How and why the Highland Park massacre happened

How and why the Highland Park massacre happened
Lake County Major Crimes Task Force spokesman Sargeant Christopher Covelli (screengrab/@WUTangKids/Twitter).

Authorities say last weekend’s Highland Park massacre was “a well-orchestrated and carefully planned crime.” So far, they have not elaborated. They also say there’s “no clear motive” to explain why suspect Robert Crimo took a legally purchased semiautomatic rifle to a roof on a Fourth of July parade route to spray as many as 70 rounds of fire into the crowd, killing seven and wounding scores of others.

If there’s no clear motive, however, does that mean this was not a hate crime? If this was not a hate crime, why did the 21-year-old resident of Highland Park, whose dad owned a restaurant and once ran for mayor, spend weeks planning? And if it was all planned out, why leave the rifle behind? Police say it led directly to Crimo.

Too much focus on motive

The dearth of clear answers has understandably inspired speculation. Highland Park is, as well as being our culture’s ideal of suburban bliss, home to a “significant Jewish population,” according to The Forward. (I have read numbers between 30 and 50 percent; in any case, a lot).

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Crimo surveilled a synagogue last spring, during Passover, The Forward reported. After security confronted him (Crimo was unmistakable with face tattoos), he sat in the sanctuary for about 45 minutes before leaving. (As many as four of his victims were Jewish).

The question of motive is important to matters of law, but not, in this case, punishment. If convicted of multiple counts of first-degree murder, Crimo could face life without parole, according to state law.

More important, I think, is the political and psychological importance of knowing the killer’s motive. If we can attach some kind of reason to the blood and suffering, we can better understand it and design policies and laws to stop future massacres. That’s the foundation of the current intractable debate over “gun rights” and gun control.

But we don’t need to know Crimo’s motive.

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We need only understand how.

The path to intended violence

Jaclyn Schildkraut is the director of the Gun Violence Research Consortium. She’s also an associate professor of criminal justice at SUNY Oswego. In a recent white paper for the Rockefeller Institute (reposted by the Editorial Board), she outlined what she called the path to intended violence model. It “outlines the progressive phases individuals pass through ahead of committing acts of violence.”

There are five stages.

1. Grievance

It can be anything. It can be “real (eg, loss of a job or relationship) or perceived (eg, driven by paranoid or delusional thinking).”

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2. Fixation

“Unable to move past the grievance, the individual becomes fixated on it and engages in ideation wherein they fantasize about responding to the grievance through violent means.”

3. Planning

“This often involves researching previous attacks and their perpetrators and deciding on where they will carry out their plan and surveilling it (depending on their level of familiarity with the location), among other logistical considerations.”

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4. Preparation

This includes “acquiring their weapon(s), ammunition and other elements (eg, body armor). It is at this point that they may also craft manifestos or other legacy tokens or give away personal belongings.”

5. Probing

In “which they test for security and other potential barriers to carrying out their plan at the intended location or conduct a dry run.”

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“At this point,” Schildkraut wrote, “the attack is imminent.”

Signaling before doing

We don’t yet know much about Crimo’s life, but the little we know seems to overlap with Schildkraut’s model of intended violence.

First, Crimo was familiar.

He grew up in Highland Park. He appeared so attached that he returned after first fleeing to Wisconsin. That’s when police arrested him “without incident.” He went to public school there. He attended a local nondenominational church. In short, he was a local – familiar enough with Highland Park to surveil one of its synagogues. His dad owns “Bob’s Pantry & Deli, and once ran for mayor of Highland Park.

He amassed weapons.

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A semiautomatic “similar to an AR-15” was found on the roof. Another was found in his car. His residence had more guns. He appears to have collected cutting blades. A sword, a dagger and various knives.

In planning, he studied history

USA Todayreported on Crimo’s digital past. He posted a picture of a newspaper clipping referencing Lee Harvey Oswald, who killed John Kennedy from a rooftop the way Crimo killed hometown residents.

He lived amid secrecy.

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USA Today spoke to a woman who knew him for four years “from Thursday night small-group gatherings and Sunday services at Christ Church Highland Park.” She said he was “quiet and usually only offered surface-level comments when he spoke.” He lived with an uncle who said Crimo kept to himself in an adjacent apartment.

He wanted people to know his intentions.

Schildkraut calls it “leakage”: “an overt warning sign that may occur at any stage on the path. As such, it is important that individuals who become aware of these statements report them to authorities for further investigation and threat assessment immediately.”

In August 2019, Crimo tried killing himself. A month later, a family member called the cops on him, alleging a plan “to kill everyone.” (Police confiscated his cutting blades.) His digital record, since taken down by YouTube, included violent images and video that seemingly signaled, or at least suggested, what Crimo was preparing to do.


The culture of white power

We spend a lot of time talking about motives, because, I think, it’s basic human nature to want to know why terrible things happen.

But we don’t need to know why in order to know how.

According to Schildkraut and other criminologists, mass murderers tend to follow clearand predictable behaviors before committing crimes against humanity. So when it comes to crafting laws and policy to stop them, the why isn’t as important as the how.

Still, the why matters.

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Did Crimo intended to kill Jews? We don’t yet know.

What we do know is that Crimo’s crime began with a grievance. Not just any grievance – one he could not let go of. Not just one he could not let go of – one he was trained to cling to with maximum violence.

It’s here I want to suggest, once again, that a culture that elevates the expectations of white men beyond anything reasonable is a culture that can birth, cultivate and unleash mass murderers. A culture that celebrates white men “taking the law into their own hands” is a culture that can push white men to act outside the rule of law.

Crimo isn’t crazy. Indeed, he was acting rationally. He was righting a wrong, whatever that wrong was. If we’re going to ask why, we can’t stop at assigning crimes against a racial, ethnic or religious group.

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We can’t stop at hate.

We must face the deadly culture of white power.

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