What can the Fort Hood shootings and the Boston bombings incidents tell us?


Every emotional unit, whether it be the family or the total of society, exerts pressure on group members to conform to the ideals and principles of the group.[1]  M. Bowen

When children are shot, Boston is bombed, and seemingly “crazy” soldiers shoot at fellow soldiers; we look to psychiatry to explain what happened. The answers are empty labels and more empty promises to get the bottom of these incidents.  Society pressures us to accept these labels?  But are they simply indicators that the ancient family emotional process is behind our inability and or reluctance to understand problems.

The social group’s tendency to blame one person for problems is so deep that we never question its validity.  It is easy to “see” that one person did the shooting and to find a diagnostic code that fits.  There is no “social system” code.  There are indicators that big data could yet save the day but first lets look at where we are today.

After a major event we hear that “the killers” were anxious, depressed, may have been autistic, or could have had PTSD.   As psychiatry goes further and further into labeling mental illness with a multitude of diagnostic codes, what do we know? 

Do people in the military know that a death in the family can degrade performance? Do they know that violence and rejection often precede acting out episodes?   How common is it to know that families which are cut off from one another over the generations, are ripe for symptoms? 

Sadly, even those with serious symptoms in the work, social or family system are not motivated to “see” that the current status quo thinking is not useful, does not offer preventive ideas nor is it capable of predicting those at risk.

We are currently in love with drugs as the answer to behavioral problems in individuals.  Labels help to find the right drug at least 50% of the time.  So society exerts pressure to accept the labeling and drugging paradigms. 

Perhaps it is just automatic to accept the current understanding of mental illness and forgo a more complex understanding of larger social systems and patterns of interactions.  If so, then labeling and its other half blaming, might just be replicating the ancient rules of the family emotional process.  

Nature’s way is to promote leadership in a few and symptoms flow to the many.  This can work to absorb anxiety for the unit, until it does not work and the few are dragged down by the many.  

It is unusual and even difficult to consider that we are not free and independent people. What blinds us to the workings of our brain’s vulnerability to reacting more than thinking in our social systems?

If we could see our vulnerability then we might observe how the system begins to move from a state of relative calm to one of murderous tension.  We might be able to organize the potential resources within a vulnerable social system by finding one steady person in the system to organize the resources.

One of the other problems with the status quo mental heath system is that it finds the weakest individuals in the system and tries to fix the symptomatic person without touching the others, who are often more functional and could be a resource to the symptomatic person and to the vulnerable system.   Perhaps we could do better by using our brain’s ability to reflect and to see anew, rather than the way Mother Nature has organized social systems – to act first and think later.

Consider what it takes to change our automatic way of responding. We would need to be experienced at the following abilities: to reflect, to inhibit, to decide for Self and to observe almost in a neutral way so as to not be driven by the frenzy in the system. 

One way to think about the difference our big brains can make is to see the difference between ants and humans.  Ants must respond to social clues.  They figure out what job they are doing today by the jobs the other ants have been doing.  They fit in where the colony needs them.  There is a great Ted Talk by Deborah Gordon on ants functioning like brains.[2]

We have a brain that under the best of circumstances and/or training, has the potential to allow us time to reflect and consider; is this action in our best interest or in the larger unit’s interest?  We have gathered information, so now what do we want to do with it?  The ant colonies that are better at understanding the changing conditions in the outside environment are those that reproduces and survives.

If the social system is chaotic, nasty or threatening, we can respond to these kinds of social clues in an instinctual way.  That is, humans who are reactive have little to no freedom to decide – they simply and automatically react.  Stress degrades performance. Under extreme circumstances we become ant-like creatures, our lives overly determined by the surrounding environment.

Consider an example from the last shooting at Ft. Hood.

CNN gives us the common understating of the situation: (It’s the individual!)

Fort Hood shooter was Iraq vet being treated for mental health issues

By Ray Sanchez and Ben Brumfield, CNN

updated 7:05 PM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014

— Spc. Ivan Lopez’s friendly smile apparently gave no hint of a history of depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders. The Iraq war veteran was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder before he opened fire at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas on Wednesday.

Lopez took his own .45-caliber handgun onto the sprawling facility and killed three people and wounded 16 more before taking his own life. His death left authorities to piece together what in his background and medical treatment could have triggered a new round of bloodshed at the same Killeen post where an officer killed 13 people in 2009.

Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the post’s commanding general, told reporters Friday that investigators “do not believe” that Lopez’s “underlying medical conditions … are the direct precipitating factor” in the attack.

“The immediate precipitating factor was more likely an escalating argument in his unit area,” Milley said. Authorities have “credible information” that Lopez “was involved in a verbal altercation with soldiers from his unit just prior to him allegedly opening fire,” Chris Grey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, said Friday.[3]

The post commander, Milley, seems to believe that the direct precipitating factor for the shooting was an argument. But even if we know what the argument was about, would that help us understand a soldier’s vulnerability? 

Alternatively, if we understand the issues in his family, could that help us avoid such useless tragedies in the future?  Are there things that can alert the army to be aware of who is vulnerable when asking for leave, among other things?

Before Wednesday’s shooting, Lopez stopped at the post’s personnel office to pick up a leave form, according to the sister of one of the soldiers injured in the attack.

Armetra Otis, sister of Sgt. Jonathan Westbrook, said on CNN’s “The Lead” that her brother “was at work and a guy came in and asked for a leave form.”

The soldier was told he would have to come back later, Otis said.

“And apparently I guess he didn’t want to hear that, so he came back and just opened fire, ” Otis said. Westbrook was shot four times, but released from a hospital Friday, his sister said.

Law enforcement sources told CNN that investigators were searching for possible motives, including whether Lopez was angry over canceled leave.

If Lopez was seeking a leave this week, it wouldn’t be his first.

Glidden Lopez Torres, a family spokesman, said Lopez’ mother, Carmen, an emergency room nurse in their hometown, died of a heart attack in November. A month earlier, Lopez’ grandfather had died in Guayanilla.

The spokesman, who is not related to the soldier, said Lopez attended the funeral but was disappointed that it took about five days for his 24-hour leave to be approved by the military.

“The reality is that the death of his mother was unexpected and soldiers are usually given permission to travel home to the family,” Lopez Torres said. “But the process in Ivan’s case took some time. He arrived five days after his mother died… He was a little disappointed that it took so long for him to be granted a leave.”

Lucy Caraballo, a Lopez family friend in Guayanilla, said the family put off the wake for days.

“They waited various days because it took Ivan a long time to get here,” she said. “We didn’t know when he was going to arrive.”[4]

Should Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the post’s commanding general, be expected to understand that two deaths in the family occurring close to each other, can put undue pressure on a soldier?

President Obama says he wants to get to the bottom of this, and after all he is the commander in chief, but should he understand the pressure on individual soldiers?  Whose job is it to understand this?

I would assume that neither Milley nor Obama has a grasp of the relationship of social systems to individual functioning.  They appear to be too reliant on medicine, education and mental health to lead in a new way. The focus on the individual as the problem and the solution seems immutable.  It the way “the system” is set up.  Please let me know if you see any of the heads of gigantic and self-sustaining organizations step out to consider a new way.

But of course a system that does not reflect reality will eventually collapse and will be replaced by something more effective and realistic.  Think of how much we have learned from the industrial revolution about how to treat people to increase productivity.  So at the local level people are going to learn and change.

If those responsible for granting leaves at Ft Hood have an understanding of the larger picture, they will be more thoughtful in passing out leave forms to soldiers if and when they see that the soldier has had a couple of deaths of close family members.

Of course if that information is not available then the same old system will repeat.  If the system itself were to change it would be because someone high enough up in the system can now see that understanding past history could have a tremendous bearing on the current way of doing things. 

One fascinating example of this change of a bureaucratic system by leaders at the top has taken place at the University of Texas. Please see note at end of this blog on the New York Times magazine article, “Who Graduates?” at the end of this blog for details. 

Systems are difficult to change and a depersonalization of individuals in large organizations is par for the course. , It may be that after the two shooting incidents at Ft Hood, people there may be more aware of “making people mad or frustrated” and may be willing to see these incidents as system issues rather than ‘labeling/blaming“ the individual and not looking at the part the system is playing in pressuring individuals.

The fact that his family issues were unknown to his commanding officers and that those family issues are central to the functioning of every soldier on that base, is not yet on our leader’s radar screens.

Let us say that in an imaginary world the president and the general did listen to CNN and read the above report and came to the conclusion – we need to know more about the family life of our men – what could they do to make this information more useful? 

As an antidote to our fascination with the individual as hero or villain, factual based alternatives rely on observing many variables including, among other things, the following: the three generational overview of the family emotional system, the way dependent relationships absorb anxiety for the group, and the use of triangles to separate out a more functional self from the controlling nature of the system.

Systems thinking would be a big jump forward in comprehending problems in areas as important to our future as education, mental heath and medicine. One can ask if we are stuck with this individual analysis of problems or whether the current symptoms in society such as failing schools, increasing medical costs without positive results, and headline violence (Sandy Hook, Boston Bombings, and Fort Hood shootings) nudge us towards developing a more factual-based alternative — systems knowledge.

Challenges to Thinking Systems

As of yet no one knows how to “prove” that systems knowledge is useful for human behavior.  People like Nat Silver (see note below) may have the possibility of creating research on human behavior reflecting the state of the emotional system.  He has developed “Dashboard” — an algorithm, in spreadsheet form, that can consider 14 variables.  

We understand that for a hurricane at least six or seven variables are needed to predict the course of an approaching storm. But it seems difficult to use this kind of knowledge for individuals who are in high-pressure social systems.

The Individual Model versus the Factual Family Information and Family Interactions

By focusing on what is wrong with others (the killers), we participate in an ancient emotional program, blaming others.   Our eyes and ears tell us “they” are the problem. This is the way the current individual model orients people and activates the other focused emotional system.

As humans we have a very other focused, primitive, conservative and instinctual guidance system.  We interpret the world both by seeing problems as residing in others and going along with those who have or are in power.  Both interpretations reinforce a hierarchy, which does in some to the benefit of others.

In the prevailing individual-focused medical and psychotherapeutic model we  “instinctually or automatically” label one person as the sick one. 

We label kids at school without considering the system they are coming from. 

When people are diagnosed with cancers or diabetes, how often do we take into account the support of their family or others to their health?  

The focus on the individual as the problem is part and parcel of our instinctual way of seeing the world.

 The forces that keep us from perceiving the social pressures that maintain the individual model of seeing the world are us are as appealing as apple pie.  We get love and approval for going along and fear social rejection if we don’t.

Factual Family Information: 1) Family deaths in the last year; 2) Number of times the soldier has moved or made requests to move in the last year; 3) Combat duty type and kind in last year; 4) Martial stability; 5) Health of nuclear family members; 6) Contact with people in a soldier’s extended family. Would it make a difference if soldiers like students could be identified as high risk and have an intervention designed for such soldier as we now have for students?

Family Interactions: Understanding mother/father/child interactions as social pressure in the family of the Boston Bombers.

The families of the Boston Bombers and Sandy Hook school shooter were torn apart by emotional cut off.   Yet, public discussion focuses to this day, on getting rid of guns, forcing people into hospitals, and forcing “them” to take better drugs.

The question is will the public have greater self-interest in understanding how losses in the family plus intense interdependency can pressure some people towards greater violence?  Currently the news media does a better job that psychiatry at collecting the fats and explaining the problems.

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva told Bloomberg News late Monday that she recently spoke with her 19-year-old son over the telephone -“Mentally he (Dzhokhar or Juhar) is normal but the child is shocked,” Tsarnaeva added to Bloomberg. “It was really hard to hear him and for him to hear me. The conversation was very quiet. It was my child, I know he is locked up like a dog, like an animal.”

Tsarnaev’s lawyers will probably blame his involvement on the “overpowering influence” of his 26-year-old brother, said Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties and defense attorney. Tamerlan Tsarnaev “appears to have been an embittered and dangerous character, and it is well known that older siblings have tremendous power over younger siblings,” he said in an interview last month.

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva and her husband Anzor emigrated to the U.S. in 2002 with their two boys and two girls, and divorced in 2011. She left the U.S. for Russia while facing shoplifting charges filed last year. In an interview last month with Russian state television channel RT, she said her sons were innocent and had been set up, questioning how they could have carried out the bombing with Tamerlan under FBI surveillance for at least three years.[5]

Family Survey 

If you take the following survey you may get some idea of your Family Interactions. These are your social inheritance of which we are mostly unaware. They are directed by come combination of automatic and instinctual mechanisms, like distance conflict, winning and loosing and projection on others and some degree of reflection leading to our ability to have something we call free will or responsibility to guide self.

One way is to just be as neutral and objective as possible in considering as to how you relate topeople in your three generational families.

What is your “emotional stance” (attitudes and feelings) towards each of the people listed below?  (Perhaps you can also jot down your attitudes towards these people or how your feelings towards others might be part of a long and arduous multigenerational familyhistory.)
















What is your current level of contact towards the above in your three generational families?

Describe your position in the important triangles in your family?

Where are you comfortable?

Where are you experiencing anxieties?


We know that most people are not aware of the lives of three generations of people in their family in a factual or objective way.  Most people also say they do not have neutral or loving kinds of feelings towards everyone in their multigenerational family. There is always some kind of battle brewing or one that has now blown over and the losers have been buried with proper epitaphs.  

We see the problems in the world around us.   Now, what can we do to alter our part in on going contentious issues?  By taking a quick look at our family relationships we can see the basic structure of the emotional guidance system that we were born into.  If one is interested in altering their functional role in the system, then knowledge of family can enable us to rise above the influences of very primitive forces.  This is the promise of the knowledge of differentiation of self.

Understanding our guidance system

The more a life is governed by the emotional system the more it follows the course of all instinctual behavior, in spite of intellectualization to the contrary.  A well-differentiated person is one whose intellect can function separately from the emotional system.[6] M. Bowen


The New York Times magazine ran a feature called “Who Graduates?”   The article features David Laude, now at the University of Texas, his research and the program he developed called Mind Set Interventions.

Laude wanted something that would help him predict for any given incoming freshman, how likely he or she would be to graduate in four years. He found Nate Silver, a statisticians and programmer, who used predictive analytics to understand student data to help school administrations’ decision-making.


Together they produced a tool they call the “Dashboard” — an algorithm, in spreadsheet form, that considers 14 variables including –student’s family income, his SAT score, his class rank and even includes his parents’ educational background.  The program can then spit out a probability, to the second decimal place, of how likely that student was to graduate in four years. When they ran the students’ data, the Dashboard indicated that 1,200 of an incoming class had less than a 40 percent chance of graduation in four years. Laude’s most intensive and innovative intervention is the University Leadership Network, a new scholarship program that aims to develop not just academic skills but leadership skills. They select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all their communications with them, convey the idea that they have selected for this special program not because they fear they will fail, but because they are confident they can succeed.


A “mind-set” treatment group read an article about the malleability of the brain and how practice makes it grow new connections.  This treatment group then read messages from current students in which they said that when they arrived at U.T. they worried about not being smart enough, but then learned that when they studied they grew smarter. The whole intervention took between 25 and 45 minutes for students to complete, and more than 90 percent of the incoming class completed it.


If the effect of the intervention persists over the next three years (as it did in the elite-college study), it could mean hundreds of first-generation students graduating from U.T. in 2016 who otherwise wouldn’t have graduated on time, if ever.  Beginning this month, the “U.T. Mindset” intervention will be part of the pre-orientation for all 7,200 members of the incoming class of 2018. 






[1] Family Therapy In Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, MD, 1977, P365


[2] https://www.ted.com/speakers/deborah_gordon

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/us/fort-hood-shooter-profile/


[4] http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/us/fort-hood-shooter-profile/



[5] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-28/boston-bombing-suspect-mentally-normal-mother-says-after-call.html


[6] Family Therapy In Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, MD, 1977, P 363 




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