third parties, but not directly threatening; suicidal, underemployed, isolated and alienated – these are “perfect storm” ingredients and common precursors to a mass murder.  His father also may have enabled him by apparently allowing him continual access to firearms.  Research by Hempel, Meloy, Mohandie and others have found that the majority of adult mass murderers are delusional at the time of their killings; and paradoxically, the psychotic mass murderers kill more victims than the non-psychotic mass murderers.  Their delusions are often suffused with paranoid ideation, and their targets are often strangers to them, yet conspiring against them—at least in their bizarre and violent fantasies.

Although hardly immune from violence, the statistical picture has long suggested that Europe is less vulnerable to mass murder.  For instance, American corporations are well aware of the possibility of workplace violence at home, and report much lower levels of incidents of concern at their European work sites.  A 2010 report by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work did note increasing incidents of workplace violence and consequent concern, but the typical focus is on non-homicidal aggression, such as harassment, bullying, mobbing, and assault.

But homicidal attacks – at workplaces, campuses, and against public figures – do occur.  For instance Finland, Germany, Belgium, and the UK have all experienced mass murder incidents in recent years, typically committed by lone individuals and unrelated to the global terrorist threat.

One of the findings of studies of school shootings in Europe is that the assailants are influenced by and familiar with previous shooters, and desire to create their own notoriety in the aftermath of their killings, often with a wish to outdo their predecessors in body count.  In our increasingly globalized and internet-driven world—with instant saturation news coverage on many platforms by the likes of CNN and the News Corporation– it is now quite conceivable that an attack on another continent will contribute to a “copy cat” shooting in a distant locale.  Perhaps Van der Vlis was influenced by Jared Loughner, the January, 2011, Tucson assassin and mass murderer.  In our instantly connected world it is wise to consider that any “local” incident can have global ramifications.

One implication is that areas of the world less familiar with such events need to understand that, “It can happen anywhere.”  There is an increasing interest in training for police and other first responders—most mass murders are completed within 15 minutes before special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams arrive– and a more critical look at interagency cooperation.  Guidelines for detaining and treating the dangerous mentally ill are also easily accessed.   Although most people with mental disorder are more likely to be victimized by violence than to perpetrate it, there is a significant relationship between psychosis and general violence toward others.  “Active shooter” scenarios and training are also being increasingly utilized by both law enforcement and campus/corporate security professionals (see, for example, Active Shooter: How to Respond, by the U.S. Dept of Homeland Security).

The US may be the leader in targeted revenge or delusionally-driven violent attacks.  As a consequence US threat management “technology” is more developed than in other parts of the world.  Many incidents, however, have likely been prevented by interdiction, informed by knowledge of the static risk factors and the dynamic warning behaviors, with the help of increasingly knowledgeable professionals and an aware public.   Although it is virtually impossible to prove that an act of targeted violence was prevented—one cannot verify something that did not happen—threat assessment and its corollary risk management offer a systematic method to identify and successfully intervene with those individuals who appear to be at risk of targeted violence.

The Dutch Police are currently investigating the background of Van der Vlis and developing a reconstruction of the attack.  A final report and press conference will be released within the next few months.