A few months ago I went to my local library to hear a speaker who had worked for the secret service for many years, including on the detail of President Kennedy. One of the things that he mentioned in passing was that throughout our history we had someone try to shoot a president every 20 years or so. Ronald Reagan was the last. I remember as I left the lecture wondering if mass shootings of ordinary people had in some way replaced attempts on the lives of presidents and celebrities. It is much easier for an angry, irrational man seeking infamy to go into a crowded place than to get access to the leader of the free world.
In his book Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters describes the work of the Canadian scholar Edward Shorter. “Shorter believes that psychosomatic illnesses (such as leg paralysis at the turn of the twentieth century or multiple personality disorder at the turn of the twenty-first) are examples of the unconscious mind attempting to speak in a language of emotional distress that will be understood in its time. People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from— a ‘symptom pool,’ as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.”
Mass shootings seem to have entered the American “symptom pool.” Of course there have always been isolated cases of people going mad and acting out in extreme violence. The difference is that now, in part due to the publicity surrounding mass shootings, this type of behavior has become an increasingly common form of expressing a certain kind of anger and pain.
Back in 2012, Adam Lankford, writing for the New York Times, made a persuasive case that the same mindset that creates a school shooter in this country creates suicide terrorists in other nations.
Over the last three years, I have examined interviews, case studies, suicide notes, martyrdom videos and witness statements and found that suicide terrorists are indeed suicidal in the clinical sense — which contradicts what many psychologists and political scientists have long asserted. Although suicide terrorists may share the same beliefs as the organizations whose propaganda they spout, they are primarily motivated by the desire to kill and be killed — just like most rampage shooters…It is tempting to look back at recent history and wonder what’s wrong with America — our culture and our policies. But underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers — including suicide terrorists — in other countries. The difference rests in how they are shaped by cultural forces and which destructive behaviors they seek to copy. The United States has had more than its share of rampage shootings, but only a few suicide attacks. Other countries are regularly plagued by suicidal explosions, but rarely experience a school shooting.
The word “amok” comes from Indonesia. It describes a condition in which a man suffers a minor social insult and launches an extended period of brooding punctuated by an episode of murderous rage.
Our version of “amok” seems to be the mass shooting.
After each event there are talking heads who advocate various changes that could address the issue. I find myself increasingly weary at hearing them speak. “Our thoughts and prayers are with…” “Care for the mentally ill in this country…” “Where was security…” “Would more people with guns have prevented….”
It doesn’t seem as though it should be controversial to suggest that better access to mental health services and better training for human resources to recognize and deal with people who might be mentally ill would be a step in the right direction. Having a functional system to keep weapons out of the hands of people who should not have them would be a step in the right direction. Maybe we could try making high capacity magazines hard to come by so that when someone does decide to shoot up an office or a mall he at least has to reload.
It does not seem to be a simple question of gun availability in and of itself. Canada has relatively high levels of gun ownership as well. Yet Canada does not have the same problem of gun violence as its neighbor to the south. (It takes sixty days to buy a gun there, and there is mandatory licensing for gun owners. Gun owners pursuing a license must have third-party references, take a safety training course and pass a background check with a focus on mental, criminal and addiction histories, says Business Insider.)
The reason we seem to be paralyzed in our discussion is that there is not a simple solution. There is not one law that can be passed to make the carnage go away. That does not make for great political sound bites.
One question that we probably should ask is what aspects of our culture are producing these impulses in unstable young men. (And they are almost always men.)
I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I have a few thoughts. After a deadly shooting, angry people speak out against the shooters who wreak so much havock and alter so many lives. There are a couple of things that tend to be said, and these may provide some clues as to what we assume motivates mass shooters and therefore they may point to what cultural forces drive them.
The first is that people tend to call the shooter a “coward.” It is not really the right word. But then, I do not think they say this because they believe the shooter was afraid of risk. They say it because they believe that the shooter wanted to prove his manhood and strength and they want to rob him of what he wanted. They do not want to let him win. This suggests that there is something about the idea of bravery, power and proving one’s manhood that is a driver.
Describing mass killers, Adam Lankford, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Albama, wrote in the New York Times that they share “a deep sense of victimization and belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else, who has bullied, oppressed or persecuted him. Not surprisingly, the presence of mental illness can inflame these beliefs, leading perpetrators to have irrational and exaggerated perceptions of their own victimization.”
After the Newtown shootings, Michael Kimmel wrote on the CNN blog about notions of masculinity in particular:
In the coming weeks, we’ll learn more about Adam Lanza, his motives, his particular madness. We’ll hear how he “snapped” or that he was seriously mentally ill. We’ll try to explain it by setting him apart, by distancing him from the rest of us. Risk factors among shooters And we’ll continue to miss the point. Not only are those children at Sandy Hook Elementary School our children. Adam Lanza is our child also. Of course, he was mad — as were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Lee Loughner, James Eagan Holmes, and Wade Michael Page — and the ever-longer list of boys and young men who have exploded in a paroxysm of vengeful violence in recent years. In a sense, they weren’t deviants, but over-conformists to norms of masculinity that prescribe violence as a solution. Like real men, they didn’t just get mad, they got even. Until we transform that definition of manhood, this terrible equation of masculinity and violence will continue to produce such horrific sums.
Most often, mass shooters are middle class males and predominantly white. What cultural norms do people in this demographic share?
I think back to Dave Ramsay’s article on the success secrets of the rich and his assertion that the rich “teach success habits” to their children while the poor do not. What he means, I believe, is that the rich and the upper middle class teach their children to expect opportunities and options and that they will succeed at whatever they put their mind to. They teach them to “aim high” and never give up. Working class people, studies have shown, are more apt to teach their children that they will not always have choices and they need to learn to adapt to difficult circumstances. (I have argued that this is, in fact, teaching a different kind of “success habit.” See the link above.)
The culture of the college-bound middle class is most likely to believe optimistic assertions that failure is only a temporary road bump on the way to success, and that there is always a way if you try hard enough. If people believe they have full control over their destinies then failure is a much greater taboo. In the toxic case of the mass shooter, the self-esteem that we so value turns toxic. He expects to achieve, he is blocked, and he looks for someone– all of society perhaps– to blame.
As I wrote in a previous post, “…the fact is, failure happens. Because we are loathe to admit this, we have an absolute dearth of instruction on how to deal with failure– not delayed success– failure.” Maybe a more nuanced idea of “success habits,” which includes how to deal emotionally with inevitable failure (everyone experiences failure sometimes) would be healthier for everyone.
Another thing that people usually say after a mass shooting is that the shooter should not be given the “prize of fame.” Whether it really is the shooter’s motivation or not, we assume that he opened fire in a quest for fame.
After the Newtown shooting I wrote on this subject:
Some time ago I read a quote in a book called The Frenzy of Renown by Leo Braudy that struck me: “John Lennon of the Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus,” he wrote. “As far as immediate fame goes, he was right. But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: If Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”
It seems as though we have lost the sense that there is such a thing as negative known-ness. Not fame but shame.
In Puritan times, those who upset the community were held up to public ridicule. They were placed in the stocks. That made them the most visible members of the community at that moment. In other words, the most famous. No one confused this type of fame with honor.
…If the world were fair, [a victim of the Aurora theater shooting] would never have come to the attention of the general public at all. If the world were fair, he would be some guy who went to a movie one night, and came home and no one outside his circle of friends would never have heard a thing about him. Most of the admirable people in life have never been and will never be recorded in history. It does not mean we value the spectacularly known faces of the famous more than the anonymous people who change the course of our lives day in and day out.
I should not know the name of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School. None of us should ever have heard of her.
We assume that shooters are motivated by fame (and they may well be) because we assume everyone wants to be famous. We assume that saying the killer’s name on television is a kind of prize. All of this points to the value we place on being known. We live in a society that values popularity and self-presentation.
Quiet by Susan Cain does a great job of showing how American culture has evolved to value extroversion and devalue introversion. “…today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold , to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts…”
The successful job candidate is the one who can prove he is a “people person.” Writers were once understood to be solitary creatures who were much better at expressing themselves on the page than face to face. These days, any book on writing, and any of the thousands of writing blogs will tell you that it doesn’t matter how good your book is– success goes to the writer who knows how to promote, promote, promote. The person who can’t, or doesn’t want to, live up to an extroverted ideal can have a hard time of it.
Most shooters are described as quiet loners. This may be because they are quiet loners or it may be that the people reporters ask to describe a killer following a tragedy are not the ones who knew him best. “He didn’t socialize with me, so I assume he didn’t socialize.”
If they really are introverts, the cultural value we place on self-presentation and being the most known could well be a motivating factor. You have an unstable young man who feels as though the world is made for the benefit of other people, who expects to succeed and blames others for his inability. His model for known-ness is right in front of him, in the TV reports on the mass shooting of the month.
From where I sit in the early part of the 21st Century, it seems had to imagine that these cultural trends will change. Yet cultures do shift and change. American culture of today is different from what it was a century ago. There was a time when women experienced a pool of symptoms that were diagnosed as “hysteria.” Men who were traumatized by war used to routinely suffer from hysterical leg paralysis. We can only hope that mass shootings will somehow fade out of the modern American “symptom pool” as well.