Those who were permitted to act appropriately throughout their childhood – ie with anger – to the pains, wrongs, and denial inflicted upon them . . . will retain this ability to react appropriately in late life too. When someone wounds them as adults, they will be able to recognize and express this verbally. But they will not feel the need to lash out in response. this need arises only for people who must always be on their guard to keep the dam that restrains their feelings from breaking. For if this dam breaks, everything becomes unpredictable . . . [they] will experience occasional outbursts of inexplicable rage . . . or will resort repeatedly to violent behavior such as murder.
— Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, November 14, 2002.
There is seldom ever any one single cause for such an outrageous act of violence as a mass murder, especially when aimed at school children. In the case of Nikolas Cruz, as in others, there are multiple complex causations – including both environmental (nurture) and genetic (nature) – that come together, and then often one event that lights the fuse.
Cruz’s public defender described the perpetrator of The Valentine’s Day Massacre as a “deeply disturbed, emotionally broken” young man who is coming to grips with the pain he has caused.
What made Nikolas Cruz go on the murderous rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida killing 17 and injuring 15? What can we learn to prevent future tragedies?
Timeline of Warning Signs
Cruz has been described by those who know him as “weird,” “troubled,” and a “volatile” teen who threatened and harassed his schoolmates, talked about killing animals, posed with guns in disturbing photos on social media, and bragged about target practice in his backyard with a pellet gun. An aunt of Cruz reported that as he grew up Nikolas developed emotional issues. He had been doing community service after getting into some sort of trouble.
Cruz had two Instagram accounts featuring weapons and photos. In one picture he is wearing a kerchief over his face and a Make America Great Again hat, and he dons the same cap and gun in a video. According classmates and individuals who knew him, he was actively hostile towards Jews, black people, and Muslims in particular throughout high school.
He was allegedly part of a white supremacist organization called Republic of Florida Militia that self-identifies as a “white civil rights organization” that fights for the “ultimate creation of a white ethnostate.” Nikolas was a member of the ROF and participated in one or more of their “training drills” to prepare for the possibility of an attack by people of color and Jews against white people.
He had been expelled from the same school he launched his attack on for threatening students and, in particular, had threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend in a series of foreboding texts.
It’s been reported that law enforcement was called to Nikolas’ home more than 30 times over the years, that he showed signs of emotional disturbance, and a neighbor claimed he was diagnosed ‘autistic.’ Nikolas allegedly testified he ‘heard voices’ telling him to execute his horrific plan. It has also been reported that Cruz was prescribed Ritalin for ADHD.
In August 2016, Florida’s child welfare agency investigated Cruz after he cut himself in a video. “Mr. Cruz was on Snapchat cutting both of his arms,” the Florida DCF abuse hotline was told in. “Mr. Cruz has fresh cuts on both his arms. Mr. Cruz stated he plans to go out and buy a gun.” Yet, they found him stable, according to state records.
The following year, September 2017, still prior to the November 1st death of Cruz’ adoptive mother, the FBI received a tip about Cruz from Ben Bennight, a 36-year-old YouTube video blogger from Mississippi, who noticed an alarming comment on a video he’d posted. “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” read the comment, left by a user with the name Nikolas Cruz. Bennight told CNN he immediately contacted the FBI at the time, in September of 2017, five months before the mass shooting.
Bennight emailed a screenshot of the comment to what he thought was an FBI tip line, but the email address was invalid, he said. Bennight said he followed up with a phone call to the FBI. The comment on YouTube has since been removed.
According to Bennight, agents from the FBI’s field office in Mississippi contacted him and came to his office to conduct an in-person interview the next morning. CNN reported that Bennight told the agents he didn’t know anything about the user.
Nikolas and his brother were left in the care of a family friend after their mother died. His brother, Zachery, stayed but around Thanksgiving Nikolas Cruz asked to move in with a friend’s family in northwest Broward County.
Then on January 5th, just five weeks before the fatal shooting, a second tip was received by the FBI. A caller provided information about “Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.” The information should have been assessed as a “potential threat to life,” the bureau said.
But the bureau did not appropriately follow established protocols. The tip should have been forwarded to the Miami field office and investigated. But that didn’t happen, the FBI said in a statement: “Protocols were not followed.” The Miami field office did not receive the tip, and “no further investigation was conducted at this time.”
Winnie Dabroski Cabelus raises some issues for discussion:
One of the questions we should all be asking is how was he not captured by his school district’s obligation to ‘child find’ ‘at-risk’ kids? He should have been evaluated and recognized as having needs due to his acting out behaviors, and in an emotional support program and supported instead of eventually expelled for his many increasingly strange and concerning behaviors. Does your school district have an emotional support program in place for students? We need to demand they exist to support and protect ALL of our students.
We stink at addressing mental health in this country. Many mental health issues can be averted with early intervention before monsters are created. I strongly feel our society did this to Nikolas by ignoring the signs, by failing to provide adequate supports to his family and him. The system also failed the 17 children who perished on Valentine’s Day. More will perish if we don’t do more to ‘child find’ and do something about guns.
Guns, Gun Safety, and Assault Weapons
The outcry is growing. In Florida and in Washington DC, students are protesting.
Mental illness exists worldwide. So why is it these mass murders and school shootings are only being seen – in these enormous numbers – in the USA? One need only to look as far as Australia to know why. In 1996, Australia enacted strict gun laws and hasn’t had a mass shooting since.
Is it our constitution with its “right to bear arms” provision or are the reported kickbacks to legislators from the National Rifle Association (NRA) the real root of the problem? What about our constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in movie theaters and in schools?
Do we lock down schools like prison fortresses and arm teachers? Is that really the answer?
The argument that guns protect us from violence falls flat in the face of statistical comparisons to other nations. According to CBS News:
Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries, a new study finds.
Compared to 22 other high-income nations, the United States’ gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher. And, even though the United States’ suicide rate is similar to other countries, the nation’s gun-related suicide rate is eight times higher than other high-income countries, researchers said.
The study was published online February 1 in The American Journal of Medicine.
Overall, our results show that the U.S., which has the most firearms per capita in the world, suffers disproportionately from firearms compared with other high-income countries,” said study author Erin Grinshteyn, an assistant professor at the School of Community Health Science at the University of Nevada-Reno. ‘These results are consistent with the hypothesis that our firearms are killing us rather than protecting us,’ she said in a journal news release.
These are questions that are being debated and solutions demanded.
Among the many facets of this gun violence issue in America, the current case raises yet another.
Adopted and then Orphaned
There has been speculation that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz might have been born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASD). But, as with most adoptions, we really don’t know what genetic medical history may have been a contributing aspect. Nor do we know if the two brothers were voluntarily placed by their original family or removed by the state for allegations of abuse or neglect.
All that is known thus far is that both Nikolas and his brother Zachery, 2 years younger, were adopted together by an elderly couple, Lynda and Roger Cruz.
Was it a “wonderful, idea” as neighbors told the Sun-Sentinel for “two older people to have two little boys to look after”?
Is the purpose of adoption to bring joy to adopters – as one might take up golfing upon retirement or purchase an aquarium – or is the purpose of adoption to help children in need be placed with families who can be there for them?
Roger Cruz, died of a heart attack when Nikolas was only six, leaving Lynda to raise the two boys alone. Lynda died of pneumonia at 68.
Zachary, who is turning 18, was removed from the home he had gone to in the days after the shootings and taken to a mental health facility for treatment under the Baker Act, which allows minors to be held for up to 12 hours. It’s unclear if he has been released.
Is Adoption an Issue or Not?
The adoption community is of mixed feelings about the extent to which adoption should be mentioned as a contributing factor. Adoptive parents object to Cruz’s mother being labeled anything but his mother, while adoptees such as one who identifies as “One Black Girl,” express concern that reporting a shooter’s adoptive status casts a negative light on all adoptees.
Katherine S. Newman writes:
When a premeditated massacre occurs – such as the terrifying carnage in Las Vegas or the heartbreaking murders in the Sandy Hook elementary school – journalists, politicians and millions of ordinary people turn their attention to the families that raised the killers, the siblings that shared their childhoods, and the wives or girlfriends who lived with them.
Adoptive mom, Sarah Mouracade, was so incensed she claimed in vast exaggeration that adoptees are “only” seen as superheroes or mass murders, negating all the other stereotypes that go along with being adopted from being “lucky” and “grateful” to be alive and not aborted to being “chosen” and a “gift” to name a few.
Recognizing and reporting adoption as one aspect of a perpetrator’s life casts no dispersions on anyone else who also happens to be adopted. It is a fact just as that all school shooters (except for one) were boys between the ages of 17 and 48 and white males far outweigh females or those of other race or ethnicity.
Referencing the gender and race of mass murders such as Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 680 – and seeing the trends – does not casting any dark shadows on all white males or imply that all white men have murderous tendencies, but it does perhaps help us understand what drives some people to deal with their anger or frustrations.
In fact, adoption is not the only cause of feelings of abandonment. Many of the school shooters and mass murderers were fatherless by various causes. For instance:
- Evan Ramsey, 1997, who shot and killed two people and wounded two others at Bethel Regional High School Alaska was a foster child.
- Adam Lanza, 2012. Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, killing 28, was a child of divorce.
- Stephen Paddock, 2017. Shooting into a crowd of approximately 22,000 concertgoers attending a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, killing 58 people and injuring 851 more. Paddock’s father, a Las Vegas gunman, was a grifter, a con artist, a bank robber and a jail-breaker who spent years on the F.B.I.’s most-wanted list and absent for much of Stephen’s life
Adoptee “One Black Girl” is quite angry:
…as an adoptee myself—a transracial adoptee, at that, what you will not do is exploit our experiences to get white terrorists off the hook. Cruz’s adoption literally has nothing to do with what he did. I don’t give one, two, three or four f*cks, when he was adopted, who adopted him or where he was adopted, because it doesn’t matter. Yes, adoption has many complications, and many of us adoptees experience mental health issues and trauma, but it does not turn you into a racist mass murderer. Being Adopted Does Not Turn You Into A Mass Murderer: This isn’t an adoption issue, don’t make it one, “One Black Girl”.
While we cannot and should not place blame for Cruz’s actions on adoption, it is an equally extreme position to declare that it is has “nothing to do” with it. Why would a thorough evaluation of the mitigating circumstances – with an effort to find solutions – ignore such a dramatic life-altering legal, social, and psychological event as relinquishment and adoption as an underlying part of this young man’s, or any adoptee’s, life and psyche?
More accurately, it is not the adoption placement, per se, but the initial mother/child separation which is documented to cause trauma – as even recognized by “One Black Girl.” This trauma is known as a primal wound. Every adoption is the result of a loss and separation that causes feelings of abandonment, identity confusion, and rejection which can weigh heavily on some. Loss, which too often goes unrecognized and undealt with in adoption, can have a detrimental effect on the lives of adoptees, as Alice Miller describes.
Some of us are better able to withstand life’s difficulties with more resilience than others. The hurts, the feelings of rejection and abandonment that underscore being adopted are well managed by the vast majority of adoptees. For some, however, the trauma combines with other factors (in Cruz’s case other losses such as the breakup with his girlfriend and the death of his adoptive mother which were no doubt triggers of those feelings once again) and light an existing fuse. We cannot totally negate the harm such early trauma causes, whether one acts out and makes headlines or suffers in silence having difficulty in relationships or other aspects of life or is aware of no ill-effects whatsoever.
David Kirschner, psychologist and author specializing in adoption, is working on an article detailing how almost every school and mass shooter was in treatment prior to and during killing events. Kirschner notes that Cruz was in treatment and prescribed medication for ADHD which in his opinion was a misdiagnosis and that a proper diagnosis of Adopted Child Syndrome (ACS) and meaningful therapy might have helped prevent the tragedy that occurred.
Cabelus, describes her adopted brother as:
…very wounded by adoption, felt he was worthless. Was obsessed with Hitler, swastikas, and firearms. Was also self-destructive. In the end, slept with two illegal firearms under his pillows. Illegal because he had a felony charge for threatening someone with a firearm, the two under his pillow were straw purchases made by my bullied, elderly adoptive mother.
I think in a minority of cases, adoption abandonment, and being asked to accept a new, false identity without knowing the old one, can be the cause of mental illness. My adoptive brother was dead by 47, self-destructive causes.
Based on her experience and that of other adoptees, she disagrees with “One Black Girl,” noting recently on Facebook:
While adoption itself does not turn someone psychopathic, many adoptees struggle with what adoption means and asks them to do: namely become someone else, forget their first families, their origins, and whatever traumas may have put them there to begin with.
I was a teacher in an in-patient mental hospital. At one time, fully 100% of my 10+ students in the high functioning autism wing were adopted. No one seemed to make the correlation, except me: an adoptee, with a self-destructive, abusive, adoptive brother . . . My adoptive brother threatened to shoot me more than once. He threatened to shoot someone else, too, (had a felony charge) and routinely abused my elderly parents. He felt worthless; after all, he was a throw-a-way kid. He took the anger and hurt he felt over his early abandonment out on everyone around him in his family. Perhaps Nikolas felt this way too.
We also need to learn and accept that adoption is not a magic wand that erases or loves away the tragedy upon which it is built. We owe it to adoptees who are charged with crimes to be honest about the role their relinquishment or termination loss creates. We must face the painful side of adoption as well as the advantages and strive to decrease the vast number of unnecessary mother/child separations to meet a demand instead of promoting it as a win-win.
In the meantime, since we cannot go back and change a shooter’s past, let’s try to remove the one element we can: guns, especially assault rifles.
It has been reported that Cruz stands to inherit as much as $800,000 from his deceased adoptive parents when he turns 22. This could be money the families of the deceased students can seek through civil suit, since it likely will not help his defense.