Since the horror of the Columbine shooting in 1999, there have been 31 school shootings in addition to a number of other mass shootings. Each time one of these tragedies occurs, we understandably engage in a public dialog that asks why. Unfortunately, each time the dialog is cut short by a barrage of ready-made answers that steadily and thoroughly whacks each question away.
Viewed within the context of Columbine, the past six months raise these questions again, since this time period contains three mass shootings that urgently cry out for a level of understanding that transcends these overly simplistic, self-serving answers.
Why, after shooting and killing his mother, did Adam Lanza, 20, walk into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shoot 26 people, 20 of whom were children? How come, three days earlier, Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, opened fire in a Portland, Oregon mall food court with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle? Tragically, two people were killed, but Roberts’ intention was to kill a lot more had it not been for the gun jamming. Or why is James Holmes, a 24-year-old former neuroscience graduate student, believed to have opened fire on an audience in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, CO, with a 12-gauge pump action shotgun?
Based on information currently available, none of these shooters had a criminal history. They were young men, scarcely more than boys, who had their whole lives ahead of them. Their horrifying actions, despite how hackneyed they become after round-the-clock news coverage, threaten to defy explanation. Yet officials and the media seem content to regurgitate the same old list of reasons.
Other people have speculated that Lanza’s mother and father divorcing in 2009 somehow contributed to his shooting spree.
A former classmate described him as “weird”. Then there are those who’ve commented on his geeky predilection for assembling computers. Or his supposed Asperger’s syndrome.
Consolidating this swirling cloud of explanations, Judith Warner, in a column she wrote recently for Time Magazine, summed up the conventional wisdom about Lanza thusly: “…a narrative has emerged of a troubled young man, induced into violence by his preferred choice of media, and failed by an inadequate mental health system.”
Warner notes a recent Gallup poll found far more Americans believing that events like the Newtown tragedy could be avoided through increased federal spending on mental health screening and services than by banning the sale of assault weapons.
If only, the reasoning goes, we had subdued the murderer’s symptoms with a pill, perhaps the tragedy could have been avoided. But this raises the question whether contemporary psychiatric treatment (which, for the most part, has come to be primarily the administration of pills) is capable of solving the conditions that cause the impulse to commit mass murder in an elementary school.
To put it succinctly, are any of these answers good answers? Do they satisfactorily deal with the real questions being raised? How much fact and sound reasoning do all these pre-fabricated answers really hold? And how much of it is based on the need for ready-made answers in a society immersed in round-the-clock speculative news hype hungry for ways to satisfy viewers urge to gawk at the terrifying while also reassuring them that despite it all everything is really all right in the world?
In the end the news media always seem inclined to lead us to sanctuary by employing certain words, like “psychopath” and “evil”, both of which exert powerful implications. The formula is to answer the tragedies with a monster who lurks on the fringes of what is otherwise a safe, good society.
But, in the cases of the 3 mass shootings listed above, is the monster really who we think he is? Might there be more dimensions to what are typically 2-dimensional constructions that seem, after careful consideration, to be created more out of a need to fulfill certain political and social exigencies than to seriously explain a terrifying social phenomenon?
Perhaps Adam Lanza’s second-grade teacher raises the question most poignantly. ABC News reports on 12/23/12 that Lanza attended Carole MacInnes’ second-grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary, the very same school where he would slaughter 26 people some 13 years later. MacInnes remembers him as a smart, sweet boy who did not require extra academic attention and behaved normally. Although she never saw him after the second-grade, she recalled that he was a “gentle soul” and can’t understand what drove him to commit mass murder.
Another ABC news report on 12/15/12 interviews a neighbor who knew the Lanza family and describes her as shocked when she learned of the shooting. She considered both Adam and his 24-year old brother to be “very nice boys”.
These descriptions contrast with other post-shooting depictions of Adam Lanza. They also contrast with how we usually characterize the perpetrators of any horrific acts. Again, the question I’m raising is whether the conventional answers are accurate. If they’re not accurate, what purpose do they really serve? Do they really help us to understand why we live in a society populated with murderers who once seemed like “nice boys”?
Moreover, the fact tragedies, like Sandy Hook, continue to occur from month to month and year to year raises its own set of questions about the conventional wisdom. Whatever arguments one can raise in its defense, it must be admitted that it surely hasn’t been effective in putting an end to these events. Indeed, given the way the media slavishly conforms its reporting to the conventional wisdom in the face of this fact, seems anything but respectful of the victims of these tragedies or to their loved ones.
Just like its loath to seriously talk about the causes of global warming, the media doesn’t seriously question whether there are forces within our society, which are fundamental to its current make-up, creating conditions that are conducive to circumstances that can lead to the shooting in Newtown or Aurora. Rather than discounting them as evil psychopaths, the approach taken in this article asks what the mass shooters are communicating to us about our world? If we’re serious about confronting the causes of these tragedies, shouldn’t we consider whether it’s possible that the message may be more profound than that evil simply exists? If we don’t, then we should be prepared to accept that all our grand declarations of evil-psychopathic monsters effectively become excuses that allow us to avoid making fundamental social changes.
So let’s assume for a moment that psychopathic or evil behavior are merely descriptions and not reasons for events like Sandy Hook or Columbine. This distinction radically changes the conversation, does it not? It shifts the focus from the type of circular thinking that now dominates the public dialog to one that searches for deeper causal roots. Right now the dialog is centered on the fact that evil exists or insanity exists, therefore terrible crime exists. But what are the causes? If it’s that some people go crazy and feel the need to shoot their neighbors, why is it that events, on the scale of and frequency of Sandy Hook or Columbine, are a relatively recent development? Switchblades in school 50 years ago were conceivable; not machine guns.
Yes, there’s been violence in the past, but nothing as senseless, cold-blooded, and widespread as going into a public institution with the intent to kill as quickly as possible as many strangers as possible. Also, the motives for shootings, like Sandy Hook, aren’t obvious. Furthermore, given the frequency of mass shootings over the last decade and the age of many of the perpetrators, deterministic models based primarily on genetic predisposition seem insufficient to fully answer the question why. The only thing that can be surmised about these acts is that they are activated by an intent to lash out at society. Like terrorism, such acts sacrifice individuals but are directed at society itself. Unlike terrorism, there isn’t any political motive, only an intent to destroy.
But we can surmise that the actions of people like Adam Lanza and Eric Harris are communicating something. They are not merely actions. To read them as such is to miss a great deal. And we owe it to their victims to find out what their deaths mean. As painful as it is, this means that we must search beyond the ready-made answers if we’re to have any hope of understanding why these terrible events keep happening. Moreover, it’s crucial that we figure it out because we’ll never adequately solve the problem until we do. We must look within ourselves individually and as a society. Unless we do that, these atrocities will continue. Or they’ll take other forms in the future. The monster (the real monster who cannot be executed or put behind bars) will not go away until he’s captured within the grip of our understanding.
The last 40 years have given birth to quite a history of murders and murderers. The period can be broken into a few different groups based types of killing that received widespread media attention. There were a rash of mass shootings in the 1990’s, much of which occurred at workplaces. Some of the early shootings involved stressed out postal service employees. Hence the adjective, “postal”, being applied to uncontrollable outbursts of violence. Then the phrase, “road rage,” entered the picture to describe incidents of angry drivers shooting at each other—particularly in areas of the country with highly congested roadways, like Los Angeles. Most of the perpetrators involved people well into their adult life.
Going back further into recent history, there were a number of high profile serial killers that caught the limelight in the 1970’s and 1980’s. David Berkowitz (i.e., Son of Sam), the terror of New York and Long Island comes to mind. As does Ted Bundy, a former law student at the University of Utah. Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, sickened the nation in the early 1990’s and was beat to death by a fellow inmate. Dahmer was about 34 at the time.
In the case of each of these men, the question why they did what they did has been generally answered by referencing their obvious severe mental problems. Of course, the more interesting question has to do with what led to the creation of such problems. Indeed, many books have been written on this.
But the question of mass shootings at schools (or malls) is a little trickier. In 2004, psychologists for the FBI publicly released profiles they pieced together about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenagers who shot their teachers and classmates to death at Columbine High School in 1999. According to the FBI, Harris and Klebold had intended for the attack to be less an ordinary school shooting to take revenge on bullies than an act of domestic terrorism that would make the Oklahoma City bombings look small in comparison. As a 2004 article in Slate puts it, FBI psychologists see Harris as a psychopath who hates inferiority while Klebold is something of a manic-depressive.
But how much does this really add to what we already knew based simply on their actions? As an explanation for Columbine, it doesn’t completely satisfy. Not like one that involves a serial killer who had developed severe schizophrenia as the result of a traumatic upbringing by parents who themselves had mental problems. This offers a basis for explanation that, to a great extent, places the origin for the crime on a condition isolated to the murderer.
Killings, like Sandy Hook or Columbine, require more context to give us some perspective.
After reading some lines from Harris’ journal and web site, I was reminded of the Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfied. Like Harris, Caufield said he lied all the time. While we know that Salinger was employing irony, the comparison may work on other levels. Just as Caulfield was suffocating in a world dominated by fakery and forms, it’s pertinent to wonder how much these influences might have affected someone like Harris or even Klebold. Might Harris’ savage lashing out in his writings be an attempt to cut through a world, which, for many young adults, seems artificial and removed? and touch something that is perceived as more real, more concrete, and less abstract? What’s more real than blood? More absolute than death? However terrible the actions are, it’s important to try to understand the intent behind them. Remember, understanding the intent is not the same as justifying or condoning it.
As for Adam Lanza, his actions seem diametrically opposed of Caufield’s dream to catch the playing children before they unwittingly fell off the edge into the abyss. Yet, to a sick and twisted mind disgusted with the world, how much distance is there really between saving the children from what is perceived to be a terrible experience and killing them before killing oneself?
After reading about Harris’ and Klebold’s grand designs, I also couldn’t help thinking about Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Like Leopold and Loeb or Harris and Klebold, Dostoevsky’s character wanted to commit a great crime. Raskolnikov wanted to prove to himself that he was someone capable of greatness, like Napoleon. That, as Nietsche said, God was dead, and a superman need not be limited by the old constraints of Good and Evil. He would prove that a great act, even if it was morally wrong, was allowed to a great man pursuing great things. In Raskolnikov’s case, his secret “great” act would be offset in the future by the great contributions he would make to the world.
Dostoevsky showed that the nature of a healthy human did not support the superman concept. Unlike, the tactical blunders of Leopold and Loeb, what tripped up Raskolnikov and led to his arrest was the fact that his conscience finally overcame his twisted reasoning. Raskolnikov, despite his grandiose ideas and horrific act, turned out to be a normal person in the end, as evidenced by the fact that he came to realize that he couldn’t go on living without atoning for his crime. The FBI, on the other hand, attempts to present us with the idea that Harris and Klebold were not normal. That, like Bundy or Berkowitz, they were very abnormal and, consequently, incapable of sincerely experiencing remorse.
This, of course, is vastly reassuring because it reminds us that terrible acts are not committed by good, healthy people. It also reassures us that the problem is, by and large, limited to the one diagnosed with the condition; or, least, limited to the conditions that immediately impacted the subject’s life. In other words, mental disorders, like schizophrenia or psychopathology, can (and are) interpreted shield broader society from blame. The horrible actions committed have not been in response to any external stimuli that could have reasonably produced them.
The way the media often explains psychopaths is to basically state that they are damaged people who lack the ability to feel empathy for their fellow human beings or remorse for their actions. In general, this is the way society defines the modern monster: a person who is deficient in some way regardless how brilliant or resourceful he may be. They are often presented as irremediably beyond the reach of help.
The psychopath has become a convenient way to create a scientific term which encompasses the type of human violence that cannot be easily explained. Furthermore, as long as those who are diagnosed as psychopaths are in the minority, it is easy to confine blame to the individual and not society. The psychopath is, therefore, a dead end that allows no further questioning. In effect, the psychopath, as commonly understood, is the proverbial bad apple. As such, it is a reason in itself for a crime and not a behavioral description.
If the psychopath diagnosis attempts to offer a scientific understanding of monsters, the application of the word evil strives to respond to non-scientific questions. How, for example, could God allow this to happen? After all, isn’t America, by and large, a Christian society? And, following colloquial perceptions as promulgated by the media, if the white middle class, such as what is represented in Newtown, CT, isn’t representative of Christiandom in America, what is? For many, this, of course, makes Sandy Hook all the more inexplicable: how could God have let this happen to elementary school children?
The answer’s easy if you believe in evil, as defined by Christian fundamentalists: evil exists. [period]
I could reference a thousand people and articles applying the word evil to the actions or people that caused the Sandy Hook or Columbine or Aurora movie theater shootings. From the President of the United States to local authorities to regular news commentators. They’ve used the word countless times, as is common knowledge, so there’s no point in quoting them.
Evil is also the lens through which terrorist attacks are perceived. The problem is, like the word psychopath, the idea of evil is a dead end that permits no further questions. It’s an ultimate answer backed up by a rich history of associations that span human history. Why does evil exist? Does anyone bother to ask this question beyond the age of 10? Not most people, at any rate. This is probably for the same reason why they stop asking about psychopaths. Isn’t the world convinced that, like genetic abnormalities and bad apples, evil people have always been around and always will?
When politicians and policemen use the words psychopaths and evil to describe horrific situations like Sandy Hook or even September 11th, they’re effectively diverting questions away from themselves or society. Evil and psychopaths are a bright red line between us and them. They are the monsters living beyond the pale of society. They relieve society of having to look inward at itself and allows it to muster its forces to go after the monsters who besiege it. This is the story of Beowulf. This is the story of the aftermath of September 11th. And, as we arm ourselves and further lock down our schools in response to Sandy Hook and Columbine, so, too, is it the story of mass school shootings.
For politicians and policemen, psychopaths and evil are expedients that enable them to fulfill their duties in easy and non-controversial ways. What are you doing to protect us? asks John Q Public. Response: We’re placing more armed policemen in schools. We’re hunting down the bad guys. We’re going to kill them before they kill you.
Words like psychopath, evil, or monster aren’t just used to substitute for root causes, but, through persistent application in the public discourse, become calls to action. The obvious and logical action to many people, particularly in the wake of September 11th, was to take aggressive action. As these descriptions are repeated over and over in the media they cross the line from description to prescription.
To test this hypothesis, ask yourself if you can imagine, at this point in time, any politician suggesting that we ask the question whether society itself might be responsible for producing children who go to school with the premeditated intent to kill? They would be laughed off the air and blamed for shirking their duty, possibly even for cowardice. In today’s media environment, dominated as it is by the logic of psychopaths and evil monsters, the suggestion that society might have some culpability in recent mass shootings is unthinkable. Those in positions of authority seem to believe that it’s far easier for everyone, from victims to mere spectators, to grasp the logic inherent in evil and bad genetics. It’s also far easier to pretend to address the problem by fortifying society with prayer and/or guns.
Again, since Columbine, there have been some 31 school shootings. Yet there hasn’t been any serious public calls for societal introspection beyond blaming violent video games or declaring that we’re not doing enough mental health screenings. To blame violence on TV or the video games amounts to the same thing as labeling someone evil or a psychopath. It’s a dead-end that presupposes (and even implies) that everything else in society is ok. The only thing we, as a society, need to do is make the stories we consume less violent. Problem solved.
But can we, as intelligent, thinking beings, really be persuaded that violent video games create psychopathic monsters capable of carrying out diabolic, premeditated, mass murder? That seems like a stretch, at best. Yet, it is true, that the ideas and images we consume impact our lives and well-being.
Most of us alive today know that the world we live in is full of stresses and uncertainty. TV and movies, among the few refuges we have from our crazy lives, often present us with powerful images of strength, beauty, or cleverness. The stout football player smashing his way into the end zone. The powerful American military bombing it’s adversaries into oblivion half a world away. The beautiful temptress on TV using her allures to get what she wants. The Wall Street guru or the Silicon Valley geek using their charm or mental brawn to amass billions.
These are examples of some of the images that Hollywood creates for our amusement. They all lead to the same implication: this is what it means to be successful in America. If you’re not a star, like us, you’re a failure. you’re dirt. nothing. In a world in which everyone appears to be successful, the worst thing you can be is a failure. Odd man out. all alone. pushed to the fringe.
So we all try our best to squeeze into one image or another. This dynamic is so painfully obvious throughout our so-called great melting pot, particularly in high school—where how you look determines who you are. And how market forces exploit this to ensure a steady flow of sales! All so everybody can look like a magazine cover.
But people like Klebold and Harris, with their trench coat mafia get-up, don’t fit in (whether intentionally or not). Nor the withdrawn Lanza or Holmes with his hair died Joker-orange.
These movie and magazines images are like little pieces of software that are intended to make someone do or believe something. Like the false idols of old, they promise something that can never be delivered. For those who believe in them, disappointment is their only reward. The car, the necklace, the clothes. Once their obtained, the emptiness of their promise is revealed. Any die hard consumer has experienced this feeling. The Faustian pact is once you buy into this mindset, the only thing that ever approximates a feeling of satisfaction is the condition of desiring that which you don’t have. This is the ultimate achievement of an advanced consumer-based society, like ours: ultimately, it is not the attained thing that motivates but the mere desire to have something more. This is perpetual by design.
In this way pornography and drugs are the ultimate consumer items. They provide a glimpse of satisfaction. Yet more is always required as we chase after their allures. One is a logical construction while the other is chemical, but their effect is the same. Ted Bundy knew this all too well when he blamed his murderous desires on pornography. Perhaps it never adequately explained his actions, but his case vividly shows the progressive demands of pornography. Heavy viewers will tell you that they require more extreme porn to reach the same feelings that less extreme examples once produced. It’s well documented that straight people who’re heavy pornography consumers have even turned to gay porn to get their fix. Some even turn to violent porn.
The point I’m making is that the consumer mentality that our economy (and society) has become dependent on is one that believes in the primacy of material things (matter as opposed to spirit) to achieve satisfaction. A century of modern advertising and trillions of dollars spent on producing expertly crafted ads have created the myth that material possessions are an end unto themselves—that the mere possession of matter can somehow sustain an incorporeal state, such as happiness or satisfaction. This is untrue and young people, due to their lack of experience, have the least ability to defend themselves against this fallacy.
Every belief system carries it’s own set of implications. Once we accept the primacy of material possessions, we, in turn, make everything else subservient to this ideal. Including life. Going into a school and mowing down classmates with semi-automatic assault weapons is an expression of this. In a world in which personal importance is dictated by the type of purse or car or clothes one has, what is the value of mere human life? Indeed, the clear implication is that a body without these things is worthless. Is this hard to admit? Isn’t it possible that afflicted people, like Adam Lanza and Eric Harris, provide the answer for us again and again?
Going into a school or office or mall and blasting your fellow citizens to death communicates something else that we should also take notice of. In a world in which most of us live relatively isolated lives from our neighbors and families; in which we have little say or power to change the way our massive, nationalized society operates; in which we feel fortunate just to have a job to pay the bills; in which most of us passively watch world events unfold like a movie or football game; in such a world as this, taking a gun and shooting into society is a clear expression of impotence trying, trying to break through to some reality beyond what, for many, is a stifling vacuum chamber of everyday life. Are we ready to admit that life in the modern, post-industrial world is extreme in many ways and a great hardship for many millions of people? Is it any wonder that some of them, predisposed for whatever reasons, will act out in bloody horrible ways?
The final thing I’d note for now is that what these young men are doing is not simply murdering others. They’re committing suicide directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. The United States of America ranked 1oth for the highest rate of gun deaths in the world in 2009. It is the only developed nation in the top 10. Or the top 15, for that matter. What’s even more startling is the fact that some 60% of these deaths are suicides.
It’s been known for some time that the developed world has a problem with high suicide rates. But it’s less commonly known that suicide rates have skyrocketed for people 5-24 years of age between the years 1950-2003. Suicide.org offers these grim statistics from the Centers for Disease Control:
For ages 5-14, the rate tripled from 0.2 in 1950 to o.6 in 2003. For ages 15-24, the suicide rate more than doubled from 4.5 in 1950 to 9.7 in 2003. For ages 15-19, it also more than doubled from 2.7 in 1950 to 7.3 in 2003. For the 20-24 age group, the rate nearly doubled from 6.2 in 1950 to 12.1 in 2003.
Some of us may find it interesting to correlate another rate with these. That’s the rate of advertising dollars spent on dressing up and photographing increasingly younger and younger people. As the needs of business have grown over the years, the need to increase the size of the marketplace has also increased. The easy way to do this has been to increase the size of the consumer population. Instead of marketing to people well into their adult life, as was the norm in the 1950’s, we’ve started to heavily invest in the way younger people perceive themselves in order that they will buy more consumer goods. The corresponding age of models has dropped to the point where a model in her early 20’s nowadays is too old to practice her profession. We’re putting lipstick and designer clothes on children at increasingly younger and younger ages. Advertisers are reaching over and around parents to have a dialog with children that very intensely affects the way they see themselves and others around them.
The effect, figuratively and literally, is that we are sacrificing our children to the needs of the marketplace. And the only thing the market is concerned with is selling more stuff.
Who should regulate the ideas and values by which children evaluate themselves, other living things, and the world? Parents and educators? Or the marketplace?
Right now, the ready-made answers that our corporate-sponsored media promulgates for atrocities, like Sandy Hook, puts the blame only on individuals and never levels any real criticism at society. It directs our attention to the fallibility of individuals while exonerating society, and hence the marketplace. I place myself in the camp of those who believe in the goodness and sanctity of life over a system constructed for the sole purpose of profiteering. When we, as a society, embrace a system that is predicated on the primacy of consumer goods over all else, we create a very dangerous language and culture in which senseless violence can some times occur. In such a system, it shouldn’t be surprising that evil, psychopathic behavior will boil up from time to time.