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Common threads running through recent shootings

Anger at institutions and alienation may be factors. But murder statistics show a drop.

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As the nation struggles to come to terms with the recent spate of shootings from Atlanta to Chicago to Milwaukee, some criminologists have found a common theme in the seemingly disparate attacks: They were at least partially aimed at institutions and carried out by frustrated, alienated individuals.

They're a symptom of a society less anchored in communities than it once was, critics say, and one in which some mainstream institutions, from the courts to the local city council, may have grown less responsive to individuals' needs.

"There's a tremendous amount of alienation in America - people feeling that big government and business, even the justice system, are not responsive to the needs of the ordinary guy," says criminologist James Alan Fox, author of the new book "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder."

Professor Fox says that the phenomenon is coupled with an "eclipsing of community," many people who now live alone and lack friends and neighbors to help them through difficult times.

While the incidents remain under investigation and each alleged shooter's story is unique, the themes of alienation and lashing out at an institution, or individuals that represent one, are evident in all three cases.

For instance in Atlanta, Brian Nichols had been in court to be retried for a rape that he insists he did not commit. He later told his hostage, Ashley Smith, that he thought of himself as "a soldier ... and that his people needed him for a job to do. And he was doing it." But a yearning for human contact was obvious, too: He told Smith he wanted to relax and "feel normal."

She, in turn, tapped into his own sense of humanity and told him about how her husband died, how much she loved her 5-year-old daughter, and why she wanted to live. After talking for several hours, Nichols put his guns away and offered to hang up her curtains before letting her go to visit her daughter, Paige.

"After we began to talk, he said he thought that I was an angel sent from God, and that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ," she said.

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