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FEATURES - BULLETS, NOT BALLOTS

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Politics has always been a dangerous game, but the recent attacks in France and Switzerland remind us it can be a m...
Politics has always been a dangerous game, but the recent attacks in France and Switzerland remind us it can be a matter of life or death, says Varya Shaw

Every council worker and local politician knows they can attract the wrong sort of attention from the public. But recent events have shown this can escalate to horrific extremes.

In Nanterre, Paris, earlier this year, a young man called Richard Durn sat through a six-hour council meeting. Then, in the early hours of the morning, he shot and killed eight councillors, wounding 14 others.

The attack contained chilling echoes of events in Zug, Switzerland. In September 2001, 'serial complainer' Friedrich Leibacher burst into the assembly chamber of the regional Parliament, opened fire on 80 members with an assault rifle and threw a grenade. 15 people, including Mr Leibacher, died in the attack and 10 more were wounded.

Such acts are the logical outcome of extended warped reasoning. The attacker believes he can gain control, resolve his anger, gain recognition. Usually isolated, he can make the indifferent universe revolve around him for a brief time. In short, he can be powerful. Committing suicide on the scene - Mr Durn tried to, Mr Liebacher succeeded - makes the perfect finale.

Why were these killers drawn to local government? Why did they express their illness in this particular way? Could it happen here? And how can you tell if a spree killer is heading your way?

Tony Black, former head of psychological services at Broadmoor hospital, explains how the mind of the mass killer works. Some have outright mental illness, others arrive at their extreme state of mind through 'habituation'. They 'will have built up a detailed model repertoire as a result of life experiences and all sorts of forces we wouldn't necessarily call mental illness,' says Dr Black. Wrong ideas take root and spiral out of control, he says.

So why councils? Perhaps the answer is basic: 'In the case of council meetings, they know from the schedule there is going to be a large number of people all together in one place at one time. Otherwise they are going to have to pick them off one by one.'

'Why they pick out a junior politician or a local council, and not the prime minister, is they see these people as both within easy reach and also more closely concerned with their particular thought process'.

Gerard Bailes, a consultant with East Anglia's regional forensic psychological services, said there is an anti-council stereotype - the lazy, incompetent or corrupt council worker, who gratuitously inflicts things like the poll tax.

He adds: 'With someone with a more dark, sinister mind this [stereotype] pours fuel on the flames.'

But again, there is a straightforward aspect. Attackers prepare their revenge meticulously, and work out that they stand a much better chance of getting at a council than a prime minister or cabinet. 'It is as simple as that,' he said.

Dr Keith Ashcroft, a private practitioner of forensic psychology, said the killer might feel the council had failed him: 'People with a grudge against society always target people that are supposed to be looking after them or their interests.

'They are feeling isolated and target the body which they can conceptualise as being responsible for their predicament, which is supposed to help.'

It is possible less dramatic attacks on local government staff are increasing because of lack of resources, low staffing levels and increased paperwork and bureaucracy.

But attacks like those in Nanterre and Zug do not

seem to be on the rise in this country. In February 2000, Gloucestershire councillor Andrew Pennington died in

a sword attack. The attacker, Robert Ashman, was a regular visitor to the Liberal Democrat constituency office. But his target was the MP Nigel Jones - Mr Pennington was defending him.

Dr Black remembers a shooting in a council chamber during the 1940s. It is probably no coincidence the latest spree killings took place in Paris and Switzerland, where local government is relatively healthy.

Dr Black says: 'Attacks of violence or anger against local government are less probably because local government has been downgraded. Successive governments of both complexions have centralised more.'

The difference may simply be guns are more widely available in Switzerland and France. Alternatively, the apparent safety of British local government from spree killers may be a bizarre form of proof of how emasculated it has become.

How to spot a spree killer in your community

Dr Black illustrates the contrast between the standard complainer or 'niggler' and someone who is potentially dangerous.

The former writes in and says: 'These officials are just in it to line their own pockets, what about the street lamps? What about refuse collection?'

The latter will say: 'You are evil, an evil person, you are trying to deprive us all of our rights, you will get your come-uppance'. The next letter may say 'I am going to see you get your come-uppance'. The next letter may say 'I am preparing for you to get your come-uppance'. It would creep up and up.'

Alarm bells should ring if a person seems depressed or talks about killing themselves, Dr Ashcroft says. Unhelpfully, the 'red flag' is when that person suddenly goes silent, stops writing to or phoning the council - they may be planning something. Another trigger could be 'decision time, when it is not just 'no', it is the end of the story'.

Dr Bailes doubts spree killings can

be foreseen: 'How can you predict the person that could do that? Sadly you cannot. You only find out when it happens.'

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