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Mass murder (in military contexts, sometimes interchangeable with mass destruction) is the act of murdering a large number of people, typically over a relatively short period of time. Mass murder may be committed by individuals or organizations. Mass murder is also defined to be intentional and indiscriminate murder of large number of people by government agents. Examples are shooting of unarmed protestors, carpet bombing of cities, lobbing of grenades into prison cells and random execution of civilians. The term may refer to spree killers, who stage a single assault on their victims. The largest mass killings in history have been attempts to exterminate entire groups or communities of people, often on the basis of ethnicity or religion. Some of these mass murders have been found to be genocides and others to be crimes against humanity, but often such crimes have led to few or no convictions of any type.

Mass murder by a state

The concept of state-sponsored mass murder covers a range of potential killings. It is defined to be the intentional and indiscriminate murder of a large number of people by government agents. Examples are shooting of unarmed protestors, carpet bombing of cities, lobbing of grenades into prison cells and random execution of civilians. Other examples of state-sponsored mass murder include:

For further historical examples of mass murder, both state-committed and in wartime, see here.

Mass murder by individuals

The term "mass murder" refers to the killing of four or more people during a particular event. Examples would include killing several people in the course of a robbery, or setting a crowded nightclub on fire where four or more deaths occur. Two of the first mass murderers in modern American times were Andrew Kehoe and Howard Unruh.

Mass murderers may fall into any of a number of categories, including killers of family, of coworkers, of students, and of random strangers. Their motives for murder vary. Many other motivations are possible, including the need for attention or fame.

Workers who assault fellow employees are sometimes called "disgruntled workers," but this is often a misnomer, as many perpetrators are ex-workers. They are dismissed from their jobs and subsequently turn up heavily armed and kill their former colleagues. In the 1980s, when two fired postal workers carried out such massacres in separate incidents in the US, the term "going postal" became synonymous with employees snapping and setting out on murderous rampages. One of the 1980s most famous "disgruntled worker" cases involved computer programmer Richard Farley who, after being fired for stalking one of his co-workers, Laura Black, returned to his former workplace and shot to death seven of his colleagues, although he failed in his attempt to kill Black herself.

In some rare cases mass murders have been committed during prison riots and uprisings. During the February, 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, 33 inmates were killed. Most of the dead, 23, lived in the Protective Custody Unit, and were killed by other inmates using knives, axes and being burnt alive over a 48-hour period.

Unlike serial killers, there is rarely a sexual motive to individual mass-murderers, with the possible exception of Sylvestre Matuschka, an Austrian man who apparently derived sexual pleasure from blowing up trains with dynamite, ideally with people in them. His lethal sexual fetish claimed 22 lives before he was caught in 1931.

According to Loren Coleman's book Copycat Effect, publicity about multiple deaths tends to provoke more, whether workplace or school shootings or mass suicides.

Vasili Blokhin's count of 7,000 Polish prisoners shot in 28 days remains one of the most organized and protracted mass murders by a single individual on record.

Mass murder by terrorists

In recent years, terrorists have performed acts of mass murder to intimidate a society and draw attention to their causes. Examples of major terrorist incidents involving mass murder of more than 100 individuals include:

See also


  1. Aggrawal A. (2005) Mass Murder. In: Payne-James JJ, Byard RW, Corey TS, Henderson C (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Forensic and Legal Medicine, Vol. 3, Pp. 216-223. Elsevier Academic Press, London
  2. R. J. Rummel, Irving Louis Horowitz, Death by Government, Page 35, ISBN 1560009276
  3. R.J. Rummel. Chapter 1: 61,911,000 Victims: Utopianism Empowered
  4. Inside a Mass Murderer's Mind - TIME
  5. ABC News: What Pushes Shooters to Mass Murder?
  6. Notoriety Drives Mass Shooters - Newser
  7. ABC News: Psychiatrist: Showing Video Is 'Social Catastrophe'

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