Today we have seen yet another US school shooting. At the time of writing, up to ten people are believed to have been killed at Santa Fe High School in the state of Texas. Witnesses claim that an individual walked in with a firearm and began shooting. A 17-year old suspect is in custody.
School shootings have become a regular feature in the world of 24-hour rolling news. We see the footage of students fleeing the school, we watch as the story unfolds, a suspect is identified and we begin to ask two key questions. What possesses young men to turn on their peers in such a manner? What can we do to prevent this happening again?
There is a considerable amount of academic literature exploring the phenomenon of the school shooting. Prominent is the work of Katherine Newman[i], who identifies several contributory factors:
- Perception of exclusion from the social groups that matter to the shooter;
- The psychologically troubled shooter catastrophizes his exclusion, attaching it great significance;
- He considers his options and settles on a rampage as a solution to his problems;
- Preventative strategies that aim to identify teens at risk of harming others fail, he goes off the radar;
- The shooter has access to firearms.
Much debate in recent years has focused heavily upon the last factor – access to firearms. In the aftermath of Coral Springs school shooting in Florida in February this year, students across the USA made their voices heard. Taking to social media, walking out of classes and staging marches they drew attention to the gun control issue and urged policymakers to rethink their stance. In the immediate aftermath of a school shooting, the gun control debate is often intertwined with analysis of the individual’s psychopathology. We ask: What was wrong with them? We also focus on the failure of individuals and organisations to spot the warning signs that something was amiss.
Exploring the question of the individual further, the work of criminologist Jack Katz[ii] forces us to consider the shooter’s emotional state. In identifying distinct emotional stages involved in killing, Katz addresses what it feels like to kill. The killer enters a self-righteous state, believing he is defending good over evil, feeling that “the situation requires a last stand in defense of his basic worth”[iii], transforming his feelings of humiliation into feelings of rage. His problems of low social status, exclusion from peer groups and weak masculinities leave the school shooter feeling that he is not in control – bad things are happening to him, it’s not fair, poor me. He seeks to take control and make others pay, get his own back. His rage is channelled into what Katz calls a ‘practical project’, where doing something about it becomes a possibility and aims are joined by objectives. The so-called revolution of the dispossessed, as the Columbine Shooters termed their plans, is an example of one such practical project. In exploring the emotional components of violence, Katz draws our attention to such acts as meaningful and seductive, offering a chance to take back control and enjoy the process of doing so.
Would restricting access to firearms be a cure-all solution to school shootings? I would argue not. It’s just one part of the problem. Take away the firearm and you take away the means, you remove one potential method of perpetrating mass homicide. However, the motive remains. The desire to harm others does not go away. The seductive possibility of the rampage endures. A righteously enraged slaughter is still an attractive possibility for these young men. The aim is still there, even if the objective is not.
We need to zoom out and look at the bigger picture beyond gun control to ask why young men come to arrive at this emotional state? What social, cultural and political factors lurk in the background of school shootings? Why is it so important to fit in, to be accepted, to conform to ideals? Why are others’ perceptions of them so important?
The work of Hall and colleagues[iv] offers some answers. With the marketing industry of the mid twentieth century acting as a primary catalyst, narcissism has become socially accepted and indeed encouraged in late capitalist society. How many friends we have on Facebook, how liked our Instagram posts are. Shame, inadequacy and rejection are lived out online as well as in the school yard. To be is to be seen and we must be seen in the right way. What other people think of us becomes crucial, the “terror of insignificance”[v] looms large.
The notion of the outcast and the devalued social identity are reinforced by exclusionary discourses of ‘the other’ in western political arenas in general and the Trump administration in particular. Its not okay to be different. To be different is to be dangerous. If you’re not one of us, you’re against us.
It’s no surprise that school shooters often take to social media in an attempt to take control of the narrative and perform their new identities as murderers. They’re very much aware of the fan following that school shooters generate online. One group, known as the Columbiners, hero-worship and emulate the perpetrators of the 1999 Colorado shootings, some going as far as to plan their own massacres[vi].
In terms of violence being the practical project of choice, we too often return to the argument that some individuals who have experienced trauma or humiliation will resort to harming others as a way of masking their shame, obscuring it with a hyper-masculine violent identity. However, this on its own is not enough to explain the decision to be violent. For violence to be a choice, violence needs to be valued. That individual needs to have been socialised into a culture that reveres toughness, physicality and brute force. A culture that is untrusting of others, of outsiders, one where we must defend ourselves, ‘our’ values and ‘our’ way of life. A culture of selfish individualisation where me, myself and I reign supreme. A culture that is distinctly neoliberal.
Perhaps when we debate the issues around school shootings, we need to ask a new question: What are the broader social, cultural and political factors that create the conditions in which some individuals choose to go on the rampage? This is about so much more than guns. It’s about the very ideological foundations of contemporary western society.
[i] Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Harding, D. J., Mehta, J. and Roth, W. (2004). Rampage: The social roots of school shootings, New York, NY: Basic Books.
[ii] Katz, J. (1988). The Seductions of Crime: The moral and sensual attractions of doing evil. New York, NY: Basic Books.
[iii] Katz, J. (1988), p. 19.
[iv] Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008). Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, exclusion and the new culture of narcissism. Cullompton: Willan.
Hall, S. (2012). Theorizing Crime and Deviance. London: Sage.
Hall, S. and Winlow, S. (2015). Revitalizing Criminological Theory: Towards a new ultra-realism. Abingdon: Routledge.
[v] Hall, S. (2012), p. 172.
[vi] Ross, S. (2015). Halifax shooting plot: inside the social media world of foiled ‘Columbiners’, The Guardian, 17th February. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/16/foiled-halifax-mall-shooting-tumblr-columbiners