On Wound Collectors: Lessons learned from extremists, mass murderers, and those who can't let go
If there is one thing I’ve learned in four decades of law enforcement work it is that there is no single reason for why people commit crimes. Everything from impulsivity, to immaturity, to hatred, to mental disorders, to socialization to whatever motive or excuse you want to use can be found and that makes predicting criminal behavior difficult.
Yet, every once in a while, when we look closely at the behavior of offenders (for our purposes this includes extremists), you begin to see commonalities. Not necessarily causality, but rather common features or behaviors that should make us take note, look closer, explore deeper, question, or consider.
One such commonality or phenomenon was written about in the book “Hunting Terrorists: A Look at the Psychopathology of Terror” (2004 Charles C. Thomas Publishers) and later in a blog post for Psychology Today. For this commonality often seen with extremists, terrorists, mass killers, and others, the term wound collecting was coined.
What is a wound collector? In essence these are individuals who go out of their way to collect social slights, historical grievances, injustices, unfair or disparate treatment, or wrongs—whether real or imagined (Dangerous Personalities 2014 Rodale Publishing).
They don’t forgive or forget and they don’t move on. They wallow in the actual or often perceived transgressions of others and they allow sentiments of animosity and vengeance to percolate and froth at the surface by their constant and attentive nurturing of those perceived wounds. As you can imagine, in an imperfect world where there are real injustices, where people make mistakes, and stupid things are said and done, the wound collector never has to go far to feel victimized.
Why do we call these “wounds” and not something else? Some have referred to these individuals as grievance or injustice collectors. These terms don’t do justice to the morbid pathology at work here any more than to call someone who suffers from bulimia or anorexia “food averse.” The illness that underpins the thinking and behavior of these individuals is psychological wounding.
Psychological wounding is nothing new. In fact, many people have psychological wounds from an abusive parent or spouse, or some other life real life trauma. But they do not seek to indulge these. Though traumatized by them, most people try to put these things behind them. They don’t seek to nourish these psychological wounds.
Quite conversely, the wound collector not only hangs on to the wounds he perceives, he goes out and collects more wounds by selectively looking for those things that support his entrenched beliefs. Through flawed observations, logic, or reasoning, the wound collector is hobbled by a “confirmation bias” that systematically reinforces a pre-existing belief or position. Convinced of their beliefs, even in the face of contrary evidence, they become saturated and hobbled by their self-created toxic brew of irrational biases. This irrationality in turn breeds hate and contempt for others—two key features abundantly present with wound collectors.
Beyond a mere injustice, something we have all experienced, psychological wounding drives deep into the psyche of the individual. This causes them to develop maladaptive patterns of behavior, thinking, or interacting that are inflexible, antagonistic, interfere with interpersonal relationships or that are significantly distressing to the individual.
For these folks there is never a fix or a cure. Nothing is ever good enough and apologies mean nothing. For them, there is always yet another event they perceive as a slight or a grievance. For them the world holds nothing but nastiness and it affects how they see the world and how they react to the world—suspiciously and with contempt. When irrationality, antagonism, and rigidity combine with unyielding overconfidence in their own sentiments and beliefs go unchecked or are not attenuated, these individual become metastable—ready to ignite and explode.
What are some examples? There are many. Take your pick:
— Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered a total of 12 students and one teacher on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. Their journals attest to their wound collecting and contempt for others.
— Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army psychologist and Medical Corps major, opened fire at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5, 2009, leaving 13 dead and more than 30 others wounded.
— Anders Behring Breivik, on July 22, 2011, killed 77 people by setting off a car-bomb near government buildings in Oslo, Norway after which he shot dead mostly children attending a Workers' Youth League (AUF) summer camp on the island of Utøya. Breivik, in his writings, carped against Muslims in Western Europe.
— Christopher Dorner, in February 2013, the former police officer, went on a shooting spree in California after publishing his manifesto of collected wounds going all the way back to grade school.
— Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others on May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, California, near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. In his writings he cataloged his contempt for others—especially women.
— Dylann Roof, the accused killer of 9 churchgoers, on June 17, 2015 at a Charleston South Carolina church had nothing but contempt for African Americans.
— Vester Lee Flanagan aka Bryce Williams, who on August 26, 2015, killed two news reporters (WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia) on live television then posted a video he personally recorded. His work history reflects his wound collecting that included perceived injustices by workmates and even his own family.
— James T Hodgkinson The now dead shooter of Republican members of Congress during a baseball practice for a charity event on June 14th, 2017. Representative Steve Scalise was seriously wounded as were others.
— Alek Minassian a Canadian, on April 23, 2018 allegedly rammed a rented van into a crowd killing 10 and injuring 15, to punish "women" because of how often they rejected him. Minassian, appears to be an avowed member of the "incel" community of the involuntarily celibate. A movement made up of apparently frustrated men who claim that sex is being denied to them.
— Jarrod W. Ramos, on June 29, 2018, allegedly used a shotgun to kill five people, wounding at least two others, at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Maryland, over long running grievances with this local newspaper.
These are but a few and in time the list will unfortunately increase.
But this is not a new phenomenon. If you want to go back a few years, take a look at these familiar figures who were also wound collectors:
— Ted Kaczynski also known as the UNABOMBER published his list of wounds, known as the “Unabomber Manifesto,” in the New York Times and the Washington Post in 1995. Since this post first came out, Ted's brother, David wrote a great post here in Psychology Today where you can read all about Ted's wound collecting going back for decades.
— Usama bin Laden, laid out his collection of wounds in his 1996 and later 1998 fatwas, justifying the killing of Americans. By citing grievances dating back to the Crusades, Bin Laden demonstrated that for the wound collector there is no statute of limitation on suffering.
You want to go still further back? Take a look at the writings of an Austrian private and some time post-card painter who fought in the First World War. In his book Mein Kampf, this then relatively unknown individual named Adolph Hitler, managed to list all the collected wounds he and others had accumulated with a morbid focus on Jews.
I suspect we could go back even further in history. We don’t have many details unfortunately, but it is likely that Cain, who slew Abel in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 4: 2-16) was in his own right a wound collector through a number of harvest seasons; jealous of how much better Abel fared in the eyes of God or so he perceived.
By now I hope you realize that this will not be the last we will hear of wound collectors. And while it is true, as I said in the beginning, that humans are complex and there are many reasons why they do things—here is one more phenomenon to look at. It is also recognized that many times the narcissistic personality, the paranoid personality, as well as the anti-social and the borderline personality disordered quite often themselves have traits of the wound collector. Those pathologies on their own are difficult enough to deal with; when they amalgamate with wound collecting, they command our attention as a potentiated co-morbid pathology.
Which brings me to this: Now that we know there are wound collectors what do we do? We must as a society listen more carefully as these individuals will tend to communicate how they feel sometimes for decades or years. We need to dig deeper to understand them and get them some help before they act out. This is fertile ground for researchers, mental health professionals, and criminologists.
But we also need to be more precise in our psychological postmortems after these tragic events occur to see if indeed these gross perpetrators of mayhem are indeed wound collectors and if so when could we have stopped them and how. Lastly we must acknowledge that this is a phenomenon we cannot afford to ignore, whether it is by our children, spouse, sibling, workmate, acquaintance, or leaders.