How We All Miss the Point on School Shootings

How We All Miss the Point on School Shootings

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In 1998, a high school junior named Eric Harris from Colorado wanted to put on a performance, something for the world to remember him by. A little more than a year later, Eric and his best friend Dylan Klebold would place bombs all over their school — bombs large enough to collapse large chunks of the building and to kill the majority of the 2,000 students inside — and then wait outside with semi-automatic weapons to gun down any survivors before ending their own lives.

“It’ll be like the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam, Duke and Doom all mixed together,” Eric wrote in his journal. “Maybe we will even start a little rebellion or revolution to fuck things up as much as we can. I want to leave a lasting impression on the world.”

Eric was a psychopath, but he was also smart.

Despite what media outlets would later claim, Eric Harris was not the victim of bullying any more than other students, he was not a goth or a member of the “Trench Coat Mafia.” Eric was a straight-A student. He read Nietzsche and Hemingway for fun. He had friends and girlfriends. He was charming and funny and had a disarming smile.

But Eric also understood people. And because he understood people, he changed everything.

By 1999, there had already been a series of school shootings across the United States. But Eric wasn’t interested in those. They were small-time jobs, amateur hour. Eric was far more interested in Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168 and injured 600. Eric wanted to top that. But he didn’t just want to top the body count, he wanted to top the notoriety, the fame, the horror. He wanted to terrorize people and he understood that his best weapon was not the guns he secretly purchased or the bombs he built in his basement — it was television. He would not kill jocks or preps, he would kill indiscriminately, because that’s what caused the most fear and got the most attention. He wouldn’t just blow up the school, but he’d blow up the parking lot, the police cars and the firefighters and the journalists who rushed to the scene. He would, quite literally, go out with a bang, the shockwaves of which, carried by mass media and the internet, would reverberate through the world for decades.

On April 20th, Eric and Dylan arrived at Columbine and opened fire at teachers, students, administrators, janitors and police officers. Eric’s largest bombs failed to detonate and bring the building down as he had hoped, but that did not prevent the ensuing carnage that would last for almost an hour and leave 15 dead and 24 wounded.

As chaos engulfed the school in Colorado, it would quickly fan out across the country, commanding more or less 24-hour television coverage for weeks on end. The drama would be replayed endlessly — bloodied and crippled students climbing out of the library window, the heroic coach who lost his life saving dozens of kids. And then there would be the questions and the speculation. Why? First it was goth culture and Marilyn Manson. Then it was bullying. Then it was being social loners and outcasts.

All of the explanations were later discovered to be untrue. The event truly seemed inexplicable. And because it was inexplicable the media and the viewers couldn’t let it go. Books were written. Memorials were built and ceremonies filled out. Eric Harris got his death wish: “Columbine” was a household name.
 

 
This past weekend, a student named Elliot Rodger from Santa Barbara City College killed six and injured 13, the latest in a long series of school shootings that are all but becoming a normal part of American tradition. As usual, the killer left a cache of material behind to explain his intentions and milk as much publicity for his personal grievances as possible. This time, the focus was on women, and how they wouldn’t have sex with him.

Like they always do, the media have descended to explain away the madness. And like a Rorschach Test, each outlet had its own pet cause primed and ready to be read into the situation.

All of these issues are legitimate and deserve conversation. But they are not the singular cause. They’re not the point.

Because of my book, I’m connected within the men’s dating advice industry. And many of them are scrambling right now. Elliot Rodger was a member of a number of sites, email lists and Facebook groups. And all of these authors and dating coaches — some of them legitimately decent men, others shady marketers — are all frantically trying to cover their tracks as best as possible.

But this “witch hunt” we go through every time a school shooting happens is a total ruse. Elliot Rodger didn’t become a killer because he was a misogynist; he became a misogynist because he was a killer. Just like Eric Harris didn’t become a killer because he loved violent video games; he loved violent video games because he was a killer. Just like Adam Lanza didn’t become a killer because he loved guns; he loved guns because he was a killer.

Every school shooting incident comes in the same dreary package: an angry, politically-charged rant, shrink-wrapped around a core of mental illness and neglect. These shooters leave behind journals, videos, diagrams, manifestos and treatises. They broadcast their plans and intentions to their friends and family. They email news outlets minutes before they start firing. They write down their plans and make checklists so that others may follow in their footsteps. They go on angry rants against materialism, hedonism, the government, mass media, women, and sometimes even the people close to them.

And each time, as a culture, we work ourselves into a frenzy debating the angry exterior message, while ignoring the interior life and context of each killer. We miss the point entirely.

Reality Check

According to the FBI, mass shootings (defined as shooting events that kill at least four people) occur on average every two weeks in the United States. Yes, every two weeks. Yet we rarely, if ever, hear about most of them. The reason is because these shootings are easily explainable. In most mass shootings, the crimes occur at a private location and the victims are people close and well-known to the shooter — family members, neighbors, friends. Many of them are attributable to gang violence or illicit criminal activities. Others are a crime of passion.

School shootings only account for 4% of all mass shootings and yet they dominate the news media and get the entire country talking about them for weeks on end.

There are a few reasons for this:

  1. They occur in everyday public locations which are supposed to be safe.
  2. The victims are targeted and killed at random.
  3. The victims are innocent bystanders and often children.
  4. The killers leave behind large amounts of material about themselves for the media to share.
  5. The perpetrator and victims are generally upper-middle class, white, and privileged.

These shooters know what they are doing. They’re not “crazy.” They don’t just “snap.” Most of them spend months or years planning their massacres. Elliot Rodger had apparently been planning his shooting for over a year. You don’t just show up with a 140-page manifesto and a large stockpile of weapons one day. You work at it for a long time. And you plan not only the violence, but the presentation for the audience, the performance — what they will see from you, what they will hear from you, the reasons why, the message. It’s all very conscious and deliberate.

And it works. Their killing sprees are specifically targeted to generate the most fear and uncertainty from the public, because the more fear and uncertainty they generate, the more attention they get. They then use all of the attention as a platform to promote themselves or whatever complaints they may have against society. It’s the Columbine formula. It works. And as Eric Harris pointed out in his journal, it’s not about the guns. It’s about the television. The films. The fame. The revolution.

If this sounds like a familiar strategy, that’s because it is.

Mass Shootings as Non-Political Terrorism

For a country that is so single-mindedly obsessed with terrorism, it’s jaw-dropping that almost nobody recognizes that school shooters use the exact same strategies to disseminate fear and their twisted agendas throughout society. Terrorists use violence and mass media coverage to promote political or religious beliefs; school shooters use violence and mass media coverage to promote their personal grievances and glorification.

When viewed in this way, our responses to the school shooters looks juvenile in comparison. Can you imagine arguing over whether misogyny made Osama Bin Laden plan September 11th? Or whether video games caused Dhokhar Tsarnaev to plant bombs at the Boston Marathon? Or whether heavy music inspired Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City?

You would be laughed at.

And in fact, when anyone goes as far as to suggest that Islam causes terrorism, they are immediately and rightfully scolded for it. Yet when it comes to school shootings, these types of discussions are not only tolerated, but engaged in willfully.

It’s not that we should respond to school shootings the same way we respond to terrorist attacks. It’s that we already do. We just don’t realize it.

When Elliot’s creepy YouTube videos went public, declaring vengeance upon every college girl that wouldn’t sleep with him, every woman who had ever heard a guy mutter something similar suddenly felt a chill run up her spine. And that chill caused the video to be posted and reposted, sending more chills up more women’s spines until it had spread across the country. My guess is that’s exactly what Elliot would have wanted.

And we’ve seen this viral dissemination over and over again. After every school shooting episode, writings and videos of the killers get passed around on the internet. Television specials show and reshow the footage. Books are written. Experts are hired. Rinse and repeat.

Last year, I wrote that terrorism works because it takes advantages of psychological inefficiencies in our brains: we pay a disproportionate amount of attention to threatening events and we always overestimate how likely it is for a random event to happen to us. School shootings transfix us by leveraging the exact same inefficiencies in our minds. And once they’ve dominated this mindspace, we can’t seem to shake them out of it.

Yet, for some reason, while we seem to imagine potential terrorists everywhere — in airport lines, at stadium gates, in subway cars — we never see the school shooters coming. We’re always caught by surprise.

Hiding in Plain Sight

When we think of terrorists, we think of some alien “other” — the bearded, turbaned man hiding in some cave on the other side of the world. Because he’s so distant and different, we let him eat at our imagination — he could be anywhere, ready to strike at any moment, hiding in behind every bush, planting a bomb on every bus or plane. We clog our airports and blast warnings through our public buildings for some imagined bogeyman who is never actually present.

By contrast, we fail to spot shooter after shooter because they are so close to us and so much like us. We miss them because they are our neighbors, our classmates, our friends or even our family members. They are right in front of our noses and we ignore them for a whole host of trivial reasons. Maybe they’re too weird, or awkward, or they’re a loser. We don’t want to talk to them. We put our blinders on and pretend that they’re not miserable, we pretend that they didn’t just have that awkward outburst, we pretend they didn’t just make a joke about killing their own parents.

Eric Harris’ friends later said that he would often “joke” about blowing up the school and murdering classmates. Even after they discovered he was building bombs in his basement, they never put two-and-two together. They just couldn’t believe it. Not Eric. Not the guy they had played video games with and toilet papered girls’ houses with.

Meanwhile, the wrong sarcastic word at the airport and you can be held in jail for days.

An FBI study on school shooters found school shootings are never a result of a crazy person “snapping.” Most shooters do have serious mental health or emotional issues, but they all plan their attacks months or even years in advance. And as they plan, they almost always “leak” information about the attack beforehand, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes in incredibly obvious ways.

Both Harris and Rodger had the police called on them multiple times due to suspicious behavior. Both of them had a history of strange and violent outbursts towards friends and those close to them. Both put their intentions and their angry rants up on the web for everyone to see. Elliot Rodger wrote and re-wrote his plan out, sometimes including murdering his family members and stealing their car. He wrote that if someone had just searched his room, it would have all come apart, he would have been found out. Eric Harris wrote almost the exact same thing 15 years earlier.

Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter who killed 32 people, turned in paper after paper that depicted gruesome killings and gun violence. He had a history of mental health issues and had been reported to the campus police four times for aggressive and antisocial behavior, particularly towards women. One of his professors went so far as to tell the board that she would rather resign than teach another class with him in it.

Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, also had a history of mental illness and inappropriate anti-social behavior. And he too, began sharing his intentions online through forum posts and audio. Lanza had paranoid delusions about mass media and the government, and began to argue that school shootings were justified as a form of protest or revolt. People humored him and ignored him. No one realized he had a small armory of semi-automatic weapons in his house.

Then there are those who are simply ignored. Dylan Klebold was suicidally depressed for over two years. He fantasized and wrote about killing himself liberally. Despite getting into trouble with the law, turning in school assignments that glorified murder and suicide and failing most of his classes senior year, his parents and friends claimed that they had no idea something was amiss. George Sodini, a middle-aged Pennsylvania man who shot up an aerobics class full of women, wrote in his journal that since he spent the past 20 years of his life alone and miserable, there was no reason to think that the next 20 wouldn’t be lonely and miserable as well. His mother had been emotionally abusive. His father hadn’t had a meaningful conversation with him in over 30 years. Simply put: he had nothing to live for. So why not take some revenge on your way out?

Gun control gets the headlines. Mental health care gets the headlines. Violence and video games and misogyny and internet forums and atheism — the list is endless at this point.

Here’s what doesn’t get the headlines: Empathy. Listening to those around you. Even if you don’t like them very much.

Despite being relevant and important discussions, the glamorous headlines are ultimately distractions — they just feed into the carnage and the attention and the fame the killer desired. They are distractions from what is right in front of you and me and the victims of tomorrow’s shooting: people who need help. And while we’re all fighting over whose pet cause is more right and more true and more noble, there’s likely another young man out there, maybe suicidally depressed, maybe paranoid and delusional, maybe a psychopath, and he’s researching guns and bombs and mapping out schools and recording videos and thinking every day about the anger and hate he feels for this world.

And no one is paying attention to him.

 

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1,046 Comments

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  • Reply

    Jenn

    4 weeks ago

    Brilliant essay. I like the way your mind works. Ran across your “Ten Things Most Americans Don’t Know…” Article on FB yesterday and am only now (after spending FAR more time on your site than my schedule today allowed) putting you together with this, which I read weeks ago. Nicely done….on this and all the others I sifted through today.

    One tiny suggestion from my inner copy editor…please look up usage rules for ‘that’ v ‘which’.

    The ‘Americans’ article was spot-on, by the way, and I also appreciated your handling of the comment aftermath. Keep up the good work….I’m subscribing.

    Best,
    Jenn

  • Reply

    Thomas

    4 weeks ago

    Maybe it’s just my perspective (I’m Australian) but if find the whole gun control debate very silly. Here in Aus if you want a gun you must be A.in the army or police force B. part of a gun club or C. a farmer. If you aren’t one of these things getting an gun license is next to impossible and even when you are there is a huge amount of paperwork to do. So I’m really stumped every time I hear an American go on about how they need guns to protect themselves against other people with guns. Because in Australia there are no other guns to defend yourself from. as getting a gun is just not worth the effort. So it seems logical to me (and probably many other Australians) that if you want to reduce gun crime then take away guns, it would make your lives a hell of a lot safer and easier.

    • Reply

      Peter Tosh

      4 weeks ago

      Thomas,

      I would be willing to visit the gun control issue only AFTER the Pharmecuetical Industry has been held accountable. There is a direct relationship between certain anti-psychotic drugs and violence. In the U.S…where these drugs are a multi-billion dollar industry and over-prescribed grotesquely…we are one of only two developed countries in the world where Big Pharma drugs can be advertised directly to the consumer. The rise in mass murders here is directly linked to the rise in prescription rates. Getting rid of guns won’t stop the violence, but it would cut down on the total number of murders. Unfortunately, the mentally unstable will find a different way to kill…with bombs, cars, etc. So, when we focus on guns we’re focusing on a symptom…not the root cause of the problem.

      Peter

      • Reply

        Zac

        3 weeks ago

        Correlation is not causality

    • Reply

      Cameron

      4 weeks ago

      Thomas, your confusion echoes pretty much everyone who is not American, it’s hard to understand the American fetish and fascination for guns and the fact that despite all the violence there is still no political consensus in stopping them. It’s truly sad when you read about yet another school shooting and they don’t do anything about it. It’s perverse.

      • Reply

        Jesse Anderson

        3 weeks ago

        Thomas:

        Forbidding law abiding citizens from getting a firearm doesn’t stop criminals from getting guns. They will always be able to find a gun. Guns are not the issue here. His article is about how the media propagates school shootings.
        Far more law abiding citizens are saved by carrying firearms when threatened by a criminal than people who are killed by them.
        Also, Elliot Rodgers killed as many with a knife as he did with a gun. Knives are far more dangerous within 20 ft/6ish meters.

        • Reply

          aaron

          3 weeks ago

          Yeah, perhaps it wasn’t pointed out to you, none of those school shootings… none of them were criminals, prior to the shooting. Also, it’s impossible to have the same effectiveness with knives and guns… Sheer fatigue and proximity prevent knives from ever being as deadly

    • Reply

      Martin

      3 weeks ago

      Thomas,
      Being an Australian, you’re working with a different set of rules and a different reality than Americans. Here our Constitution not only guarantees the right to guns, it is the second Amendment iterated only after the freedom of speech, religion, and the press. So even if we thought it prudent to change that (a tall order indeed), imagine how the implementation of such a new world would take place. People who wanted to continue to illegally own firearms would quite easily be able to do so. (Here permit me to ignore the technology issue, e.g. 3D printable firearms). In short, we’ve no will to remove firearms from the populace and in majority believe having access to them makes us a safer people, but even with the will to do so, nobody has presented a reliable way to keep guns out of the hands of the bag guys even with a total ban. A common bumper sticker we see here is, “If owning a gun becomes a crime, only criminals will own guns.” And beyond the tautology, there is some wisdom in it.
      Best,
      –Martin

    • Reply

      Kathryn

      3 weeks ago

      Maybe one difference in the US is the millions of guns available that are black market. Sure, we could make it harder for people who buy a gun at a sporting goods store, but what dent would that put in LA, Detroit, Chicago, Philly, St. Louis, etc., etc.?

  • Reply

    Lucy Verhave

    4 weeks ago

    Really enjoyed this essay. .you are so right and I am glad to see this point of view being put out there……and hopefully people will start paying attention.

  • Reply

    Dar

    3 weeks ago

    You make some great points, but your conclusion was very disappointing. Lanza’s (far too) attentive parents were certainly listening to him. They were aware that he was in pain. They did all kinds of things to try to alleviate his pain and treat the disorder underlying his isolation. Rodgers’s parents were listening, too. They sought out lots of professional help, as you say, and when they found out what he was planning, they took him so seriously that they called the police and raced to the scene to try and intercept him. Rodgers’s own manifesto includes his accounts of several interactions with his peers; most of the kids he wrote about did nothing even remotely hostile to him, and several seemed to have been welcoming and friendly — before his own delusional interpretation of their behaviour prompted him to be hostile toward them. You’re right that there is no one single trigger for this kind of violence, and that pychopathy is ultimately at fault. But “listening” is clearly not the missing key.

    I don’t know what is. Nobody does. At the moment, psychopathy is intractable and not well understood. We have no sure way to diagnose it or to cure it. Even for those of us who might recognize it in a loved one or a family member, options are limited. Our society doesn’t punish future crime. For excellent reasons, we are even reluctant to force treatment on adults with mental health issues. I have a family member who is eerily similar to Lanza in many ways. Given the right set of circumstances, I fully believe him to be capable of those kinds of horrific acts. I did listen to him, faithfully, for many years. I was his ally and his sympathetic ear. Being those things changed nothing for him, and in the end, his violence extended to me and my child, too. I was forced to cut him out of my life, for our safety, and as far as I know, this young man is now on his own in a city far from me, probably more isolated than ever, because it isn’t difficult to see the hostility and potential for violence in him. The only thing that makes me feel even marginally better about the situation is that we don’t live in the US and so he does not have easy, unlimited access to real guns. He has always been fascinated with them, but because of where we live, his extensive collection is limited to replicas for paint ball and air rifles. He will probably still hurt people one day, but the scale of his outburst will be limited. Until there is a cure for whatever it is that’s gone wrong with him, this stopgap measure is the best we can do. You are correct — it isn’t perfect. But it’s certainly better than no measure at all.

  • Reply

    bob jane

    3 weeks ago

    When’s something new going to come out?

  • Reply

    Diana

    3 weeks ago

    No one teaches at school how to communicate with our children and loved ones. How to stop worrying about what size of the ring/car/house we should get and start caring about our home – planet and our family – people.

    TV is like a propaganda of hell of earth, as if there is nothing but Kardashians, school shootings, terrorists, Kardashians, killed children, raped women, guns, Kardashians, football, politicians getting caught with something trivial, debt and of course the Kardashians… That’s why I dumped my TV 5 years ago.

  • Reply

    Suzanne LeBeau

    3 weeks ago

    I feel we are leaving an important part of the equation out. Do not forget the media. Without them, there would be no mass hysteria, nor fame, nor notoriety. Some of these shooters want the whole world to know what they have done. I say focus solely on the victims. NEVER mention who did it or why you think they did, or ANYTHING about them.

  • Reply

    roy

    3 weeks ago

    DAR has some great things to say that we can all learn from. Until we can eliminate mental illness in our society, which we all know would be close to impossible at this juncture, the most effective way to reduce the likelihood of mass murders is to reduce access to guns. Why don’t people get this? What is so horribly wrong about doing a backround check? Or limiting the number of bullets in a magazine? Or getting rid of assault rifles? The reasoning behind “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” is such complete b.s. How about not letting the bad guy get a gun in the first place? Or, at the very least, making it harder for him to get one?

  • Reply

    Jason Bradley

    3 weeks ago

    Also very important is the fact at almost, if not all of them are on or had recently stopped taking prescribed Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors.

  • Reply

    christy mcg

    3 weeks ago

    I take some of your points. However, how is it *not* about gun control as well? If arsenals of weapons weren’t readily available, then the amount of carnage would be drastically decreased.

  • Reply

    Mark Thomas

    3 weeks ago

    The complexity of this problem is mind-boggling. The work and effort put into opposing gun control is bewildering. The only certainty is that the carnage will continue. This blog and its comments make it clear to me that it is a waste of time talking to Americans about gun control. How depressing!

  • Reply

    Ruth

    3 weeks ago

    Wow, this is so enlightening. We just have to pay attention to people other than ourselves and those we like and love. The strange people we just don’t get do matter.

  • Reply

    Marc Hutchison

    3 weeks ago

    Agreed. In our culture, we have become so alienated from each other, so uninvolved in one another’s lives, that we’re unwilling to see that the person sitting next to us on the subway, the bus, the schoolroom, is hurting and in need of help. There is more, though. We have ceased to believe in Right and Wrong to the point that anything goes. Anybody has “the right” to do whatever they want”. Including murder, apparently.

  • Reply

    Luke Poling

    2 weeks ago

    This was by far one of the most powerful blogs and or posts I have ever read. Thank you for taking the time to address this issue and being so honest about it.

  • Reply

    Anderson

    2 weeks ago

    Dear Mark, this kind of post makes usa reflect better about empathy. The ability to put yourself in someone’s place or try to perceive someone’s feelings through corporal language and after this have the patience to understand whats going on and listen.
    This is arte nowadays because the Most part of us not even dont care about what others feel.
    Thanks
    Best,
    Anderson Chaves

  • Reply

    pmty

    7 days ago

    What’s new?

    You talked about all the same causes.

    Empathy? Everyone is trying to feel them when they try to solve the. Why…

    Empathy for being normal? You said they were both normal…. The problem side was just the act. But then you say they weren’t normal.

    One of my favorite de-escelation lists is not in a conflict book (it may be in a few of those too) its does not appear in an anti-violence recovery/prevention program though it should be.

    It is found in asperger syndrome and difficult moments :… rage…

    The thing is it works with non-autistic people. Perhaps even psychotic people. Following the guidelines is not about bending over backwards, but being a good person that people should be to begin with.

    P.s. Most anger management programs don’t work. But I bet if these steps were followed, many problems for all people would be solved.

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