Anniversary of a Workplace Shooting

One year ago this week, Omar Thornton, a delivery truck driver, methodically shot and killed eight of his co-workers at Harford Distributors in Manchester, Connecticut, wounded several others, then shot and killed himself. Was Thornton bullied in the workplace, mobbed by management and co-workers to the point of mass murder? Given the savagery of his final acts, does it really matter if he was harassed, discriminated against, bullied or mobbed?

It does if it can prevent future acts of workplace vengeance. Last year, when Lt. Governor M. Jodi Rell asked, "In the wake of this tragedy, we are all left asking the same questions: How could someone do this? Why did they do this?" his question was treated almost as if it were rhetorical. Any serious effort to answer it was blasted away with a flippant hate-filled remark as if trying to understand what drives workers to kill somehow excuses the killing and trivializes the trauma the survivors will forever suffer.

No one knows, and no one may ever know, what drove Omar Thornton to kill, or the full set of facts leading up to his horrific killings. But what has been reported is that Omar Thornton had no history of violence or mental disturbance. Those who knew him described him as a hard worker, who worked long hours and many weekends. A roommate of many years reported, "He was a quiet person, not a mean bone in his body." The mother of his girlfriend of eight years described him as "mellow and peaceful." His cousin reported to the Hartford Courant, "I never in a million years -- I'm still waiting for someone to wake me up because I cannot believe this. Not him." The Courant reported, "There was nothing about Thornton, whom they described as a 'mama's boy,' that could have foreshadowed such a deadly outburst. He was a hard worker. He didn't smoke. He didn't drink. He had never been in trouble with the law."

He was a gun collector, a factor that could arguably be very relevant to his homicidal spree (virtually all workplace killings involve guns), just as his gender could well be a relevant factor (the workplace killings committed by Amy Bishop and Jennifer San Marcos were highly unusual because mass murder by women in extremely rare -- in both cases, the women had records of prior mental disturbance; Bishop had a history of homicide and assault, San Marcos had publicly boasted of her racial hatred. As educator Jackson Katz has argued, if all workplace shooters were women, gender would be the first thing people would point to in trying to understand what drives women to kill in the workplace, while few people ask, what is driving men to kill their co-workers).

But guns and gender aside for now, how can Lt. Governor Rell's question be answered? How could someone do this? Why would someone do this?

Dismissing Thornton as a madman is simplistic and does far greater disservice to the survivors than pays them respect. To respect those who will forever suffer from Thornton's last acts, a better understanding of what drives workers to kill each other may provide some sense -- however deplorable -- to such senseless deaths.

According to the Hartford Courant, "The only clue that the family has about Thornton's motive for the shootings was his complaint that he was racially harassed at work." Indeed, his last words to his mother were reported as saying he had "killed the five racists" that he believed were harassing him.

Thornton had told others that racial slurs and a drawing of a stick figure with a hangman's noose were written on the bathroom wall, that coworkers made racist comments, and that he'd complained about it to his supervisors and he said that they did nothing. He reportedly did not make any formal complaints of racism, perhaps because he did not want to exacerbate the situation, perhaps because he was hoping his supervisors would do something. But what they did do was bring him in for a disciplinary hearing where they told him to resign after being accused of stealing beer. Moments later, he reached into his lunch box, pulled out a gun and started shooting his accusers and others.

Did he, in fact, steal? He was shown a videotape alleged to prove he had done so. Was taking beer common and practiced by other workers? Was he told by someone to help himself? More importantly, was he singled out for surveillance and discipline because he had complained to his supervisors about discriminatory treatment? Did he have a history of theft? These questions may well be relevant if one is to understand what Thornton was thinking and feeling in the days and moments leading up to his murderous acts.

They matter because if Thornton was, in fact, being treated differently than other employees, if his efforts to have management address his concerns about harassment caused him to be further harassed, then did the actions or inactions of his employers and co-workers contribute, however tragically, to driving an otherwise "mellow and peaceful" worker to madness? Understanding these factors does not justify the acts -- but by understanding how workers can be driven to kill, there is the possibility that lives can be saved in the future.

If Thornton was being treated fairly, then was it inevitable that he would kill -- and if so, why? This question is perhaps even more disturbing than asking what may have made him kill. It is disturbing because to suggest that this "mellow and peaceful" man could respond so violently to being fired no matter how fairly he was treated, suggests that the worker beside you may erupt in a homicidal spree and there is no way to predict -- or to prevent -- it.

But from all accounts of this tragic shooting and so many others like it, those who kill in the workplace have been under extreme and unrelenting stress prior to their acts. Amy Bishop stands out not only because she is female, but because she had a history of homicide and violent assault. Most workplace killers do not. Yet they feel, however perversely, as if their only power is through violence. When people kill others, it is often because they see themselves threatened by the violence of another, whether rightly or wrongly. How, then, do workers perceive threats upon their dignity, careers, economic security, and lives?

Violence in the workplace is not limited to shooting sprees. For all their sensationalism, such acts are extreme and rare in comparison to the tens of thousands of workplace conflicts that end without killing. In the workplace, violence begins with aggression, and becomes increasingly damaging as it escalates unchecked. If someone had, in fact, drawn a noose on the bathroom wall where Omar Thornton worked, they were communicating a threat. Such acts of workplace aggression -- which include harassing, belittling, insulting, and shunning -- are not minor. Such acts are the signs of an aggressive society that are all too often excused as "harmless," with workers told to toughen up, learn to take it, and ignore it. Just whose aggression is ignored?

If management addresses aggression early on -- not by accusing a person of being "a threat," "dangerous," "mentally unstable," or even "a bully" -- labels which dehumanize the worker and dismiss the issues they present - but by taking complaints of harassment seriously and constructively -- they may well prevent workers under extreme stress from feeling helpless and attacked. In far too many workplaces, it is not what is reported that is the issue, but who makes the report -- and who they are reporting. The power of the one making the report has more to do with the "fairness" of how it is addressed than the underlying facts.

Like targets of workplace mobbing, Omar Thornton was "different." A black man in a largely white workplace, he had the least seniority of all workers, according to reports. These facts alone suggest that he may well have been relatively powerless in comparison to other workers, and the object of rumors and shunning. But more revealing, perhaps, are the comments readers of the Hartford Courant made in response to the case: "Whites better wake up," "[blacks] are leeches on society," "blacks always blame others for their failures." Far more incendiary comments were posted on the newspaper's website and promptly removed, but they included calls for "whites to rise up," claims that 99% of all inter-racial rapes are committed by blacks against whites, and a slew of such vitriolic racial slurs that one is left wondering what harassment any person of color faces in communities where such sentiments still smolder.

There is no justification and no excuse for the killings and injuries of the workers at Hartford Distributors. But if understanding what pushed Omar Thornton over the edge can help stop future slaughters, asking "How could someone do this?" and "Why did they do this?" as Lt. Governor Rell asked, is not only reasonable, it is critical. "Everyone has a breaking point," Thornton's aunt was quoted as saying. If we can learn better ways of working together, fewer people may be pushed to that breaking point. If understanding what pushed Omar Thornton to his own breaking point includes asking what his employers and co-workers did and did not do to Omar Thornton brings us closer to that understanding, it does not mean that the victims deserved to die, nor that they brought on their own deaths. Omar Thornton was the only one who died from suicide. The others were murdered. Understanding the motives of their murders may help to prevent future acts of workplace violence. To honor those so heartlessly killed, let us ask these discomforting questions -- out of respect for their lives.

And also let us ask, each of us, these discomforting questions: if someone in your own place of work or community is being targeted for elimination right now (or has been), shunned and dehumanized and accused of one fault after another -- how would you treat this person if you suddenly learned that they were not the lowly worker they appear to be, but in fact, owned the company? What if you discovered that the object of ridicule and scorn were rich and connected? Could help you with your next promotion, introduce you to someone of influence over your life or career? Might you treat them more kindly?

If the answer is yes, then it is not Omar Thornton's acts that one ought to contemplate. The acts to focus on right now are one's own. By asking these questions, we are forced to consider just how we define "fairness" in the workplace. Each of us has a breaking point, at home and at work. Each of us has a heart of darkness that can bring us to act with cruelty toward others. And each of us has a heart of illuminating light that can help us to heal in times of darkness. To honor the anniversary of those who died so needlessly at the hands of Omar Thornton, let us each, in our own way, illuminate our hearts, and go gentle into that good day, the workday, where we live and learn alongside each other in pursuit of our own very personal American dreams.