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Tennessee church attack spotlights scapegoat mentality

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"This is not just violence in a vacuum," says Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "When they perceive themselves to have played by the rules, they will lash out indiscriminately not just at innocent people, but innocent people who symbolize what they believe has done them wrong."

To be sure, any direct connection between the shootings and the nation's economic woes is hard to verify, says Cecil Greek, a criminologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee. More likely, Mr. Greek says, Adkisson's alleged outburst may have been tied into suddenly jarred expectations – in his case, his ability to find a job and even stay on food stamps – at a time when a majority of Americans are questioning the country's course and many are feeling an economic pinch.

"It's not as much if things are good or bad economically, but more whether people know what the limits are, and what they can expect," says Greek. "If it's a period where everybody downsizes, or a period of raised expectations where nobody knows where the upper limits are, it can be a more dangerous period to live through in terms of the potential for people to act out strangely."

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