The shooter in the Wisconsin killings was Wade Michael Page, who has now been widely identified by the media as a white supremacist. It is important to keep in mind that Page was not born as a white supremacist just like alleged Canadian Icepick killer, Luka Rocco Magnotta, was not born evil. After all, Wade’s step-mother, Laura Page, recalled him as being “precious child” who was “kind and gentle and loving” and who loved to do normal child activities such as playing with his dog and camping. Early childhood pictures show someone who appeared to be happy and normal.
Although I, and any other sensible person, unequivocally condemns Wade’s actions, an important issue for society is to determine how and when someone transforms from a happy normal child to a reclusive member of society who goes on a mass shooting rampage. The reality is that the transition is usually not one that occurs over night, but typically results from years of negative life experiences combined with poor coping resources and vulnerability to extremist influences. In the case of Wade Page, his step-mother has said that she has “no idea” where he changed. However, the early history provides some answers of how the process of social alienation unfolded. None of these factors alone are sufficient to explain a mass shooting rampage, but putting them together can sometimes culminate in a tragic event.
The first clearly relevant negative event identified in Page’s life is that his mother died from lupus in 1985 (age 13). This is difficult for any child to deal with and Page was reportedly devastated. His father re-married when he was 10-years-old and at that point his mother and step-mother shared joint custody of him. It is likely that the divorce was difficult for him as well. He reportedly did not get along with his father. His father and step-mother later moved from Colorado to Texas, leaving him behind in Colorado to split time living with his aunt and grandmother while attending school. While he reportedly developed a close bond with the latter, we now have a child whose parents divorced, whose biological mother is dead , and whose father and step-mother moved away from him. Essentially, his childhood was marked by tragedy and an unstable home life. His school grades are unknown but it would not be unusual for a child with this type of history to have academic struggles.
It seems that Page lacked focus and direction as a teenager because according to his step-mother he claimed that this was what joining the army at age 20 provided him. He did this after moving in with his father and step-mother after H.S. and trying to work in a convenience store. Whatever discipline he learned in the military was not sufficient because he had continued alcohol-related problems, which likely reflected a maladaptive way to cope with stress. Specifically, at a pool bar in 1994, he kicked large holes in sheetrock with his boots, and was charged with criminal mischief. He was demoted and discharged from the army in 1998, reportedly for showing up drunk. He was demoted and discharged from the army in 1998, reportedly for showing up drunk. He was not allowed to re-enlist and received a general discharge, which is a level below an honorable discharge. He was also arrested for a DUI in 1999, the same year his mother and step-mother divorced.
It is at this point that his family began to lose contact with him and he began a new chapter in his life…joining the white power movement in 2000. He had reportedly expressed white supremacist views in the military and was covered with tattoos by 1995, some of which identified his views. One example is his tattoo of the Celtic cross on his left arm with the number 14 inside of it. The Celtic cross is a symbol of a German Neo-Nazi group and the #14 reflects the number of words in the white supremacist rallying slogan.
By 2000, it seems that Wade tried but failed to fit in with society through normal routes. He no longer had a biological mother, was disconnected from many in his family, had been rejected by the military by his behaviors, and sought a way to feel connected to something else. In Page’s case, the white power movement provided that sense of family and meaning, just like a gang provides the same for many inner city youth from broken households.
Overall, Wade Page was not happy with society, which he has referred to as sick and hypocritical in a previous interview about his heavy metal band, End Apathy. He began the group in 2005. The name of the band arose from his desire to enact change and served as a way to direct his anger. He was also the member of a band called Definite Hate. His music helped vent his feelings of anger and frustration. People outside of his group were referred to as “dirt people.” With such views, non-whites become dehumanized and a mindset develops that allows one to commit a heinous mass murder.
However, even within his own sub-culture, Page could not fit in. A girlfriend reportedly cheated on him with a band member, resulting in the band dismembering about a year ago. In early June 2012, a girlfriend reportedly broke up with him and he moved out of his residence with her. A friend described him as emotionally upset and hurt. He was fired from multiple jobs (e.g., truck driver, parts coordinator) over the years, once because he did not want to take direction from a female co-worker. He lost his house in February 2012 when the bank seized it after a foreclosure.
Essentially, Wade Page seems to be a person who grew up in the face of tragedy and instability, tried to fit in society but failed, identified with the white supremacist subculture but had a falling out there as well. His life had fallen apart and he took out his anger on the society he disliked, focusing on those he had completely dehumanized. He may have been planning his rampage for a few weeks because when he moved out, he lived alone and rarely left his residence. He did not return a call from his father three weeks before the shooting. He barely made eye contact with people and did not want to be engaged. He was blasting aggressive music from his radio, which was likely channeling his anger. He was avoiding human connections perhaps because he did not want to have any such feelings should they interfere with his plans. Of course, this is speculative, but clearly, he was angry and upset at the time. While people recognized he was acting strange, no one felt concerned enough to contact police.
As a society, we need to do everything possible to maintain stable families and living situations for children. In cases of divorce and/or death of a parent(s) we need better societal resources in place to help children cope, which includes mental health outreach and community outreach programs to reduce feelings of isolation and reclusiveness (for adults and children). There should be a more rigorous follow-up of people discharged from the military for conduct problems, particularly if they are known to be reclusive or engage in hateful activities. There is no way to prevent all cases of mass violence, but when I look back at Walter Page’s history, I cannot help but think that his life (and by extension the lives of the people he killed) did not need to turn out this way.