A Local Man Specializes in the Threat of "The Random Actor"
All week, ever since news broke of the massacre on the Virginia Tech campus, Richardson's Dan Korem has been fielding calls from frightened university and the media, because, for better or for worse, gruesome events like this are his speciality. For years, Korem has been training companies, schools, law enforcement agencies and even the military how to identify people who match the profiles of those who commit mass school shootings and bombings -- the so-called "random actor" like Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui, who, seemingly out of nowhere and without warning, commits an act of extraordinary violence.
Think you’re safe in your snug suburb? In your peaceful small town? On your conservative campus? Think again. Places like Plano, McKinney and Texas A&M are at much higher risk for attacks than inner-city schools and free-wheeling campuses. That risk extends to the workplace. Korem’s book Rage of the Random Actor: Disarming Catastrophic Acts and Restoring Lives explains why and outlines what he calls the “Korem Profiling System.”
Korem, speaking to Unfair Park this morning, insists that the next few months will see the threats of such attacks rise dramatically. Why? Read on.
You say you can predict where tragedies like the mass shooting that occurred last week at Virginia Tech. How?
The only places these things occur are suburbs and small towns and the parts of cities that otherwise are statistically safe. They do not happen in the inner city. There’s never been a mass school shooting or bombing in an inner city in North America or Europe.
Who is most likely to become a “random actor”?
There are two parts of a person's profile on our system. The first is how a person communicates -- their talk. The second is how they operate and make decisions -- their walk, if you will. Which part of the random actor profile will kill you? The walk. There are two performance or walk traits. The first is, does a person like to operate conventionally, like, say, Queen Elizabeth? Or unconventionally? So when the Virginia Tech shooter killed people at random, is this a convention or unconventional act?
The second trait: How do they make decisions -- out of confidence or fear? Is it low fear or high fear? When the shooter talks about everyone is against him and then commits suicide, is this making decisions out of confidence or fear? The obvious answer is fear -- high fear or paranoia -- which may or may not be clinical. Every single random actor who kills has these two traits to the extreme. They are people in typically conventional surroundings who are unconventional and unpredictable, with a high rate of fear.
Are most such people mentally ill?
You do not have to have a clinical diagnosis to be a random actor who kills. That’s based on the opinion of psychologists or psychiatrists.
Why are most male?
About 10 to 15 percent are girls, but women typically do not do this. They’re just not as violent in general. There was plot averted in Boston right after 9/11 that involved girls acting with guys.
Why are safe places at most risk?
We look at anything that represents the polar opposite of the fearful random actor traits that are unpredictable-unconventional and highly fearful. If a place or group of people appears conventional and confident, that will be the random actor’s target. There will be no rationality to it; they will just attack it. Places with a high quality of life, maybe a military presence or a strong football program, or other athletes, who are identifiable by predictable uniforms and confident attitudes. All this discussion you are hearing in the media about why Cho targeted certain victims at Virginia Tech is absolutely irrelevant.
So fearful, unpredictable people are striking out at institutions and people who appear conventional and confident?
Yeah. There’s also a high correlation with places that are in dynamic change, like fast-growing suburbs, where people may have unsettled lives. Often people have had recent family problems, like a divorce or a loss of a family member. In the metroplex, some of the places we should pay particular attention to are those with high suicide rates among teenagers. Dallas is supremely at risk. We are square in what I call the “manager quadrant”: confident and predictable. The conventional neighborhoods, the number of churches we have -- all that enters in.
So you wouldn’t expect to see this happen on campuses that are more unconventional, less regimented, more accepting of off-the-wall behavior.
Right. It could happen at the University of Oklahoma, like the student bombing that happened last year. But the risk at a school like Berkeley would be much lower.
What can school administrators or students do about someone who matches the random actor profile?
The first obvious question is: Are they going to kill? Most don’t. However we identified a three-point intervention, that when you apply it with this person, it takes away their rage and paranoia and guides them out of the destructive profile. The first thing is once you have identified someone as fitting these traits is to make sure the person never gets isolated. With young people it usually works within three weeks. It’s a behavioral fire extinguisher. If you use it you see threats drop.
How do you know intervention works?
Before 9/11, as an experiment, we trained an entire region of a major state where they had near catastrophic bombings in their schools. About 50 school systems were affected. We trained most of the school staff. After 9/11, this was the only region that did not have bomb threats in the schools. Why? They had pre-identified their kids, applied this three-point intervention, and the psych ward effect didn’t take place.
What is the psych ward effect?
When there’s a catastrophic event, it can set off the paranoia of another random actor. It is a unique type of contagion of fear that only affects random actors. The misconception is that that’s a copycat. It's like if you put one disturbed person into a psychiatrist ward with 30 other patients who are stabilized, it destabilizes everybody. This week, the number of incidents has gone from 50 to 75 per day to in the low hundreds per day. These are serious threats, with kids who have been found with plots, bombs or guns.
How big is the problem?
There are 55 million kids in K-12 schools. According to school counselors we've trained, it's about one percent; the lowest estimate is half of one percent. In higher education there are about 15 million students, so there could be 75,000 potential random actors on college campus. All you need is for one or two percent of those folks to go off. But because technology is cheaper, more can act on their impulse. I talked to a military advisor about Cho. He said this kid had to be a pretty decent shot. He’s probably had video games to perfect his technique. It’s a stinking mess.
What about the workplace?
The statistical likelihood is that you see it in certain kinds of companies: assembly lines, accounting -- regimented, conventional kinds of places where there is a lot of repetition in what they do. You see people go postal in the U.S. Post Office but not UPS, which has a looser management style. You’ve never seen an art director walk in with an Uzi and blow people away. --Glenna Whitley