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The Paris Terrorist Attacks: Understanding the Psychology of Ideological Mass Murder and What We Can do About It

Effective Psychiatric Treatment welcomes Dr. Michael Welner, Chairman of The Forensic Panel and one of America’s most accomplished forensic psychiatrists. Dr. Welner has consulted on numerous mass killings, most recently the Aurora movie theater shooting in Colorado. He has been a key contributor to landmark Congressional legislation (HR 2646) to dramatically upgrade crisis psychiatry intervention. Dr. Welner is responsible for a number of innovations in forensic science. His research includes online surveys in which the public– including psychiatrists– collectively contribute to efforts to weigh the severity of crimes by intent, actions, and attitudes. He encourages everyone to participate and involve others in this important effort at

Dr. Deitz:  Dr. Welner, Thank you for your time. Can you briefly describe the types of mass murder and where the Paris and Mali attacks fit into the overall schema?

Dr. Welner: Experience leads me to distinguish six types of mass killers:

1: Community–random targeting seeking to maximize death

2: Ideological—either targeting symbols or prejudices for ideological statement, or seeking to maximize number of deaths to promote a cause

3: Workplace—targeting a workplace, usually its leadership

4:  School—targeting classmates, teachers, and sources of conflict

5: Family—annihilation in the context of unexpected financial collapse,

finality of divorce, abandonment)

6: Criminal—drug-gang violence, robberies

The Paris and Mali tragedies demonstrate the qualities of Ideological Mass Killing.

Dr. Deitz: Where do Ideological mass killings fit in among the above categories?

Dr. Welner: Ideological mass killings in America involve those who employ an issue-agenda to paper over longstanding homicidal fantasies. Recognizing the wrong of killing a complete stranger, a person may be indoctrinated (as occurs in some U.S. prisons or in a subset of ideologically-sympathetic mosques) or self-indoctrinate (through social networking) to dehumanize the nominal enemy, be it the police, racial or religious minorities, the military, or those of different cultures. The process of indoctrination for such turbulent characters dehumanizes a class of victims to the end that the aspiring killers truly believe that such individuals deserve to die in order to create spectacle.

Dr. Deitz: How do the Events of Paris and Mali differ from other mass murders that have occurred recently in the United Sates?

Dr. Welner: American mass killers are far more frequently driven by the psychological motivation to transcend into larger than life anti-heroes, airbrushed by sentimental media portrayals that amplify their humanity precisely because they have undertaken the inhumane. Those victims unrelated to the “cause” who are killed or wounded are ultimately regarded as collateral damage, once the killer becomes invested in creating spectacle at all costs.

Dr. Deitz: Are the Jihadist terrorist attacks as carried out in Paris and Mali a different animal?

Dr. Welner: The Paris and Mali attacks differ from many of the ideological mass killings in America in their execution by a trained paramilitary force far more committed to a collective cause, compared to the glory-seeking of American social failures who are seduced by the vanity of their portrayal after the fact. The pathway of those recruited to coordinated activity, be it in Paris or September 11, reflects more upon the personal success and selection of jihadists because of their capabilities rather than the failure and disenfranchisement of the dead-ender who massacres to demonstrate Jihadist sympathies (such as Nidal Hassan, who murdered 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas).

Dr. Deitz: Dr. Welner, you have had extensive experience interviewing ideological mass murderers. What have you learned about the evolution of their attitudes? Can psychiatry help?

Dr. Welner: Mass killing of all types is the endpoint of a clinical pathway involving a sequence of twelve steps:

First: Externalizing blame—it is always someone else’s fault when things don’t go well

Second: High or patchy self-esteem—expectations of greatness

Third: Poor characterological resilience—difficulty rebounding from adversity

Fourth: Social rejection, particularly psychosexual rejection

Fifth: Identification with potency of destructiveness—destruction force perceived as power

Sixth: Identification with destructive icons

Seventh: isolation and psychosexual incompetence—with very few exceptions, solitary mass

murderers are heterosexual men

Eighth: Identifying with alienation—embracing alienation in order to blame the rejecting outer

world for failures

Ninth: Failures mount to a degree that they predict further and future failure

Tenth: Anger and alienation directed to destructive fantasy

Eleventh: Hopelessness inspires destructive alternative identity and a concrete plan

And finally: Investment in achieving the destructive mission—the ultimate ambition

Clinical intervention to redirect the evolving homicidality of a prospective killer can occur at any time along this path until the end-stage. At that point, the prospective killer becomes so mobilized around a destructive plan that any intervention is perceived as an obstacle to his psychological needs. That is the point of no return; if we look at the killer as a potentially explosive bomb, this is the point beyond which the fuse has been lit.

Dr. Deitz: Is there any intervention other than guns, bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors to protect against these sorts of acts?

Dr. Welner: In contemporary America and other fame-driven cultures, there is tremendous social incentive for alienated and violently-identified young males who have given up on achieving once-lofty ambition to opt for destructiveness. That incentive is created and perpetuated by 24-hour news media, which conveys a platform for mass killers to refashion themselves into icons for their ideological fellow travelers.

ISIS’s social incentives for mass killing mirror those codified by the Palestinian Authority, which financially rewarded and memorialized suicide bombers targeting Jews with the greatest distinction, including religious deification. Such unmatched frequency of mass murder of civilians by civilians requires more than a news media; it connotes a concerted coordination between political authority, religious leadership, and hermetically controlled mass-media. The required social incentives have to be more powerful than misery and poverty (a ubiquitous global problem), or even tribal strife (numerous areas in the developing world) or powerlessness (Tibet, Burma, American Indians).

Socioculturally, the best chance to eliminate ideological mass murder as a life choice is to extinguish its social incentives. The mass media has the capacity to portray ideological mass murder as the ultimate perversion. Over the years, the mass media demonized and socially rejected bigotry based on race and sexual orientation to the degree that such intolerance and insensitivity has been systematically eradicated in the West. Until such forces are marshaled against ideological mass killers, the quest for spectacle through destructiveness will only worsen.

Regarding Jihadism, the responsibility for eliminating Jihadist mass murder lies within the Muslim community itself.  Until the Muslim community mobilizes and emphatically ridicules and humiliates rejectionist and nihilistic elements into stopping mass killing, the problem will grow and spread – in Muslim countries and secular countries alike. The rejection of spectacle Jihadist murder can only be achieved when responsible people empower and embolden those pluralistic Muslims who are courageous enough to denounce the nihilistic element of Islam. Humor is an underutilized weapon, but as Charlie Hebdo proved before its decimation, a very impactful one. Humiliated individuals like racist Donald Sterling and sexual predator Jerry Sandusky attract no followers.

Metal detectors may interrupt a plot in motion. Gun regulations will create obstacles for those isolated loners attempting to kill on a grander scale, but will create gun-free killing fields for others integrated enough into terror networks to arm themselves despite regulations (such as in Paris).

Eliminating the social incentive to mass killing is a clinical imperative for mental health professionals who may encounter young men wrestling with destructive choices which they appraise to be all too realistic.

Dr. Deitz: Thank you, Dr. Welner.

Dr. Welner: You are welcome. Thank you for inviting me.

Paris concept image available from Shutterstock

The Paris Terrorist Attacks: Understanding the Psychology of Ideological Mass Murder and What We Can do About It

Jeffrey Deitz, MD

Jeffrey Deitz MD is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Connecticut and New York City. For years Deitz, who teaches medical students and supervises psychiatrists-in-training, wrote for the professional literature about psychotherapy, conducting seminars about the role of psychotherapy in treating PTSD and Bipolar Disorder. In 2010, he began publishing in the New York Times and Huffington Post about sports psychology, the power of psychotherapy, and the public health risk of sleep deprivation. Deitz’s first novel, Intensive Therapy: A Novel, a fiction about the life-saving relationship between a psychiatrist and patient, has recently been published. For more information visit:

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APA Reference
Deitz, J. (2015). The Paris Terrorist Attacks: Understanding the Psychology of Ideological Mass Murder and What We Can do About It. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 21 Nov 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Nov 2015
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