All in the mix – there is no single answer to school massacres

So far, I have seen four strands of commentary in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre.

There is the predictable outcry against the lack of gun control in the USA. The rest of the world finds it obvious that there is a causal link between guns and gun crime. However, all the opinion pieces, statistics, mashups, charts, infograms and cartoons on Facebook fail to convince those wedded to the 2nd Amendment. Instead they repeat the mantra that guns don’t kill people, people do. But, as Eddie Izzard observes, the gun helps. On the same day as the Sandy Hook murders, another man attacked primary school children, this time in China. But he used a knife and none of them were killed. So, yes America, start on the long road to taking the guns away.

A second set of commentary doing the rounds is about denying murderers their 15 minutes of fame – what Thatcher called the “oxygen of publicity”. This is Charlie Brooker’s argument that sensationalist reportage turns the murderers into celebrities and makes mass-murder a career move. There is a logic to this: Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon to make Jodie Foster pay attention to him. Cho Seung-Hui mailed videotapes to NBC before killing 32 people at Virginia Tech. Fame transforms violence into heroism; it does it in gangsta culture, but it’s as old as the Saga of Erik the Red, as old as the Iliad. So, yes, do not glamorise mass murderers.

The more egregious the crime, the more important it is to the rest of us that the perpetrator(s) should be either sick or evil or both. We need them to be safely “other” or else it’s just too damn scary. This is the mental health strand and the reaction here has been more varied reflecting the greater complexity of the issue. On the one hand you have this piece by someone whose concerns about her own son led her to assume that Adam Lanza suffered suffered a similar condition. In the middle you have the USA’s failure to treat those with mental health issues which in turn suggests a culture which demonises those who are mentally ill. And finally you have the urgent need to put out the clear message that having Aspergers Syndrome or Autism, or having a mental health issue does not mean you are a killer. Kate Donovan puts it explicitly: I’m asking you not to make “being a good person” the standard for [being] mentally healthy. The importance of this message for the safety of those with neurological-diversity or mental health issues cannot be over-emphasised. And in terms of what to do to reduce these killings? Is it cheap of me to mention universal health-care at this point? It seems to me that treating mental illness is in every way better than criminalising and imprisoning people who are mentally ill. Certainly we need to start with a de-stigmatised, evidence-based and rational model of mental health.

Then there are a few people characterising school shootings as a “problem of male white crime”. William Hamby draws heavily on a paper succinctly and shockingly entitled “Suicide by Mass Murder” by Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel. Kalish and Kimmel observe that school shootings since 1982 have been mainly by young white males, often students themselves, and mainly in rural and suburban areas. It’s a middle-class crime. They suggest that killing provides the murderer with a sense of power and give meaning to their subsequent suicide. They think this happens when a sense of aggrieved entitlement turns into frustration and hatred: Anders Brevik springs to mind, though he did not commit suicide. It’s tempting to look askance at the more extreme Republicans exposed by the 2012 election who reacted so madly to their white, male privilege slipping away. This is a plausible thesis, particularly if you aren’t American, aren’t white, or aren’t male. It’s clearly not the full story, but it forms a promising starting point for the mental-health-issues argument. It’s also worrying, in an America where the middle class is shrinking and whites will soon be outnumbered. (The comments on Hamble’s first article prompted this second one, which is equally fascinating).

I for one find all these arguments compelling. However, I doubt that these are the only causes for these brutal crimes. Sadly, I see no signs of the rationality and self-control needed to tackle these four issues: gun control, media sensationalism, the irrational pathologisation of mental health issues, and aggrieved entitlement causing “male, white crime”.


This post was first published on The Twentyfirst Floor.

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