It was a chilling series of horrors: four mass killings involving four different families, in four states over four bloody days, leaving 14 adults and seven children dead.
Criminologists say this tragic cluster was nothing more than random chance, not a sign of growing violence in America. Yet for many people, there is a need to explain the inexplicable.
“The natural thing to do is to try to make sense out of these events, particularly because they are so heinous and happened within such a short period of time,” said Tricia Bent-Goodley, a Howard University professor and member of the National Association of Social Workers who studies domestic violence.
But each week, she said, nine women are killed by an intimate partner. So these cases “are a reminder that the home is not a safe place for all Americans and that people do the unthinkable each day against people they say they love,” Bent-Goodley said.
The four unthinkable acts began on the final weekend of October, which was Domestic Violence Awareness Month:
-- In Phoenix on Saturday, a pharmacist described as paranoid, angry and depressed methodically shotgunned his next-door neighbors — a grandfather, his daughter, his son-in-law and his grandson — and then killed himself. The family’s two dogs also were killed, and neighbors speculated that their incessant barking caused the disturbed man to kill.
-- In New York City, a mother and her four young children were hacked and stabbed to death with a butcher knife Saturday by a relative who had been staying at their house, police said. Alarmed family members came to the house and banged on the door, which opened to a shocking sight: the alleged killer, dripping with blood.
-- In Texas, police said a man with a long criminal history went on a murder spree Monday, killing his mother in the home they shared, then an aunt and three others. The man had served prison time and relatives said he struggled with drug addiction.
-- On Tuesday, five people were killed in a South Carolina home by a man who was in a custody fight with his girlfriend. Police said the man broke into the house, waited for the family to come home, then shot his girlfriend, her parents and two children, ages 9 and 11. The killer, who was facing a burglary charge that could have imprisoned him for 30 years, then committed suicide.
It was simple chance that these crimes happened so close together, said Joel Best, a criminology professor who studies violence, the media and public perception. He compared it to tossing a bucket of Legos across a tile floor — the number of blocks that land on each tile is random.
“There’s no good reason to think that just because they happened within a few days of each other that there’s some kind of trend,” Best said.
Alejandro del Carmen, chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at Arlington, said it might seem as if deadly violence has increased because the Internet and social media delivers vivid news from everywhere in almost real time.
“We learn about the nature of how violent these acts are, see pictures of the victims, reporters talk to neighbors that knew the victims, and there’s a tendency of humanizing and personalizing this story in a ways we never have before,” del Carmen said.
As for the recent spate of family killings, he said, “It’s another week of random violence in America.”
Bob Vincent, pastor of Grace Church in Alexandria, La., often encounters pain and suffering in his profession. He knows a man whose wife hanged herself, and a woman whose father killed her mother.
He believes that the steady diet of violence fed to Americans through news and entertainment numbs them to tragedy and influences unstable people. Economic pressures and breakdowns of family and morality also contribute to the problem, in his view.
And when we accept the horrible as inevitable, he said, you stop trying to solve the problem.
“People tune out,” Vincent said. “They just go on about their lives. It’s not affecting them, it’s not their child shot. So I think that we are in a paralysis in terms of dealing with things substantively.”
There is a solution, said Elena Mustakova-Possardt, a social health scholar and psychotherapist.
There is much research indicating that social networks are rapidly disintegrating, she said, from the family to organizations to the credibility of government. But people need to feel connected to others and to communities to develop fulfilling, purposeful lives.
“There is less and less of any meaningful moral authority that holds people together,” Mustakova-Possardt said. “There are fewer internal connections and community models that can be trusted.”
“These extreme forms of random, horrific violence are an act of saying, my life is absurd, nothing means anything, I hate myself, I hate my life, I hate society,” she said. “Until we all make social health our shared project, we cannot honestly say that we have done what we can to keep our children safe.”