Plumbing the Quantico Killings

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JIM WATSON / AFP/Getty Images

Quantico's main gate last Friday, hours after three Marines died in an apparent double murder-suicide case.

As the military community mourns the tragic loss of three Marines, that same community must be stunned by the violence that occurred at one of its most revered military bases.

Quantico Marine Corps Base is located in Virginia just south of Washington D.C. and is a key national security training location. The Quantico base, started during World War I, has played an important role in the training of generations of Marines as well as setting military doctrine for America’s battles and security parameters for our embassies abroad.

To listen to the somber reports coming from the base — that an active duty Marine fired his weapon on his fellow Marines with hostile and deadly intent — directly violates the culture of Marines to the core at a geographical location that many consider its epicenter of military dogma.

This murder-suicide has to be considered a most cynical contradiction to the Marines’ loyalty code to protect each other. That is, to give ones life in the defense of others.

The famous Marines’ code Semper Fidelis or Semper Fi, which is Latin for “Always Faithful” or “Always Loyal,” speaks to this oath.

To kill fellow U.S. Marines in cold blood is an unimaginable contradiction.

While the details are still emerging from the Quantico shooting, early reports on the motivation of the shooter appear to be related to a conflict of a personal nature, perhaps triangular jealousy (the murder victims were a man and a woman).

The shooter then killed himself in a double murder-suicide, which has become a trend among spree killings and shooting rampages. We will never learn first-hand of the motivation of the shooter. At this point we also don’t know whether the perpetrator was deployed in a theater of war or how long he has served, only that he was active duty and permanent personnel assigned to the officer candidate school.

Whether the killing was military-stress related will be difficult to ascertain. The notion that a prolonged global war on terrorism also creates stress at home, a sort of PTSD by proxy, has gained some traction in the U.S., with suicide rates climbing among military personnel. Some have felt that the psychological impact of the long war has been underestimated.

But most likely this shooting will be conveniently explained as a rogue shooting, that is, the shooter was a “bad apple,” he simply went temporarily insane.

If that is the case, then no military leader or peer could have predicted the shooting. The blame falls solely on him.

The problem with this explanation is that all Marines undergo fitness-for-duty evaluations, which poses the question: can the Marine safely and effectively perform his job from an emotional and cognitive standpoint?

It will be interesting to see if there is anything in the shooter’s history that would have predicted his actions. In addition, the military relies on a strict linear hierarchy of accountability, a chain of command. Thus the shooter’s direct supervisor will be questioned about the Marine’s emotional status at the time of the crimes.

Among American communities, it has become one of the worst modern-day fears: to be confronted with an active-shooter scenario.

The most recent events indicate that even on a military base a shooting rampage is possible; no community, however fortified, is invulnerable. It appears, however, as if the emergency response system implemented on the military base worked well and that the shooter was contained quickly.

As the situation developed, security was heightened and a mass notification was issued throughout the base. Base restrictions were lifted a few hours later. The fact that the emergency response system worked well should come as no surprise since there are more trained personal on a military base to deal with an active shooter than, for example, a shopping mall, a theater, or as in the case of Sandy Hook, an elementary school.

The current example, will surely fuel the gun control debate since all shootings involving multiple victims are now being contextualized, whether having more weapons present rather than less weapons, can contain a shooting tragedy.

Dr. Eric A. Zillmer is the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Psychology at Drexel University, where he teaches and writes about military psychology.