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Murder and mayhem

A deadly brotherly bond

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 25, 2013 10:00 AM

By all accounts, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of two brothers suspected of having perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings, was a good kid, a bright young man and hardly the type of angry malcontent you'd expect of a terrorist. He graduated from the prestigious Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, where he starred on the varsity wrestling team; was named student-athlete of the month in his senior year; and earned a $2,500 scholarship from the city of Cambridge toward his tuition at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Dzhokhar's older brother, Tamerlan, seems to have had a far less glowing past. The 26-year-old community college dropout had been arrested on charges of domestic violence. In recent years, according to relatives, he had grown increasingly religious, drawn to a more observant Islam and possibly anti-American ideology. By his own account, Tamerlan had felt friendless here in America. Despite all this, Tamerlan showed little indication of having the potential or the desire to commit an extreme act of mass violence, and was cleared in an FBI investigation two years ago. Friends and neighbors were unconcerned.

Given their fairly unremarkable lifestyles and reputations, why would the Tsarnaev brothers have allegedly engaged in such diabolical crimes? How could these young men have heartlessly murdered and maimed spectators at the Boston Marathon and days later fatally shot an MIT police officer?

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Back-to-school fears

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment January 2, 2013 10:30 AM

With the holiday break ending, millions of youngsters will be returning to the classroom. Will they do so fearful that an incident like the Sandy Hook shooting might happen in their school? Will parents worry as they watch their children climb aboard the yellow school bus that they might not return safe and sound at the end of the day?

The recent massacre in Newtown, Conn. has put the issue of school safety center stage in the public and political discourse. Notwithstanding the fact that for school-aged children, the risk of serious violence while at school is significantly lower than at other times and at other places, the enormity of the carnage at the Sandy Hook compels us to think long and hard about school security.

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Top 10 myths about mass shootings

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment December 19, 2012 08:45 AM

Even before the death toll in last Friday’s school massacre in Newtown, Conn., was determined, politicians, pundits, and professors of varied disciplines were all over the news, pushing their proposals for change. Some talked about the role of guns, others about mental-health services, and still more about the need for better security in schools and other public places. Whatever their agenda and the passion behind it, those advocates made certain explicit or implied assumptions about patterns in mass murder and the profile of the assailants. Unfortunately, those assumptions do not always align with the facts.

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Preventing mass murder: No easy solutions

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment December 15, 2012 01:30 PM

In the wake of Friday’s massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., many Americans, some living near the crime site and others located hundreds of miles away, have described a sense of helplessness.

Understandably, people want and need to believe there are constructive measures that can make us and especially our children safer -- specific policies, procedures or programs that can prevent this kind of tragedy from recurring elsewhere, including their own local community. Parents, in particular, are left imagining the incredible pain that the families in Newtown must endure.

So what indeed can be done? What ideas have surfaced in the aftermath of this senseless slaughter, and what are their prospects for making a significant difference?

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Mass murder -- Horrible enough without hype

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment December 14, 2012 07:00 PM

I have grown accustomed to the massive media attention and frantic search for breaking news developments associated with mass murder. However, the seemingly insatiable need for some journalists to create a context for tragedy is mystifying.

Barely two hours after Tuesday's shooting at a Portland, Oregon shopping mall, I received several calls from points far west inquiring whether mass shootings were on the rise. Following high profile massacres in Aurora, Colorado and Seattle, Washington earlier this year, reporters and news editors wanted to confirm their perceptions with reality. They also wanted to know wether the Oregon shooter may have been modeling the Colorado theater massacre.

I assured all those who asked that such tragedies we not a sign of an upward trajectory. Rather, our collective memories seem to forget or move past other anxious times when mass shootings have clustered in time, for the most part out of sheer coincidence. Although there have been cases in which mass gunmen have derived inspiration from others who preceded them, and perhaps wanted a share of the notoriety that follows, the impact of copycatting is often overstated.

Curiously, the response from those who called about such a trend was more disappointment than relief. Innocent people were killed senselessly, and that wouldn't be any worse or better were it part of an emerging pattern.

Then, of course, came the Newtown, Connecticut shooting which claimed that lives of more than two dozen victims, mostly young children. As the tragedy was unfolding and before any perpetrator or motive was identified, scores of journalists, from all forms of media and from here and abroad were phoning to ask whether this was the worst school shooting in history. It didn't matter that deadlier episodes had happened overseas (the 2004 school siege in Russia), at a college setting (Virginia Tech in 2007) or involving means other than gunfire (the 1927 school explosion in Bath, Michigan), reporters were eager to declare the Sandy Hook massacre as some type a new record.

There isn't a Hall of Fame for criminals. There is no purpose in looking for record-setting. Does the pain and suffering associated with the Sandy Hook school shooting change in anyway if it is the largest? Would that make it any more important? I trust I need not answer these rhetorical questions.

Life without parole: Right for some, wrong for others

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment November 8, 2012 04:00 PM

It has been nearly two years since 24-year-old Jared Lee Loughner opened fire upon a crowded plaza in Tucson, killing six and wounding several others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Yet, after all the legal maneuvering, Loughner received sentence that guarantees he will never again walk free.

Mass murderers like Loughner or Winchester's Thomas Mortimer deserve nothing less than life imprisonment given the enormity of their crimes. While absolutely fair and appropriate for such atrocities, there are many other offenders, particularly here in Massachusetts, who receive the very same fate but who arguably deserve something less extreme.

In Massachusetts all defendants convicted of first degree murder are sent away to prison for life without the possibility of parole, regardless of any mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense or the offender. By contrast, two dozen states having life without parole on the books include it among a group of alternative sentences depending on the circumstances of the offense and the offender.

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Sandusky's fate in prison is no joke

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment October 9, 2012 12:00 PM

While growing up in this area, I was a big fan of AM talk shows. Of course, talk radio was quite a bit different a half-century ago, both in content and style.

Back then, in the 1960s, I was an avid listener of Paul Benzaquin, Jerry Williams and Steve Fredericks, three stars of the airwaves who truly put the “master” in the role of talk-master. Benzaquin and Williams were honored by induction into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and Fredericks likely would have been nominated had he not moved back to his hometown of Philadelphia where he became a renowned sport announcer.

I hardly ever listen to talk shows anymore. It is not just the shift from liberal ideas to ultra right-wing thinking that I dislike. It is more the anger and vitriol that has turned me and my radio off to squawk shows.

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No increase in mass shootings

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment August 6, 2012 02:45 PM

When it comes to gun violence, no one can deny that the Summer of 2012 has seemed especially horrific. In May, a disgruntled man, known in the community for his belligerent manner, shot up a Seattle cafe after being denied service, killing five before committing suicide. Then we witnessed the massacre of 12 moviegoers in Colorado and now a rampage at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that claimed the lives of six worshippers plus the gunman who was killed by the police.

The carnage has compelled many observers to examine the possible reasons behind the rise in mass murder. New York Times columnist David Brooks noted the number of schizophrenics going untreated. Gun control advocates have pointed to the 2004 expiration of the federal assault weapons ban as the culprit, while gun-rights proponents have argued that the body counts would be lessened were more Americans armed and ready to intervene and overtake an active shooter.

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Accused mass killer: Over-exposed

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment July 22, 2012 01:45 PM

With the movie theater massacre days in the past and the booby-traps discovered at the suspect's apartment having been disarmed, the media has turned its focus on assembling a clear picture of the 24-year-old man who the police say caused so much pain to so many. The race is on to locate sources -- neighbors, former classmates, friends, and even relatives who can explain what seems inexplicable.

We have learned that the accused mass murderer dropped out of graduate school, despite his earlier academic achievements -- the kind of profound disappointment that typically characterizes this type of offender. We also have learned about his fairly recent move from San Diego to the Denver area -- the kind of social upheaval that can strand someone on a social island, without adequate support systems or a sounding board for keeping things in perspective.

While this rush to know as much as possible about the accused gunman and to solve the motivational puzzle may satisfy our curiosity and fascination with the dark side of human behavior, it also feels like an empty exercise that lacks any practical value. No matter how much we uncover about this man believed to have killed 12 innocent movie-goers and wounded scores more, we will never be able to use this intelligence to predict or identify like-minded individuals who potentially pose a threat to public safety.

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The Colorado shooting and gun control

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment July 20, 2012 11:30 AM

Author's note: I hope you'll take the time to read the entire piece. Unfortunately, it is easy for some to jump to quick conclusions without moving past the headlines. So let me be clear about this post. As my frequent readers know, I do support reasonable gun restrictions and regulations--certain steps designed to reduce our nation's overall rate of firearms violence. Still, murder in its most extreme form, as in the Colorado shooting, is particularly difficult to prevent through gun restrictions, or other strategies, for that matter. Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try nonetheless. It would be the right thing to do, although not necessarily for the right reasons. Those reasons occur every day on the streets of America.

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There are few criminal events as stunning and frightening as a mass shooting. The suddenness, randomness and unpredictability(CNN) -- There are few criminal events as stunning and frightening as a mass shooting. The suddenness, randomness and unpredictability of episodes like Friday's early morning massacre at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater cause us all to wonder whether any place is safe.

In our search for some pattern or commonality to these tragedies that might help us make sense of what appears so senseless, we invariably seek answers to such questions as: "What would inspire someone to commit such a dreadful act, one that was clearly planned in terms of time and place?" and "Are there measures that would reduce the likelihood of such events or at least reduce the carnage associated with them when they do occur?"

Read the full article at CNN.
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About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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