Friends of mine often alert me to early news reports of mass shootings or shootings in public places. These reports raise the question of what should count as an amoklauf -- especially in the country that coined the word. Sunday brought news from Germany of a woman who walked into her local hospital with guns blazing, killing one and wounding three before security brought her down. Investigators soon discovered that the woman had killed her child and estranged husband and had tried to burn their house down before going to the hospital.
As a rule, I call it an amoklauf when I perceive that the attacker is targeting people indiscriminately, killing them for no deeper reason than that they're people. I grow reluctant to call it an amoklauf when there's an obviously personal element involved. If family's involved, for instance, I'm inclined to think of the act as a crime of passion. Workplace shootings are borderline cases, but they may be instructive in general. The workplace shooter most likely has a beef with his job and his employers. He may or may not think that all his co-workers are his enemies, but in many cases he ends up firing indiscriminately in the office, breakroom, etc. In yesterday's case, investigators speculate that the woman may have had some issue with the hospital because she suffered a miscarriage there several years ago, but I doubt whether she targeted specialists who had treated her then; those people may not even work at the hospital now. What seems most obvious is that the woman crossed a certain mental threshold and had decided, once she reached the hospital, to shoot as many people as possible. Her spree didn't start as an amoklauf, but arguably became one. An amoklauf might be best defined as a moment when someone kills, like a Kali cultist in Gunga Din, for the love of killing, achieving some kind of ecstasy (not necessarily or even probably sexual) in the act. Killing may make suicide (by cop in many cases) palatable for people who would otherwise deem it contemptible. It may make them feel worthwhile at last because killing is at least an accomplishment for people otherwise unaccomplished. The victims are most likely depersonalized for the amoklauferin, but she still takes life personally; society and everything in it becomes her enemy. None of us are innocent in her eyes; we may have done nothing personally to offend her, but we are all components of the intolerably oppressive world that is her true target.
How many of these people would detonate a nuke if they could, to spite that world or in their minds end it? Theirs may be the mentality we attribute speculatively to those "madmen" rulers whom we'd deny nuclear weapons -- and we won't let individuals have nukes, either. The same mentality, as we see all too frequently, can do considerable damage with guns, but in such cases we would rather trust other guns to defend us rather than adopt a preventive principle, based on a broadly-constructed right to kill in self-defense. Amoklaufers employ the most liberal construction possible of the self-defense principle; feeling oppressed by life or society itself, they might wipe it out if they could. We can't yet determine who among us is likely to become an amoklaufer, and no such test may ever be possible. What, then, does public safety require of us? If possible, to condition people through education to suppress the amoklauf impulse. Beside that, to minimize the possible damage by minimizing the firepower or other lethal force available to people. If that sounds like too much government to some people, let them accept the amoklauf as a regular phenomenon of the freedom they demand in our time.