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School shooter followed video game-like ‘script’

Dr. Katherine Newman of  Princeton discusses the warning signs left behind by 16 year old Jeff Weise, who shot dead nine people at his Red Lake, Minnesota school .

Sixteen-year-old Jeff Weise, who shot dead nine people at and near his Red Lake, Minn., school before killing himself, reportedly left clues to his troubles in Web site and blog postings on Hitler, suicide attempts and school shootings as well as a violent animation posted on the Internet. NBC “Nightly News” producer Subrata De spoke about the warnings with Dr. Katherine Newman, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.”  Below is a transcript of that interview.

Subrata De: So, you saw the animation. Tell me your very first impressions when you saw it.

Dr. Katherine Newman: My first impression of the animation was how well drawn it was.

This was obviously a kid with a lot of talent. It's a tragedy that it's been wasted in this way. But also a great deal of anger brewing inside and murderous rage that is expressing itself in ways we all find quite familiar from countless video games. This is not an original piece of artistry in that sense.

He's following out a script he's very familiar with, with a tragic suicidal ending to it.

De: When you say "script" — what do you mean?

Newman: What I mean by "a script" is that when you look at popular culture, movies, video games, you will see this kind of "shoot ’em" pathway running through many of them. It's not an original idea of his; it's something that kids are exposed to by the millions.

Only a tiny, tiny handful become shooters, but this stuff is everywhere. What it tends to reinforce in the shooter's mind is not so much a violent impulse as a template for how to be notorious and alluring and cool as a shooter, and that's really most of the time what they're trying to achieve.

They're trying to reverse their reputation from a social loser to a notorious and attractive character in an anti-hero kind of way.

De: When you say "template" what do you mean by that?

Newman: If you pick up the average video game, you're going to see sequences that look just like the animation this boy produced. It's not something that we look at and say, “Oh, I've never seen that before.” You will see it a million times if you pick up any of the common video games available to teenagers today.

De: Can you tell us a little more about this "anti-hero" idea and why it might appeal to someone like Jeff Weise?

Newman: I think if you look at many of the most popular figures that exemplify male identity in our society, you'll see a Rambo, you'll see a Matrix, you'll see many examples of the lone gunman, who achieves a degree of masculine superiority over others through shooting. And so what I've argued in my book is that this is not a question of media inspiring violent rage in a kid so much as media providing a script, if you like, a popularly recognizable sequence that displays the male in this admirable violent role.

And a shooter who feels socially marginal, who is not accepted by his — by kids he'd like to be friends with, is looking for a way to reverse his reputation, go out as a notorious character rather than as a loser.

De: Do you think this alone would have been indication of the violence he was about to enact on this community? There were clearly a lot of warning signs, but was this animation the biggest of all?

Newman: It is not unusual. I have examples of this kind, not animated examples, but stories, drawings, comments made to friends that are exactly like this coming from other school shooters.

What is typical (is) broadcasting your intentions, making it clear in so many ways you're thinking about shooting people, you're thinking about violence, because you're trying to pique people's attention.

Now, should the community have seen this coming? How many school principals or teachers track access to Web sites? No one does that. We'd be up to our eyeballs in work if we tried to track the actions every kid takes on the Web. It's really almost impossible to do.

But the fact that he was letting out his behind-the-scenes ideas, not only on the Web, but telling other kids in the community that he was thinking about shooting, that is quite typical of school shooters because they're trying to attract attention.

They're not just going quietly into the night. They want to go out in a blaze of glory because they want to be seen differently from the way they're typically seen in their community, which is as a loser.

De: We also know that he had tried to commit suicide before.

Newman: It is quite common, unfortunately, for school shooters to have suicidal impulses. Those that survive so that we can interview them will record this history of suicidal thoughts and ideation and sometimes they leave behind notes, those who pass away. So it's quite common because school shooters are often very depressed, they are at the beginnings of serious mental disorders, which if they survive become full-blown when they're older.

And we don't have an easy time recognizing what a schizophrenic looks like when they are 13 or 14 years old. They may be in their early years of hearing florid voices in their heads or screaming instructions that they should be destructive actions towards others.

But they know something's wrong with themselves and go to great lengths to conceal how troubled they are. So it's very difficult for other people to see this in them.

But suicidality is very common among school shooters and they often put themselves in positions where they expect to be killed, what we call "suicide by cop." And that's what I think happened in this case. I think this boy expected to be assaulted by law enforcement. He got to himself first, but not until after law enforcement people had been shooting at him.

I don't think he expected to survive this incident. And many school shooters don't expect to survive. They are putting themselves in the a situation where somebody else will basically commit suicide on them, if you like.

De: Is that part of the idea of going out in a "blaze of glory," so to speak?

Newman: Yes because they don't want to go quietly, "dweebily" if you like. They are looking again to reverse the image the community has of them and at the same time to exit what is for them an intolerably painful social situation.

Which is often no worse than millions of other kids experience: teasing, feeling inadequate, being excluded, these are very common feelings for teenagers. But the kid who is in a state of clinical depression or in the beginning stages of a schizophrenic development may magnify the importance and pain of those ordinary experiences of bullying, for example.

De: You feel he shares many of the same behavioral traits as you saw at Columbine or in the Paducah school shooting?

Newman: I think everyone's heart goes out to the Native American community that feels somehow as though they are implicated. But from my vantage point, having studied school shootings all over the country, I really don't see that is an important causal angle here.

What is important is that that community, like many others that I've studied, is in a remote area, they are geographically isolated, it's a small town and that they have in common with many other school shootings. It may well be that the way the community experiences grief will be special because of their cultural heritage, but I recognize all the same signs I saw outside of Paducah, Ky., outside of Jonesboro, Ark., and what these communities have in common is that fact that they're small, residentially quite stable, geographically quite isolated, so that the kid who feels he's not doing well socially senses he's a million miles from anywhere where there might be kids he could cleave to and that it's a life sentence of social isolation.

The very things that make these communities often excellent places to raise kids, places people move from big cities to join because they feel they'll be safe, they'll be part of a stable social situation, precisely those elements can make it very hard for the marginal unsuccessful boy and make him feel like he's trapped.

De: Have you seen these online expressions in other school shootings?

Newman: The Internet played a role in many of them. I have the contents of the hard drives of some of the shooters in the other cases, and often they were frequently accessing Web sites, often of a deviant nature. You know it's not always Nazi-oriented. They’re seeking their own cyber community because they don't feel like they can find one locally. Goth culture often appeals to them because it seems oppositional and alluring for this reason, and they see the charismatic characters in the goth community as alluring, and they'd like to be a part of that too. That may be the closest they feel they can get in real life, but the Web opens up another universe, which kids access all the time, by the millions every day, there's nothing unusual about that, but it is a tragic record of his depression that we see on the Web sites.

De: In the other school shootings you've studied, not only is there the immediate trauma, there is lingering guilt. There were warning signs, there were threats and nothing was done.

Newman: I think one of the most tragic aspects of school shootings is that so many kids hear the shooter talking in advance, sometimes months in advance, about their intentions, very often in ways that are veiled or vague, difficult to interpret. Immediately after Columbine when kids heard these kinds of threats, they had a framework to put it in, to let them know this could be something real, this could be something serious. They started to come forward in large numbers. So we had an ever-increasing number of plots after Columbine that were stopped by the police because kids came forward.

But it’s been six years since Columbine; the teenagers in the Red Lake School District today were 8, 9 years old at the time of Columbine. It's faded as a reality for today's young teenagers. So when the Red Lake kids heard Jeff talk about his intentions, they thought it was a joke, they thought he wasn't serious, just like the kids I studied in Paducah or Jonesboro thought it's another one of those crazy things that Mitchell Johnson was saying, and they didn't come forward because they didn't realize how serious it was.

And many of them feel for years afterwards as though they are responsible, because they didn't come forward. But they're not. We can't blame them for not recognizing how troubled he was. They weren't following his scripts on the Web, either. None of us were.

NBC Nightly News producer Patrice Fletcher contributed to this interview.