Dr. Scapegoat: Is Lanza a Victim Too?

Dear Dr. Scapegoat: Is the shooter in the Connecticut massacre a victim in any way? – Karen E. 

Hi Karen,

Of course Dr. Scapegoat has been thinking about little else but the 20 children and others killed by Adam Lanza in the Connecticut massacre. I wrote earlier that a large and fear-driven group in the U.S. has scapegoated too many others because of their desperate hope that guns will make them feel strong and potent. And I still think that this is the crux. But the question of how much feeling like a victim plays into the motivations of committing  mass murder-suicide, as with Lanza, is obviously extremely relevant.

Everyone who has some form of mental illness in our American school system ends up as a scapegoat. The stigma of being different sees to that, and kids use a variety of bullying behaviors to label and abuse their victims as a way of feeling they belong to the majority group. Even simple ostracism is enough and that certainly happened to Lanza. After all, the Biblical Scapegoat wasn’t killed ; he was sent  to the Judean wilderness as a loner.

But the real answer to your question is this: Scapegoats are victims of group trauma and as such they seek revenge. That’s the key to Lanza’s (and perhaps his mother’s) gun fetish.  Mass murder is vengeance writ large.


  1. Hi Dr. Scapegoat,

    Rich and fertile territory once again!
    What a challenge it is to imagine myself in the mind of this violent boy.
    And yet, maybe he’s not so foreign to me, though I’ve never held a gun in my hands, nor acted out any violent impulses I’ve felt. Certainly I’ve experienced myself being chaotic, full of stress, and targeting a scapegoat – my dog, my wife, my self, etc..
    In Girardian thought, when rivalry and envy (and who could argue against these being the drivers of much of our social life?) lead to imitative chaos. The identity of the community is at stake, and the social bonds go through a kind of ‘shuddering’, not unlike the shuddering of lost attachment that Dr. Greg Frichionne talks about in his lectures on stress responses.
    The social chaos requires a strong response to re-establish social coherence, an accusatory gesture that captures the attention of the community.
    I wonder if this boy was in a similar breakdown within himself. Was he experiencing such abandonment that his identity was annihilated? Did he have any conscious awareness of his actions, or was it more of an ancient biological stress response to integrate his brain/mind, and recover his identity?
    Was he using medications that calmed him outwardly, but perhaps led to a breakdown of his own sensor-motor competence, and thus, sense of self?
    Did he feel abandoned by the world? Shuddering in his heart and mind? Was he unable to function competently at a job, and feeling pushed further to the margins of his community?
    Of course, I don’t know. But here’s what I’ve observed. I’ve been practicing as a chiropractor for 29 years. Most of the people who come to see me have varying degrees of injury, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, the usual list of causes of neuromuscular trouble. Something has changed, however, over this time period. I’m pretty sure I’m not simply more observant than I was many years ago. I’ve never seen people so stressed, or feeling so unhappy about their prospects for life. I have between 3 and 5 patients per day (out of a daily visit average of 40) who break down into tears over their life condition. This never, ever happened in my early years in practice. It’s a recent phenomenon.
    My point about that is (since our topic is scapegoating) that we have an interesting (and terrifying) social problem going on, and it’s effecting us all. What could be causing this? Here are a few possibilities, not to lay blame, but for discussion;
    1) Statistically, we have a 15% decline in secure attachment between child and primary caretakers, per Dr. Dan Siegel. Are we more susceptible to rivalry and envy when our attachment is weak? Could we resist the force of an accusatory gesture more effectively if we were more securely attached to others?
    Was this boy in the midst of a long spiral of abandonment, and thus, a victim?
    I personally suspect this is the root of this challenge, if not for Adam, then for our culture.
    2) I wonder if the rise of fundamentalism, which I believe is a shortcut to Scapegoating violence, will cheapen our thinking about this boy, Adam, and allow simplistic responses like ‘Evil people will find a way to do evil things’ to carry the day and drive our political responses. At the risk of sounding more naive than I am, we are, as Mother Teresa said, ‘much more than the worst thing we ever did’.
    When I look on what we’ve done in Iraq, as a Nation, I feel like I’ve been a part of mass killing as well.

    It’s really late here in Wisconsin, so I’ll end off, incomplete, but too tired to be coherent any more tonight.

    I’m very grateful for this site. Thanks.



  2. I saw the post about the Rabbi in Brooklyn, and thought this excerpt from an article on Girardian thinking about Abraham might be useful.

    ‘The thought of the French philosopher René Girard 1 provides an interesting context in which to read the story of Abraham and Isaac. Girard believes that sacrificial rituals arise when uncontrolled violence threatens to destroy a society. The usual way for a community to survive this crisis is for the violence to become focused on a particular victim, or scapegoat; a real or imagined transgression is usually cited to justify the victim’s selection, but the choice is in fact arbitrary. Once the victim is destroyed, peace is temporarily restored. The people therefore believe this violence to be divinely sanctioned; they establish rituals that re-enact the “founding murder” and develop a mythology that justifies it.

    This sacrificial mechanism, however, can work only if participants do not understand what is really going on. Girard believes that the Judaeo-Christian scriptures chip away at the myths of violence to reveal the inner workings of scapegoating and sacrifice and so destroy them. This process begins in the first books of the Old Testament and gradually becomes more radical until it reaches its conclusion in the Gospels.2

    Genesis 22 retains some characteristics of primitive sacrificial myths, but at heart it is very different — and not just because of its surprise ending. A number of elements in the text subvert the sacrificial theme and show that the story is not simply part of the usual cycle of violence.

    The difference begins when Isaac is named as victim. The victim in a sacrificial myth is generally depicted as having done something to deserve his fate; Isaac is not shown to have done anything at all. Indeed, it may be to emphasise his innocence that the author depicts him as if he were a young child, even though the timescale of Genesis suggests he would have been an adult.3 Girard believes that this acknowledgement of the victim‘s innocence is the first step in dismantling the sacrificial process: “The true ‘scapegoats‘ are those whom men have never recognised as such, in whose guilt they have an unshaken belief.” 4

    As Abraham prepares to kill Isaac, the language used is not that of ritual but that of butchery. In his translation of the Pentateuch, Robert Alter points out that the word מאכלת, which is used throughout for the knife, usually refers to a cleaver used in butchering rather than a weapon used for sacrifice. Likewise, עקד (verse 9), while it does not appear elsewhere in the Old Testament, is used in rabbinic Hebrew to mean trussing the legs of animals, and שחט (verse 10) means not “sacrifice” but “slaughter.” 5 It is difficult to see the attempted killing as having the dignity of a divinely approved ritual when this brutal vocabulary is used.

    Another very significant change in vocabulary occurs when the angel saves Isaac. Up to this point, the word used for God has been אלהים. While often used in the Old Testament to mean the God of Israel, this is really a generic term that can refer to any god or goddess. Only when Isaac is rescued does the true name of God — יהוה, “the Eternal” — appear in the text. The Girardian scholar Paul Nuechterlein believes that this change holds the key to the story:

    Very important to a Girardian reading of this crucial passage is the idea that the God at the beginning of the passage who demands the sacrifice from Abraham is a different God from the one at the end who stops it. … Is this story trying to sort out the gods? Abraham begins hearing the common tribal gods of ancient polytheism who demand human sacrifices. On the mount of Yahweh-yireh, however, he begins to hear and envision the one true God who wants us to stop that nonsense. 6

    Note – I want to be clear that in presenting Girardian thought, I am not advocating for a particular religious point of view. I am very interested in dismantling the mimetic scapegoating violence of the world through understanding its mechanicality, and my own.

    • drscapegoat says:

      Dear Mike: I have greatly enjoyed your comments and I have learned a great deal about how to apply Rene Girard’s work to scapegoating problems. I have read Girard, though not as thoroughly as you, and recently listened to a five part interview with him on the Canadian Broadcast System. (I think that’s the right reference).
      What I think he really captures is how large and critical and natural scapegoating is. In my terms it is the basic Archetype of group life. I also believe it is not only a response to the nechanism he describes. It is primary to the potential that groups (and individual) have to develop.(See som of my posts and the concept of positive scapegoating and of course my book Up from Scapegoating.
      He is such an abstract thinker, a philosopher really, that without criticizing his work, I do wish his generalizations were more grounded in group reality. For example his descriptions of the way sacrificial events arise don’t help much and are always the same. Actual group process is far more complicated and changing group behavior is only possible by digging into the details, educating about them, making them real and helping subgroups and individuals to find another way. As a consultant I try to do that. But of course my interest is always in healing and I believe he is most concerned with explaining. Vive la Difference.
      I also find his focus on Jesus interesting and sectarian. The secret shame of group sacrifice is often not a secret and many have tried to bring insight to groups involved. Of course they in turn become scapegoats unless they are very skilled politicians. Jesus had a go at it and it was his followers, hundred of years later, who made his words (or their reflection on his words) continue to be important. The fact that he has become a God for many makes a mockery of his message. No?

  3. Mike Saatkamp says:

    Si, Dr. Scapegoat! I’ll be back later, and I agree with your comments – the theory is refereed by several wonderful authors, I’ll post comments later. A challenge is that the emergence of this theory within Catholic theology means that it’s subject to supervision by ecclesial authorities, and many of the commentaries end up apologetic to doctrine. I’ll be back soon with comments, busy family day!

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