“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants?
I intend to do battle with them and slay them.”
Since April, 1999, when fifteen Columbine High School students were shot and killed and twenty-one wounded by two fellow students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, until October of this year, eighteen similar school shootings and mass murders where at least four individuals were killed or injured have been carried out by eighteen young white male shooters. Depending on which source you reference – I relied on Wikipedia – one hundred and forty-nine persons, including students, teachers, school personnel, the shooters themselves and several of their parents, were killed and one hundred and thirty-nine wounded – approximately one school mass murder every ten months, a rate that has accelerated in the last several years, particularly since the Newtown shootings in December, 2012.
To provide an even broader – and shocking – picture, again courtesy of Wikipedia – a total of one hundred and fifty-eight school-related shootings since Columbine, carried out by one hundred and ninety-nine shooters, have resulted in two hundred and twenty-four deaths and two hundred and eighty-eight injuries; a rate of one shooting a month during that almost-sixteen year period. Eighty-five of these shootings have occurred since Newtown, i.e., in little less than three years, doubling the rate of shootings to one every two weeks.
A ritualized public and political response to the shootings has evolved, particularly in the wake of the mass murders, which always attract the most media attention: shock, outrage and a demand for action to prevent a recurrence. Who are these teenagers who are doing the shootings and why? How are they getting their hands on the powerful weapons they’re using? Where are the stricter gun controls needed to deny the shooters access to these weapons?
In the face of the predictable and pointed objections to the latter from the NRA – “Only a good man with a gun can stop a bad man with a gun” – and from the U.S. senators and congressman in the NRA’s employ, all possible productive discussion of the who, what and why of the killings, even after Newtown and the murder of twenty elementary schoolchildren, has inevitably deteriorated into stock answers – the shooters are all crazy loners – and solutions – increased funding for additional mental health services is needed. If you give credence to this popularized explanation, it now appears that the answers are to be found among those persons who have been labeled seriously mentally ill, a conveniently marginalized and powerless group whose members’ protests at being labeled and scapegoated as prospective killers can easily be ignored.
Aided and abetted by the Roberts’ Supreme Court and its distorted interpretation of the Second Amendment as guaranteeing the right of individual gun ownership to all Americans, the NRA has proceeded to block all attempts to tighten gun controls at the Federal, state and local levels. Perhaps more importantly, it has succeeded in intimidating the Congress to vote down all legislative initiatives to fund research into the fundamental questions posed above, viz., who are the school shooters and mass murderers and why are they shooting.
Despite those barriers, academic researchers have attempted to construct a profile of the shooters with the objective of identifying those individuals most likely to plan and carry out future shootings that result in mass murders. So, too, has the FBI. Unfortunately, their efforts have produced a picture of past and future shooters so broad that it could encompass the great majority of white male teenagers in the U.S. It could just as easily include the Muslim jihadists, in the main young male French and Belgian nationals of North African origin, who are currently wreaking havoc in France.
To illustrate, let me elaborate on a few of the twenty-six “personality traits and behaviors” posted by Gary Kohls, a psychiatrist, on OpEd News in early October that I consider key:
- Preoccupation with violence, particularly computer games filled with violence and, often, with guns. At least two of our shooters, Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, and Christopher Harper-Mercer, the Umpqua CC shooter, shared an avid interest in guns and shooting with their mothers, with Lanza shooting and killing his mother before departing for his rampage at the Sandy Hook School.
- Alienation from others, including family members, schoolmates and teachers, and a corresponding mistrust of those in authority. They rarely sought help from treating professionals and the therapeutic relationships in which they did participate were invariably short-lived. For their part, psychotherapists and psychiatrists were confounded by these young men and were universally unsuccessful in engaging them in treatment.
- Signs of depression, often evidenced by agitated behavior, and of cognitive impairment, often quite severe. It is crucial to note here the likely ill effects, i.e., hypo-manic, impulsive and aggressive behaviors and exacerbation of suicidal thinking, produced by the SSRI’s or anti-depressant medications prescribed to adolescents whose parents seek treatment for them. By FDA regulation, these potentiating side effects are highlighted in “black box” warnings attached to all SSRI’s prescribed to adolescents and young adults. The majority of the shooters under discussion here had been prescribed such medications at some time prior to the shootings they carried out.
- Inability to form intimate relationships, particularly sexual relationships. Again, the majority if not all our shooters had never had sex, leading to feelings of personal and social inadequacy and, often, a fierce misogyny. Jihadist suicide bombers, we should remember, are prohibited from having sex and are compensated for their chastity with promises of the sexual delights awaiting them in the afterlife. As the number of U.S. shootings has mounted, more alienated and angry young men have begun to connect with one another via Facebook and invariably refer to themselves as sexually frustrated, a key point of common self-identity among themselves and with the shooters.
- Marginalization in all areas of their lives, particularly at school and often in their families, where their complaints and expressions of frustration and rage were generally dismissed. Our shooters subsequently learned to be silent and share little of their thoughts and feelings, and earned others’ view of them as social misfits. Family members, schoolmates, teachers and school administrators appeared to readily accept and could well have welcomed our shooters’ social distance, since few if any attempts appear to have been made to bridge that distance.
- Accordingly, family relationships were usually turbulent, with the shooters, for the most part, left to their own devices. At school, similarly, bullying behavior by other students against these social misfits usually went unaddressed. And if our shooters sought out membership in any group, they gravitated towards other social outsiders, i.e., those individuals who shared their interests in violence, extremist beliefs, guns and, ultimately, illicit street and prescription drugs.
A pretty long list. Which might quite accurately describe our school shooters, but which is post facto and in no way predictive, citing characteristics applicable to many U.S. teenagers. So how do you sort out those who might actually proceed to act out their failed expectations and their rage against their peers and shoot them?
You don’t because you can’t. Mental health professionals readily admit they can’t predict with any accuracy which of their patients will act to harm themselves or others based on their clinical profiles. The most plausible indicator is past behavior, i.e., assaults on others or worse and actual suicide attempts. Should the FBI and other law enforcement agencies begin to monitor the e-mails and social media posts of persons with several or more of the attributes described above, they would uncover little they could act upon – discussing acts of violence, even posting instructions on building bombs, is a First Amendment-protected right. While their on-line postings might subject those under surveillance to closer law enforcement scrutiny, no action, no arrests or detention, can be undertaken against them until they commit a crime. In the interim, the number of school-related shootings, as I cited above, has dramatically increased since Newtown, as has the number of shooters and, in all likelihood, the number of prospective shooters.
I recently read an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the October 19th issue of The New Yorker, “Thresholds of Violence: How School Shootings Catch On,” that helped me understand why that might be happening. It also prompted me to write this essay. Gladwell argues that the threshold for young white men willing and able to shoot their classmates has steadily fallen since the Columbine shootings. Young men who could never have conceived of themselves or been viewed by others as prospective shooters only a few years ago, who appeared well socialized and exhibited no aberrant behaviors that might alienate them from others, can now be counted among the actual or potential shooters.
The focus of Gladwell’s article is a seventeen-year-old high school student named John LaDue who, from all outward appearances, would seem unlikely to plan a mass shooting. When confronted in a storage unit he rented by three police officers responding to the complaint of a homeowner about a person wandering though her backyard late at night, he readily admitted he was making bombs. It was as if he was relieved to have been found out, as if he had sprinkled behind him a trail of figurative breadcrumbs leading straight to him. When taken to the local police station, he was adroitly questioned by one of the officers who had found him and provided the officer with a wealth of detail. It was good to read about a perceptive cop who quickly recognized he was not dealing with the “crazy loner” portrayed in the mass media, but with a bright and confused, albeit dangerous, kid.
LaDue answered the questions put to him directly and coherently, was not defensive but remarkably forthcoming. Yes, he was building particularly potent Molotov cocktails that he intended to place in strategic locations throughout his school. Yes, he was amassing large amounts of ammunition and powerful guns and intended to shoot classmates, including his sister, who attended the same school he did. He also intended to shoot his parents, since he wanted to account for as many victims as possible. No, he loved his parents; liked the town he lived in; and had never been subjected to bullying. He had planned to carry out his rampage, as school mass murders have come to be called, in April, but for some unaccountable reason kept on pushing the date back. The police officer duly noted these contradictions and LaDue’s apparent ambivalence.
LaDue proceeded to explain that he had become fascinated with Columbine and the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and had studied the information regarding those shootings that was available on-line. He was intrigued by Harris’s and Klebold’s meticulous planning, the diary material that Harris had left behind, and by their exotic dress, i.e., the black dusters that they wore and under which they had concealed their weapons. He asserted that his own plan closely followed and improved upon Harris’s and Klebold’s.
Columbine has become the benchmark for modern school shootings. School shootings have periodically occurred in the U.S. over the years, one of the most notable being the University of Texas “tower” shootings that took place on August 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman, a U.S. Marine veteran, first killed his parents and then installed himself on the tower at the heart of UT’s Austin campus with a high powered rifle, proceeding to shoot and kill fourteen students and passersby and seriously wound thirty-two others. This event won notoriety as a new type of killing, the mass murder, but Columbine was the head turner, given the youth of the shooters and their victims, the systematic, even ritualized manner in which the shootings were conducted, and the trove of documents left behind, particularly by Harris, describing their motives and detailed planning and bequeathing, in effect , a set of blueprints for future shooters to follow. Which they have.
Gladwell references the highly regarded American sociologist, Mark Granovetter, to provide some understanding of this phenomenon. In “Threshold Models of Collective Behavior,” published in The American Journal of Sociology in 1978, Granovetter employs the analogy of the riot to illustrate his theory that collective actions such as riots are not irrational mob behaviors but rather the consequence of a series of sequential decisions by individuals based on each individual’s perceived threshold of gain vs. loss. A collective action is usually kicked off by the individual with the lowest gain/loss threshold, i.e., that person who is the first to believe that he or she stands more to benefit than to suffer adversely by participating in a riot or a strike; closely followed by the persons with the next and the next higher thresholds, and so on. The more people that join in the action, the more that will have crossed their gain/loss thresholds, creating a momentum that will encourage other individuals, one by one, to join them. This series of decisions is wholly situational, with each person involved making decisions he or she would not make if alone. Conversely, if there is no individual with a low enough threshold to initiate the action, there will be no collective action, nor will there be if a sufficiently powerful deterrent, such as a large police contingent, is present.
Gladwell likens the series of school shootings since Columbine to a Granovetter riot, where more and more individuals are reaching and surpassing their thresholds for action at an accelerating pace. He summarizes several recent school shootings and underlines how different each shooter is from the other. LaDue, similarly unique, did not join the company of shooters largely because of his serendipitous encounter with the police. The latter did not charge him with a capital crime, despite his professed intent to murder, because he planned and talked about but did not act upon what he intended. He was charged with possession of bombs and bomb-making materials, a felony offense; but examining psychiatrists, observing his inability to comprehend the gruesome consequences of his proposed actions, diagnosed him as having Asperger’s Syndrome and recommended that he be remanded for treatment to a state forensic psychiatric hospital for an indeterminate period of time.
Another Granovetter paper, written several years before his “Thresholds …” paper, appears to offer an additional explanation for the growing momentum of school rampage murders and the expanding pool of rampage shooters. Introduced to Granovetter by Gladwell, I stumbled upon “The Strength of Weak Ties,” published by him in the American Journal Sociology in May, 1973. According to Granovetter, “strong ties”, i.e., the connections between close friends and with family members are usually circumscribed: what passes between friends and family members usually begins and ends there and is rarely shared with mere acquaintances or strangers. In relationships marked by “weak ties”, such as those with Facebook friends and social media connections, information shared readily extends beyond those who initially share it to their connections in their respective networks. Hence, the relative ease with which young men who barely know one another can be exposed to vast amounts of on-line information about the rampage shootings and shooters, and begin to experience challenges to their individual thresholds for violence.
It must be remembered that these individuals’ self-identity is that of marginalized individuals, shunned and denigrated by their peers and furious for it. In my estimation, these are young men in search of a self-identity that they and others can value, a self-identity indicative of significant accomplishments and worthy of respect, even acclaim. When they read about and share with one another stories about Harris and Klebold, I would suppose they must say to themselves and one another, “I can do that.” I would also suppose that they know that American culture is a culture of guns, fear and violence. Every time there’s a mass shooting whether in a school or elsewhere, gun sales spike – most Americans, particularly white Americans, appear to have bought the NRA dictum about the good man – or woman – with a gun stopping the bad guy with the gun. When Obama recently visited Roseburg, Oregon, to express his condolences to the families of the victims of the Umpqua CC shootings, he was booed because of his appeals for improved gun controls. How ideal for a young man fascinated with violence to prove his bona fides as a good American by buying guns and prepping himself to use them on those he fears and hates?
In sum, these young men are ours, homegrown American terrorists. The online culture they have created to sustain them while they fantasize about and plan their rampages is representative of an increasing number of marginalized and shunned individuals who would immerse themselves in killing and death rather than utilize the community they have created to address their and the larger society’s shortcomings. How American. Nearly one hundred years ago, the British novelist D.H. Lawrence, during a sojourn in New Mexico where he came face to face with the consequences of the violence visited on Native Americans, commented that “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” (1923) More recently, the American novelist and poet Russell Banks, in Dreaming Up America (2008), observed that Americans have historically preferred to pick up a gun and kill someone rather than address our society’s fundamental contradictions and hypocrisies.
Let me cite the two contradictions I consider the big ones:
- The erasure of the core of our Declaration of Independence of 1776, viz., “… that all men are created equal,” by the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which can be considered to have contributed to the sixty-years long schism between North and South that resulted in the Civil War and the political and cultural antagonisms that continue into the present;
- The fabrication of the myths of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism that have cloaked America’s virtual extermination of Native Americans; the enslavement and exploitation of black Africans, which has been succeeded by an unrelenting white supremacism directed against black Americans; our wars of imperialist expansion with Mexico in 1846-7 and Spain in 1898-9; periodic interventions in the internal affairs of Latin American countries until very recently; and our fruitless adventures, since the end of World War II, in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, that have caused the deaths of millions of people.
Until these are addressed and resolved, the existential consequences of these contradictions – American imperialism; white supremacy; unrelenting misogyny; perverse economic inequality; the unceasing marginalization of powerless outsiders, viz., the working class, the poor, persons labeled mentally ill, undocumented immigrants; the denigration of science, particularly the science of climate change; and mass murders and the pervasive fear and violence that engulf us – will continue to divide us and expose our notion of American Exceptionalism and our corresponding self-identity as a free, just and progressive people as mere self-delusions. As George Carlin once said of the American Dream, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” (2005)
One final contradiction, particularly pertinent to our discussion, must be considered in order to conclude it, viz., the apparent willingness of most Americans to sacrifice their own children in order to support the NRA and its advocacy of guns-for-all. Listening to Gavin Newsom, Lieut. Governor of California, on the Bill Maher show on November 20, I learned that the two thousand Americans on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, thanks to the NRA and its espousal of universal gun ownership, continue to enjoy the right to purchase and own guns. Yet, no protests, just acquiescence, even complicity. Granovetter would contend that Americans’ threshold or tolerance for violence, for guns and death has fallen, particularly since Columbine and 9/11, accelerated by the NRA steamroller and the fear that increasingly grips the country. Which is why no resolution of this contradiction is in sight. Which is why the threshold for young men for killing their peers en masse continues to drop. Which is why our needle in the haystack is nowhere to be found and the rampage school killings will not end.
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.