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Austin bombings Q&A: What are the distinctive traits of a serial bomber?

What would make a person create a bomb, set it to go off then deliver it to a victim?

A variety of things, according to a forensic psychiatrist who has studied some of the worst killers society has ever seen. 

According to Dr. Michael Welner, a leading forensic psychiatrist and chairman of The Forensic Panel, a person (almost always a male) who would set a bomb to kill someone is interested in “spectacle through destruction,” hoping that news cameras are rolling following the explosion.

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Welner is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is the developer of the Depravity Standard (www.depravitystandard.org ), which delineates traits of the worst of murderers. The Forensic Panel is a practice that works on complex homicides around the United States.

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We asked Welner to explain the influences behind what may drive a serial bomber and the traits most common to bombers. 

Q: Are there traits common to serial bombers?

A: Male, detail-oriented, motivated by spectacle through destruction as opposed to merely destructiveness. He takes pride in abilities and planning, is socially isolated and quiet, and feels himself as unsuccessful in intimacy. He has a keen awareness of media and its tendencies in reporting.

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Q: Have you seen anything in the coverage of these bombings that would be helpful in identifying the bomber?

A: The most important aspect of coverage is to enlist the community to be vigilant and to watch their communities, film with their smart phones to capture the out-of-the-ordinary, and to report what is suspicious. Serial violent offenders are often identified by tips from people who spotted something or someone who does not add up. 

Also, the more vigilant a community is to catching such a perpetrator, the harder it is for such an offender to attack without being identified. And the serial bomber does not want to be caught. It is best to keep the focus on the initiatives and collectiveness of a community to work together.

<<Police confirm trip wire used in fourth bomb that injured 2

Q: A different bomb trigger – a tripwire – was used in the bombing on Sunday night. The first three attacks involved suspicious packages left on doorsteps. The bomb in the package that exploded Sunday was left on the side of a road. Would a bomber “stick to his script” and not change the way he delivered bombs, or would you be concerned that there was a “copycat: bomber who put the latest bomb by the side of the road?

A: Both are possibilities. … Historically, a serial bomber with a passion and training in explosives will be able to shift methods to take advantage of materials available and opportunities to offend without being caught. 

Q: Police said the bomber is trying to “send a message.” Do serial bombers want to send a message generally, or are they only interested in destruction and murder?

A: Bombers create a spectacle to draw attention. They may be motivated to draw attention to themselves and their power to hold a community in fear, or may attach to a cause to draw attention to it. The key point is that a spectacle killer is destructively motivated even before the crimes begin, but attaches to a cause that he thinks justifies violence.

Q: The first victims were African American and Hispanic. Do you think the bomber is targeting only those groups? Is that something a serial bomber generally does, or are victims randomly chosen? 

A: Those who have chosen to bomb, pick targets for their own reasons. The rationale may or may not make sense to the rest of us. But it makes sense to them. If ethnicities are targeted, it may be driven by a desire to instigate violent race conflict, as Joseph Paul Franklin (a serial killer who, in addition to murdering several people, also shot and wounded businessman Vernon Jordan and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt) told me he intended when I interviewed him. Likewise, since spectacle murderers are attempting to manipulate the media as much as anything, the bomber and whomever is assisting him may be attempting to manipulate a news cycle by staging violence that inflames racial divisions, or what some call a “false flag.” 

An Austin police officer directs a vehicle away from the scene of an explosion in Austin, Texas, Sunday, March 18, 2018. At least a few people were injured in another explosion in Texas' capital late Sunday, after three package bombs detonated this month in other parts of the city, killing two people and injuring two others. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP) ( )

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