Coronado Elementary School in Sierra Vista, Arizona, Italy High School in Italy, Texas, NET Charter High School in New Orleans, Louisiana, Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky, Salvador Castro Middle School in Los Angeles, California, Oxon Hill High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and finally on Valentine’s Day, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—eight school shootings, 19 people dead, 37 injured in the first 45 days of 2018.
And after the avalanche of tragic images, pleas for prayer and endless media commentaries, what have we learned about the seeds of this horrific violence? Health professionals and politicians offer no easy answers, only the same old litany of problems: easy access to guns, violent pop media, online hate speech, permissive and absentee parenting, ignorance of warning signs, a failing mental health system.
But something is missing here. The very glaring reality of the recent school shootings is that they were committed by boys—to be specific, white boys. Genes and biology, of course, do not make boys perpetrate heinous acts of violence. So what is it about American culture that pushes and pressures boys toward a breaking point where mass slaughter becomes acceptable.
There is much truth in the old saying, “Violence is as American as apple pie.” From the nation’s genocidal westward expansion to the barbaric atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow, through imperial wars and countless foreign interventions, the USA has touted the glories of violent aggression. Accordingly our socio-economic structures also encourage aggressive, competitive behavior in every realm of social interaction. And in this generally aggressive value system, boys and men, compared to women and girls, have long been rewarded for being “extra” aggressive.
However, in the twenty-first century, with working hours getting longer and family and community ties continuing to erode, the aggressiveness of white boys seems to be taking a lethal twist. Missing adult and parental authority, many young people turn to peers, music, movies, tv, video games, and social media for values, support, and role models. And those feeling particularly abandoned and victimized seem susceptible to violence.
Some aggressive and troubled youth learn how violence works through physical and emotional abuse in the home, at school and in the streets. Others learn from media violence (mainly aimed at boys) that shows a simple and successful strategy for gaining power. Whatever the means, recent social science tells us that the most common emotional thread running through kids drawn to violence are feelings of being mistreated, inadequate, and alone.
In her 2013 HuffPost article “Why Are Boys So Violent?,” psychologist Niobe Way presents the results of hundreds of interviews with boys over a 20 year period, revealing violence and boys linked to a struggle with “a toxic mix of social isolation, loneliness, and the cultural norms of masculinity.” In short, failure at “being a man” in our society is high risk behavior. And for many, the expression of fear, pain, or vulnerability of any kind is an act of humiliation with dangerous consequences. Some fifty years after the emergence of the modern women’s movement, boys still have a hard time expressing any emotions except anger. Unfortunately, this means that redemption of the male ego often comes through aggression and violence.
An old problem for sure. But in the recent wave of school shootings, and those going back to the era of Columbine, there is something new. Speaking in an interview with LiveScience following the 2012 school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, forensic psychologist Tony Farrenkopf listed abuse, ineffective parenting, lack of empathy, social detachment, and obsessions with guns, violence, and revenge as key characteristics of the history and psychology of mass shooters. The unhinged boys committing cold-blooded murder are not well adjusted to the world around them. In the vernacular of schoolyard trash talk these guys are “losers” and “geeks.” They are not tough or popular or athletic. They are boys who are not very good at being boys. They tend to be loners. Some connect with other lost “outsider”kids. There is often obsessive interest in death and dark themed movies and music. There is talk of murder and suicide. Sometimes there is racism and misogyny and overtones of fascism. All in all, an identity expressing anger, hurt, isolation and the desire to get even.
Obviously these boys, kids like Nikolas Cruz in Parkland, Florida, and Columbine’s Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, whose personal and family histories fit the clinical mold, are damaged goods. Their personalities are mangled and confused in ways that make it impossible for them to pass through the normal socialization rites of their gender. Still, they are not aberrations. The scary backdrop to America’s rise in school shootings is that our culture seems to be producing more and more disturbed, aggressive boys.
Though statistics can only hint at the depth of the problem, recent surveys by the Department of Health and Human Services should be alarming. According to government estimates in 2016, nearly 40% of adolescents between ages 13 and 17 have serious behavioral and emotional issues and roughly two-thirds of these young people are not getting any kind of help.
Not all of these kids, of course, are committing mass murder. But statistics on youth violence indicate a disturbing level of everyday aggression. The Children’s Defense Fund reports 8 children under age 20 are murdered daily as another 18 kids are arrested for violent crime. As for our schools and universities, Amanda Erikson, writing in the Washington Post earlier this month, notes that in the years from 2000 to 2018, 188 shootings have occurred on the campuses of schools and universities in the United States.
In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida shootings, such statistics are again raising questions and arguments about flaws in the criminal justice system, gun control, and inadequate mental health services. School officials around the country are again talking about new security measures: metal detectors, more surveillance cameras, increasing on-campus police presence, monitoring student use of social media, development of student psychological profiles.
But one important root of school shootings and youth violence remains largely ignored. In a nation with 300 million guns including automatic weapons designed specifically to kill large numbers of humans quickly, easy access to the most deadly means of killing is, undeniably, the most fundamental obstacle to school safety. But debates about gun violence and mass slaughter commonly censor the obvious—nearly all violent crime in our society is committed by males. Girls and women also have mental health issues and access to guns. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Justice documents that no less than 90% of murders in the United States are committed by men and the perpetrators of 98% of mass shootings are male. The gun control advocacy group, Everytown for Gun Safety also reports that in 57% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, the male shooter’s victims included a spouse, ex-spouse, or other family member. Does this tell us something about our parenting, schools, communities, workplaces and mass media? If we put any stock in the popular notion that it takes an entire village to raise a child, then we might begin to realize that there is something desperately wrong about the way our culture raises boys.
Yes we need gun control. But we need it mostly to protect us from the weaponized aggression of boys and men. However, even now, with the images of screaming kids and horrified parents fresh in our eyes, few seem focused on the normalcy of male violence. So the lines between victims and victimizers continue to blur. And you can bet, there is more carnage to come.
Sandy Carter is a freelance writer, retired high school teacher and mental health counselor who taught and counseled at risk youth for over 20 years. He has written about music, politics, and popular culture in various magazines and newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, Z Magazine, and No Depression.