MOTIVE FORCE

I've been resisting writing this for years because it is going to make me sound (potentially) like a crazy person, but now that we're doing a mass shooting per day here in the Land of Freedom it seems like it needs to be said.

Like millions of Americans, I had an unpleasant time in the K-12 educational system. By that I mean I got picked on a lot and "bullied" in the parlance of the 21st Century. This was by no means an experience that makes me unique. In hindsight, frankly, it makes perfect sense. I was an odd combination of extremely weird and not shy, so rather than keeping to myself I actively engaged with my peers even though I lacked the interpersonal skills to interact successfully. Nothing happened to me that was particularly scarring or that hasn't happened to lots of other people with no particular ill effects. Sure it made me dislike school a little more and it probably had some long term effect on the way I deal with people in social situations, but all in all I would say it fell within the range of Normal childhood experiences.

When you get picked on as a kid, especially as a male in a society in which you are strongly encouraged toward aggressive and violent forms of entertainment and behavior, I don't think it's all that unusual to throw the occasional Eight Year-Old Hissy Fit and think something like, (say in petulant child-voice) "I hate everyone and I'm gonna blow up the school!" Nor is it particularly odd to have a juvenile fantasy about going Bruce Willis on the people who pick on you on the playground. As a young male raised on a steady diet of action films, GI Joes, and video games where you kick and punch and stab and shoot everything in sight, there's nothing surprising about that. There were times when I had particularly bad days in middle school and junior high where I spent an afternoon at my desk thinking how fun it would be to get revenge. My best friend and I created a comic with a protagonist named, creatively, "Super Ninja" and drew strips that inevitably ended with the titular hero cutting the heads off of whoever had spent that lunch period making fun of us.

Today, school administrators would have lost their shit when they discovered our poorly-drawn little strips, but at the time it seemed perfectly harmless. It was understood – by me, by my friend, by everyone involved – that no one was actually going to do any of this. The line between fiction and reality was clearly demarcated. We all understood that two ten year-olds who got picked on a lot for being nerds were retreating into a harmless fantasy in which they didn't get picked on so much. The point is, at no point did it ever occur to me, or any of the other kids who got picked on, to actually blow up the school or shoot anybody. It wasn't even within the realm of possibility.

In short, I don't think it's particularly rare for young people who get picked on to have an imagination that creates revenge scenarios. And, as a kid whose dad took him to see RoboCop on opening night when he was nine years old, I don't think it was particularly odd that sometimes those thoughts involved cartoonish amounts of violence. I may be wrong about this, and in fact I am some kind of rare and dangerous psychopath. In any event I turned out alright, notwithstanding the poor career choice.

It's easy and quite fair to blame the constant and easy availability of guns for the increase in spree-type shootings in the US, particularly in schools. There are too goddamn many people who have too goddamn many guns available for acquisition with almost no effort. What that does not address, however, is why the line between thinking about something and doing it seems to have disappeared or at least retreated. Prior to the mid-1990s, school shootings were almost unheard of and usually perpetrated by disturbed adults rather than students. Yet I don't believe for a second that during that time period, school kids never thought about doing violent things. We watched violent movies and played violent video games and played football and listened to The Rock Music and all of the other supposed triggers and causes that purport to explain the waves of violence in the past two decades. Despite all of that, we managed to think "I hate everyone and I'm gonna blow up the school!" without actually trying to blow up the school. Somehow kids managed to think about going Terminator on grade school bullies without doing it.

I don't know what changed, when, and why. Blaming the media coverage or entertainment or shoddy parenting all feels lazy and unconvincing. Spree killers have always received heavy media attention. Entertainment has always glorified war, fighting, and violence (particularly of the Death Wish "revenge" variety). There have always been lots of bad, negligent, or abusive parents. This generation of kids, however, is noticeably different in how willing some of them – still a very small minority out of the whole, yet far too many overall – are to turn their normal reactions to normal juvenile and adolescent social problems into concrete plans for mass murder.

I have always been hesitant to write this because people do not readily admit to having ever harbored a violent thought. We're all supposed to say that when we got picked on as kids we had emotionally healthy, adult responses and we never thought about shooting things or blowing stuff up like the Good Guys did in every movie, game, comic, and TV show we saw. But I think that recognizing that this is not especially rare is an important part of being able to understand why the distinction between thought and action has weakened and devise some useful ideas about how to strengthen it again.

58 thoughts on “MOTIVE FORCE”

  • Could this be a population health issue? Something similar to the increases in ADHD and autism, which as far as I know are not yet explained?

    Most people's first assumption is that such a thing must come from the psychological environment. I wonder. It seems to me we're getting a lot more broken brains than used to be normal, and a lot of strange things can happen when the hardware doesn’t work right.

  • Blaming media coverage may be lazy, but I don't think it's inaccurate. Sure, Charles Whitman got famous. But he didn't get 24-hour news cycle famous. Spree killers now get more attention than Whitman could have dreamed of. Their name and face and motivations are blasted for days or weeks on all major news networks in high definition. Their creepy whiny videos get millions of hits on YouTube. Their rambling manifestos are published and excerpted and discussed by the entire country. They are made into a reason to pass legislation. Books are written about them. Retrospectives are done at one, five, ten, twenty years. Their names and the locations of their shootings take on cultural significance (Columbine, Newtown, Aurora). In short, they get every iota of fame they could possibly dream of. For a psychopathic loser who wants nothing more than for people to pay attention to him and remember him forever, relying on the modern news media's reaction to a massacre is a frighteningly efficient way to do it.

  • Your story is familiar to me.

    I wonder, though, if the increasing frequency of people taking action is the result of the increasing frequency of people taking action.

    Maybe one of the things that kept us from acting on our vengeful fantasies was the fact that it would have been observably weird. While we were aware of our awkwardness/weirdness, we didn't necessarily want it to be that way.
    And, for sure, going all "I hate Mondays" would have made us an outlier (if we even survived).
    As more people are jumping that line, it's less abnormal.

    Also…as a hunch, and not one that I have data to support, the increased deployment of emotional/psychological medication to children could have direct or indirect causation:
    – what fraction of these kids are on ADHD meds, or hormone-modifying meds, and are therefore not developing mechanisms to control impulse without chemical assistance?
    – telling the masses that you can pop a pill to solve a problem creates a culture where quick-fixes are an option, and where your actions are, at least in part, blameable on factors outside your control. "I shot up the school, but I couldn't help it. It's just the way I was made."
    – telling the masses that every eccentricity is a defect may trigger some desire to respond, or inability to resist further impulse.

  • lord karnage says:

    it appears the recent spate is not over, need to check my astrological charts, maybe neptune is converging with saturn again….

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/06/10/shooting-reported-at-oregon-high-school/

    there was another blog post about the similarities between the recent Georgia and nevada shootings, with the author asserting that they wanted to take the courthouse and start trying and executing governmental officials.

    there does seem to be the same thread there of breaking through from fantasizing about something to making it manifest.

    related: I'm irked that these people are not referred to as "terrorists". i mean, sure they are white and all, but does that disqualify them entirely? doesn't seem fair, as they surely fit the bill.

  • Back in the early 1980s, I harbored fantasies of shooting the kids who called me a dirty Jew (and worse) in high school. Fortunately, I knew no one who had a gun and had no idea how to get one. I can't honestly say what might have happened had this been untrue. My judgment back then wasn't as sound as it is now. Now that I can easily to go a store a few miles from my home, slap down my credit card, and buy a gun, I have no desire to do so.

  • Ed, you're not the only one. I remember being picked on, made fun of, etc, in junior high. One of my friends thought it would be a great idea to get guns and shoot everyone. I laughed, agreed, never actually thinking that it would actually happen. In my college creative writing class as a freshman, I wrote a short story where a picked on boy went postal on his class, enacting revenge on those who wronged him with a gun. I'm sure it was terrible. I remember one of the girls in the class commented that the story was "too unrealistic", that the turning point of the main character (a girl in his class pretending to like him so that she and all of her friends would laugh at him when he asked her out- actual true story) was hard to believe, that no one could be that cruel ( She must have had a sheltered life) and that someone shooting up his school would never happen. About 3 years later, Columbine happened, and everyone lost their shit.
    I think the media coverage of the assholes who shoot up movie theaters, school, etc, is part of the reason it happens- if you want to go out in a blaze of idiot glory, what better way to get posthumous fame- shoot up a school, go down in infamy. Better to die being hated than being ignored.

  • Firstly, you are perfectly normal to imagine doing horrible things to people who do horrible things to you. Hell, I did and still do. So does everyone.

    See that scene in Billy Liar.

    Despite living in the country that had one of the worst civilian massacres in recent history (Port Arthur), and that another of the worst occurred recently in sweet, Socialist Norway, I think the problem you describe is an American one.

    You must have noted the comparative absence of the metronomically reliable occurrence of school massacres in other countries?

    My first lessons in Sociology came from MAD magazine in the 1960's and 1970's. I remember one particular cartoon panel that went like this:

    First panel: Angry man – fist – black eye
    Second panel: Angry man – gun – dead dude.

    The short explanation for the flavour of this modern brew is the main ingredient – gun ubiquity and availability. Chuck in some really quite startlingly violent games, a winner-takes-all political and economic system, the ability for the poorly socialised teenager being able to drop even further out by burying his head in a superficially quite satisfying computer reality, family breakdown rates and a few other ingredients I am sure others will mention, and there you have it. A sinister recipe.

  • I think our media is so oversaturated with so much violence and I would also say so many psychopathic characters (think Saw and other torture porn), that our whole culture has a problem with fantasy vs. reality. The internet, 300 HD channels, "news" that doesn't actually contain any all contribute to this. Not sure if there's anything that can be done because Pandora's box has been opened and good luck closing it. Some sensible gun reform as well as better (mental) health care certainly could help, though.

  • freeportguy says:

    For as long as we can remember, HISTORY has depicted violence as a solution. Most national anthems contain glorified military and fighting references. The BIBLE itself contains references of violence (just think of Samuel L. Jackson's character's Bible quoting).

    But when I hear conservatives blame EVERYTHING under the sun BUT guns… These very people blame video games and movies, yet whenever a foreign country disagrees with the US, they're the first ones to immediately want to bomb them into submission.

    An article in Time or Newsweek a few years back highlighted the fact that to justify their support for torture, most GOPers in Congress used references to…the tv show 24!!!

  • I was severely bullied in the 5th and 6th grade. Yes it affected my social skills but not into insanity. I too watched and played at every kind combat around. I was taught to shoot real guns about that time and developed some skill at it. There were always guns around the house and separate ammo to be found. I could have gone ape sh** crazy but I never really had the urge.
    Why does it almost seem excusable now?
    No answers here.
    w3ski

  • The lead that was everywhere lead to the violence of the 20th century whose to say we didn't just didn't introduce another toxin in our environment without realizing it?

    Gun culture has also gone crazy making access to guns easier so very disturbed people can act out their fantasies because they have access to the semi-auto pistols and rifles they used to fantasize about.

    Throw in some toxic AM radio brain washing and the ability of crazy people to find each other on the internet and egg each others paranoid fantasies.

    It looks like a lot of contributing factors are adding up.

  • Ed, you're nowhere near a crazy person for having violent thoughts. Fantasizing about violence is part of the human experience. It's true that we don't like to admit it, but I know I've had these thoughts and so have many people I've known. It's when you cross the line from thought to action that you venture into crazy territory.

  • Not much really new to add to this discussion but having gone through elementary/middle/hs from the early 70s to the early 80s and teaching hs now, I do have some perspective on how youth behavior has changed to an extent.

    It's tough for a lot of kids to be a kid in any era but it seems especially hard today. Kids do seem to be more afflicted with autism, ADHD, Asperger's etc in far greater #'s today than even 10-20 years ago. Why they are is the big question: toxins, diet, over-diagnosis etc etc??? I don't begin to know.

    So many factors that have created this toxic stew. The internet, gun laws/culture, mental health cuts, economic uncertainty, our terrible media etc etc…..essentially America is a far worse place (for most) than it was in say 1978.

  • Human culture is so intricate any attempt to describe a problem sounds like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant, but I'll take a stab at it. Previous generations had more work available, jobs that enabled independent life earlier, Women & Men matured emotionally at a different pace than now, of necessity. Reassembling that departed social & economic structure seems unlikely, we're probably just along for the ride for as many generations as it takes to adjust. Oh, and raising the age for handgun ownership, limiting dominance behavior in authority figures and economic justice would ease some of the pain.

  • I would say that perhaps we shield children too much from suffering the consequences for mistakes and bad action. Perhaps a dollop or two less of "everyone is a special little snowflake" when life is in fact NOT FAIR and you really are kind of setting kids up for disappointment and failure when you teach them that it is.

    I was brutally bullied and ostracized when I was a kid and I would more likely have hurt myself than someone else, but I am female and as of yet the school shooters have been pretty universally male so certainly gender roles and expectations also have a bit of a causal effect.

  • I think I had some of those revenge fantasies, although I also had lots of "suffering savior" sorts of fantasies too. You know – there's Matt, suffering in silence, staying true to his self image or whatever. The world never learns of the suffering savior's value until long after (s)he's gone, be it death or physical location. The suffering savior fantasies can easily segueway into conquering hero sorts of fantasies – "that dude was a freak in high school, but now he's a bass player in a multi-platinum band. I guess I was wrong to judge him." that sort of thing.

    It's also lazy to blame sports like football, but I wonder if that's where lines blur. I used to think of everyone and anything that pissed me off during the day, and take it out on whoever was lined up against me. Because I hit puberty early (and therefore was much larger/smelled much worse) earlier than most kids my age, it seldom ended well for the other person.

    Anyway, I'm not making any sense, so I'll wrap it up.

  • Let me confirm along with the rest that Hell Yeah I had violent thoughts all the time when I was younger. I also acted on them–no weapons, dear God no–but when I was shoved, I shoved back, punched back, kicked back–I never started fights, but I sure as shit never let an attack go unanswered. I didn't "win fights"–but I made it clear that if you hurt me, it would cost you something. That really was enough to yield a blissful period of being left the fuck alone.

    I mention this not to suggest that my way was healthier or braver (it wasn't–I just lucked into a school with wimp-ass bullies and supervisors who looked the other way because our parents had money), but to wonder to what extent the conditioned response to being bullied has changed. To borrow the gun-lobby's bullshit: When fighting is outlawed, only the bullies will use violence. To what extent are the victims of bullies being forced to swallow it because they themselves are afraid of falling afoul of zero-tolerance policies?

    Because if that's what's happening, then I understand not only why they snap, but lash out at EVERYONE who's part of a system that forces them to be passive victims.

  • You're not the least bit abnormal for having these thoughts. I had them as a child, and I've had them as an adult (for instance I used to fantasize about beating my thesis supervisor to death with my fists). But if school shooting are a "new" phenominen, they are a uniquely American one.

    I spent most of my adult life in Canada before moving back to the US in 2003. Canadian kids watch the same TV, play the same video games as American kids, yet they haven't had a "school shooting" since the Montreal massacre in 1989. The political reaction to that incident was to tighten gun restrictions. There have been no such incidents since, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

  • Go back and watch Dirty Harry some time. Keep an eye on the on-screen violence and body count. Now do the same with Commando. Those movies are only fourteen years apart.

    I don't think violent media is causative. But the correlation is interesting. Even as the murder rate has been steadily falling throughout my entire life, the perception of random violence (and the cartoon-like hyperviolence and gore in entertainment) has been ratcheting up. That's partly cultural and partly technological: remote broadcasts used to be reserved for things like coronations. Now a couple hundred thousand dollars will get you a van with a satellite uplink and enough video gear to let you feed sniveling, terrified townsfolk straight into CNN. Developed capacity equals intent, as the old Team B folks used to say.

    A history prof I once had drew a whole bunch of random vectors and described them as religious and political and economic and ecological forces. They're all happening at the same time. But if enough of them start pointing in the same direction, things start to happen.

    More of us can expect to expire of natural causes than ever before. But we're still angry short-sighted primates. Fear/relief cycles can be addictive. Power fantasies always sell. More of us won't enjoy the financial success our parents did. Violent entertainment is becoming more realistic all the time: reality often looks boring and fake in comparison. People feel more disconnected from power.

    Where do those point?

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Ed,
    I was a big and strong kid – and also pretty smart and athletic – but not a bully.
    And I was also a victim of being bullied.
    Pretty much everyone was.
    Children and adolescents can be very cruel.

    I still think the difference between my youth, yours, and today, is both access to guns, and to the internet.

    My generation had virtually NO access to guns.
    I didn't know many kids whose parents who even had them – and they were NRA (back when they were more rational) instructed on safety, and kids had no ability to get at their parents guns – if they even had any – which most people didn't. Only the families that hunted.

    Now, kids have access to their reckless parent's guns.
    And back then, when there were shootings, details were kept out of the media.
    Now, kids can go on the internet, and get details about how to stage schools shooting from all of the multitude of previous school shootings.

    Now, maybe I'm wrong to blame the internet (but not the easy access to guns, imo) – since I don't blame music, movies, TV, or video games – but I do think access to the details of successful killers can teach kids who don't have a control mechanism for anger, how to do what their angry and frustrated little youthful wishes desire them to do. Regardless of consequences.

    Kids that age don't always comprehend consequences.

  • Nearly every boy alive was bullied at some time or another–if not by peers then by older guys and/or even older siblings. It's stupid, wrong and unfair, but there it is. It's a brutal tesosterone-filled rite of passage, which signifies little.

    There used to be two school violence outlets: the fire alarm nad the bomb scare.

    Long about the '90's there came two other other factors–ubiquity of gun ownership and possesion, and extremely violent video games, wherin the most misbegotten could use virtual firearms to mow down opposing "forces".

    The latter differed from "Rambo" in that it was an active medium– where one could actively blast their way out of problems, and sometimes "die " trying.

    Not that big a step to daddys AK and the school cafeteria.

  • Doomed, we are says:

    I think J. Dryden may be onto something. What if diffusing tension with fisticuffs served a purpose? When I was bullied (oh let's call it what it was- sexual harrassment that crossed over to assault more than once) I finally bashed the bullier over the head with an overloaded bookbag. Minor miracle I didn't concuss him. Creep never said "boo" to me after that. Today I'd probably be suspended if not arrested for that. Of course the lesson I learned was to meet violence with a batshit crazy overreaction so that's not good either. I have no answers.

  • I was picked on when I was a kid, not that much but enough. I was also sexually molested by a family member for about three years between the ages of 4& 6 years. I was bullied by my dad because I drove him fucking nuts with my ADHD (diagnosed twenty years after he died). I grew up not hating a lot of people.

    When I was 39 goin' 40, a couple of MD's who were brothers asked me to help them open a business. I worked at that for about three months and then had to leave–I was ready to pound the living shit out of one or both of them. After leaving it became clear that their entire intention in hiring me was to get everything that they could get from me and then shitcan me. I watched a lot of people cycle through their company.

    I used to drive past the home of one of the brothers and for at least 5 years I ALWAYS had a fantasy about shooting the fucker (and his wife) in the face. Never even took my foot off the gas, though. Somebody asked me once if I really hated both guys and their wives; I replied that one of the wives was an okay person, the rest of them were scum. I told him that a recurring nightmare was that I was in the same room with three of them and I only had two bullets.

    I am a cheerful misanthrope, these days.

  • I'll chime in to the chorus of agreement to note that I was barely picked on, and even so had my share of violent fantasy. And I agree with Ed and others that we were very clear on the fact that it was fantasy.

    I think there's already some good commentary on this, but I'll just add another perspective which seems relevant. The issue of suicide seems similar in certain ways. Suicidal fantasies are commonplace, and simply remain daydreams to the vast majority. To a significant minority they become more than that. I'm no expert, but as I understand it actual suicide is sensitive to a whole host of things – none of which "cause" suicide, but have a lot to do with whether someone successfully offs themselves. Access to guns/drugs (and for males, cars) increases your chances of succeeding; copy-cat-ism is well-documented (schools will often have rashes of suicides); cultural ideas about suicide affect rates; etc. etc. I suspect narratives that glorify suicide and murder – whether it's youth fiction or media stories also affect the rates at which something infinitesimally rare can become a thing that happens on a regular basis.

  • Sorry, John Doheny, but there have been a couple of school shootings in Canada since the Montreal massacre. One in Alberta (1999) and another one in Montreal (2006).
    My two cents on this is that most kids get bullied, and everyone has revenge fantasies, but Columbine really started a trend. Some kids learned that instead of just imagining killing their tormentors, they could actually grab weapons and do it for real.

  • I don't know if I could have made it through
    Junior high if not for wrestling. Kinetic, controlled violence.

    I think our current education model cripples and distorts many boys. They are unable to "do school" and that's such a monumental part of childhood. And they fail at it. My son is going through that now.

    But first person shooter games – where you simply hit reset and the game renews – has to have an effect on the marginal personality.

  • Lots of good points, but only one or two people, and only in passing, have touched on the echo-chamber effect enabled by today's internet, devices, entertainment and "news". In other words, it's very easy to create our own worlds now, in our own image, and steep ourselves in it, even for shattered egos seduced by the dark side. Look at the toxic effect even one faux news channel can have on previously sane people, then add to that millions of on-line communities of every possible flavor.

    Mind you, none of that would be as effective without the ongoing dehumanization and isolation of non-virtual american life, and the spread of sterile mall culture from the suburbs to our cities, towns and farmlands.

    The other big difference I see between now and two generations ago is the militarization of our culture. From our airports to our police forces to store security to our entertainment, not to mention our perpetual wars, we are indisputably a militarized society. It's no coincidence that many of our mass shooters adopt paramilitary trappings—military means justified, sanctioned, righteous lethal force, and, over the last dozen or so years, our culture has adopted that as a norm and as a good thing.

  • anotherbozo says:

    A lot of great points made here, planb247, Graham, cat in particular for me, but I'd like to add the perspective of a 70-year-old American asshole. I think the violence quanta in our society have grown exponentially since the Eisenhower years; I would bet, though we don't have any way to measure it, that bullying itself has increased like a hot new fad. If you're half my age, chances are you saw twice as much bullying in your grade school as I did.
    The weekly mass shooting is the prize we get not just for the misread 2nd Amendment and the erosion of fantasy/reality but for a whole concurrence of events and trends. Corporations used to hesitate before firing thousands or cutting off pensions through financial trickery. Cut-throat economics have trumped civility and tradition and humane management and long-term vision. (You think kids don't pick up on this?) Also, society is smaller, more media-driven to effectively erase the space between us, and you know what usually happens to animals when their habitat shrinks. Everything I can think of has made us a coarser, cruder, more desperate and pessimistic society. (There are a lot of positive developments, but that's another topic) So as I say: you think kids don't pick up on all this?

  • I was born a Canadian girl in 1961, living in small prairie towns for most of my school years. The farm boys used to work with their dads, often doing grown up tasks at a very young age. Driving tractors, shovelling barns, hunting, helping with harvest, etc.
    The town boys tended to be more juvenile and often tested their mettle in childish and dumb ways — think petty vandalism, driving cars like idiots. Basically enjoying the fruits of consumerism. And so I saw with my own eyes two very different cultures. Instead of being taught and mentored by respected grown ups, the media began to have a huge influence demonstrating 'cool' in the form of power seeking, individual fantasies of riches and glory. Work and family and the simple life held zero cool-factor.
    I was in the cusp of two worlds and I saw that young people need to exercise their power in meaningful pursuits, honoured by their community and useful to the well being of family. It takes healthy minded adults and a healthy cultures, both in short supply.

  • @robert e

    Right on, regarding the efficiency of the internet for confirmation bias. Singles-mindedness never had a better ally and introspection, a more potent enemy.

  • Gerald McGrew says:

    I only got about half way through the comments before I thought to post this information, so I apologize if it's already been posted.

    Despite all the hand-wringing about kids today, the data indicates that the current crop of teenagers are the most well-behaved on record.

    http://www.vox.com/2014/5/25/5748178/todays-teenagers-are-the-best-behaved-generation-on-record

    However, the number of mass shootings in the US has gone up, school shootings included. So whatever is going on isn't necessarily specific to kids, but is more likely a broader phenomenon into which a very small number of kids are getting caught up. And keep in mind, the "tripling of mass shootings per year" is 5 per year (2000-2008) to 12 in 2013…not really tripling, but close enough.

    My guess is the proliferation of the "gun culture" in the US. Even though gun ownership is on the decline, if you didn't go out of your way to find that data you'd think the opposite was happening. Sure, back when I was a kid there were TV shows and movies of people shooting each other and such, but the gun itself was rarely the focus (it was usually about the guy with the gun). Now it's about what kind of gun it is, how big it is, how loud it is, how it's held, slow-motion shell-dropping, diving sideways while firing, holding two guns at once, etc. IOW, the focus is on the gun and how friggin' awesome you can be while shooting one.

    I don't know…usually such simplistic, single-factor answers are wrong. But I do know one thing…today's kids are actually mostly pretty awesome. So before you ask "What's wrong with those kids today", you might want to check to see if maybe your perception is a little off.

  • I've got a little list. They'll never be missed.

    I think that's a Heinlein quote although it may not have originated with him. Truthfully, revenge fantasies are a staple of both young and old. Male and Female.

  • In the worst depths of my depression, just before I started getting medical treatment, at age 15, I typed out a revenge fantasy where someone like me was a serial killer, taking out kids based on (and with the first names of) kids in my high school. I even shared it with some friends of mine, but that's about all I'll share about that. Oh, no, not yet – I also loved watching Natural Born Killers.

    Then I went on anti-depressants, had a very eventful and fun summer, and lost all interest in such revenge fantasies. I still had the same social issues and physical differences, but I wasn't ruminating on my misery anymore, so I left that story in the past.

    Now, there is a lot to be said for the arm chair diagnosis of mental illness for all of the people that commit these events, but there are a lot of them that could have been helped if we had better mental health care services and if we didn't have the stigma around it.

    On the media argument, it is true that we had a lot of violent video games and movies around us 20 years ago, but the difference is that now, there are 20 years worth of additional violent video games and movies added to the mix. Right now, we are living with more audio-visuals of violence than we ever have before in our history. Impressionable minds have more stimuli around them than ever before.

    We're also living in a time when it has never been easier to find someone out there that will listen to you and encourage you, no matter what you are doing. For good things, this is good. For violent misogynists and anorexics, among others, this is bad.

    Certain medications given to young people, other new chemicals in our environment, increasing inequality (let's not forget that), easy access to very usable killing machines, and possibly dozens of other factors are culminating to create some very deadly outbursts.

  • Mean chldren, neglectful parents, and violent imaginations are universal. What makes America special is guns. Giant heaping stockpiles of readily available guns, sold to anyone and everyone with the merest figleaf of oversight, and granted such cultural prominence foreigners routinely worry they'll get caught in the crossfire of our nonstop, continent-wide shootout. (Much as I worry when I imagine a Florida vacation. And I live in the murder capital of California.)And I think what makes America extra-special in the last 25 years or so is the escalating virulence of conservative media and the open, gleeful contempt now displayed for ANY expression of our interconnectedness as citizens.

    I don't have a solution; I'm just glad I'm old. If I keep smoking I'll probably be out of here before climate change means we have to have our mass shootings in 115 degree perpetual dust storms.

  • This post reminded me of my 13 year old daughter's conviction that I wanted to read her diary. No absolutely not. Why? Because every 13 year old girl writes "I hate my mother" in her diary. Why would I want to read that?

    Another thought on motive force…

    There have always been people, more open to suggestion?, less grounded in reality?, alienated from the mainstream?, slightly mentally ill? The path they follow is a template cherry picked from their culture. In other times and places they might have seen visions of the virgin Mary, been kidnapped by aliens, or convinced they could turn lead into gold under a full moon. The templates have shifted to include random violence.

    Another random thought…

    Just based on my observation, the rise in violence tracks nicely with the decline in physical punishment of children. No, I don't support beating children, but I sometimes wonder if they have lost a reasonable respect for pain, fear and consequences. My husband, who seems to have spent his entire childhood in a fist fight, cannot understand why boys now keep beating on their target long after the fight is won. According to him, once your victim is on the ground, you're the winner. Then you take the glory and go home.

  • Our whole culture now revolves around juicing the id.

    From endless free streaming pron to first person shooter games to media that ceaselessly glorifies the lifestyles of the shamelessly rich and utterly vapid, to "news" programs dedicated to ginning up fear, fear, FEAR! to advertising designed to make you want this, desire that, lust for more….the portion of the brain that deals with urges and emotions is being stoked 24/7.

    The calm,rationale part, the part that puts that brakes on, that can self-soothe, is losing the battle.

  • As somebody who in Year 6 (early 80s) had the kid up the street hand him a deer rifle and say, "Xynzee, let's take the school hostage, it'll be fun." Told him this was crazy, went to school then told my mum afterwards.

    I wasn't allowed to hang out with him after that, which sucked cause he wad the only kid on the block who wanted to play Micronaughts. For which I got teased and bullied by the other kids.

    If I'd been that little bit more [gullible/malleable/starved for friendship] who knows where that could have gone. I guess you could say I've seen this as close as you can get without crossing the line.

    So I suffered the usual social issues and typical awkwardness with the opposite sex that comes with growing up and getting knocked back by girls. Sure you may write your hero story of winning Princess Promqueen from the clutches of Jock the Sportstard in a mano a mano fight to the death. However, in reality the story would end with me head first in the bin and my pants up the flagpole.

    I had this thought after I started uni (in L.A.) about the whole idea of shooting someone.
    I concluded: it is the ultimate statement of selfishness. You are saying to another, "Do as I tell you to *please* me, or I'll kill you!"

  • I've got a little list. They'll never be missed

    That's from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan.

    http://lyrics.wikia.com/Gilbert_And_Sullivan:As_Some_Day_It_May_Happen

    Something that has happened over the past 50 years that we don't really notice as it has snuck up on us – there are now twice as many people as there were then.

    Humans are social animals but the groups we are in now are too big and we struggle to cope – especially in the vast ants-nest that is a major high school.

    Rats stuck in cage with too many other rats end up murdering each other – I don't think we're that much different.

  • karma fubar says:

    I would like to expand on one of Ed's points in this piece – something changed in the 90's. Mass shootings ending in suicide were almost unheard of prior to the 90's, particularly among school aged children.

    A significant number of the comments above relate youthful violence / revenge fantasies that were colorful but never seriously considered as a possible course of action. There was a barrier (for lack of a better term) in place that kept people from actually acting upon these dark fantasies. That so many have had such ideas, yet never seriously considered acting upon them (myself included), leads me to believe that this is an almost universal human though process or coping mechanism to being bullied, harassed, ostracized or beaten. There may even be some Darwinian, evolutionary or survivability benefits to those who are willing to contemplate violence upon their perceived enemies over those who do not.

    But still, there was a barrier, at least until the 90's, that kept people from putting those thoughts into action.

    References have been made to the culpability of the 24 hour media cycle or the emergence of hyper-violent video games, but I personally do not believe that these are the primary contributors to the emergence of mass shootings that end with the suicide of the perpetrator. The previous century has inflicted massive amounts of both severe psychological and physical trauma on large numbers of our young American men, and yet we did not see the emergence of shooting-spree mentality until relatively recently. The two world wars, Korea and Vietnam left untold numbers of young men who experienced the limits of what they could see, feel and do before being pushed past the breaking point, but we still did not have comparable shooting spree incidents upon their return and reintegration into society.

    I may be falling into part of the American mythology, but I always suspected that guns were always relatively easy to get here for anyone willing to put in some effort. For well more than 100 years or so. If you had a modest amount of cash you could easily acquire an old, maybe shitty, but functionable gun. Growing up in upper middle-class white suburbia I never really saw any guns, but popular culture, TV and movies showed them everywhere. I never had any real desire to acquire a gun, but at the same time did not doubt that I could get one if I really wanted one.

    And note that this appears to be a particularly American phenomenon of mass shooting ending in suicide. There are a few non-American examples, but they appear to be so common here that they quickly fade from both memory and the news cycle (assuming that they are not the same thing) unless the victims are all grade school kids or politicians or something.

    But still, up until the 90's there was a barrier here in America that kept people from regularly acting out upon these dark thoughts. The barrier was like an invisible fence, that kept good doggies from pushing and breaking the limits of their yard; the rest of the world was out there, but they learned to both respect and fear that barrier. And thus live within that barrier. The barrier may also be compared to pre-1492 mentality, where sailing off the horizon would certainly lead you to fall off the edge of the world. Everybody believed it, so nobody tried to cross that barrier. Again, these are a crude analogies for the barrier, but are useful for description of what may have occurred.

    But something changes in the 90's. The barrier was broken. Whatever it was that kept people from checking out (i.e. taking actions that lead to their own death) utilizing a process that included killing a significant number of often random bystanders before finally putting a final bullet in their own head was no longer in effect. I do not know what the barrier was, or what caused it to be breached, but I feel there was a time before and a time after, and we are definitely living in the time after. The barrier was psychological and the concept of a mass shooting followed by suicide is apparently infectious. What was once virtually unheard of has now become so common as to no longer register. I consider myself well informed, and its only late Tuesday, but I could not say how many mass shootings we have already had this week.

    I do not think that we will be able to return to the time before the rise of the mass shooting / suicide incidents, barring some Minority Report or Psycho-Pass type of interdiction techniques. That genie is out of the bottle. However I do believe that it is useful to explore and understand the nature of the barrier and how it came to be broken.

  • US in the UK says:

    Reading through the comments I was surprised to find only glancing references to the thing that sticks out most for me when I visit Ma and Paw in the States these days (I am an American living in Europe).

    Anger. Big, generalized, free-floating anger.

    Like Ed, I remember the violence of movies and being picked on but it seemed like everyone was – not mellow – but busy getting on with what they were doing so exploding didn't make a lot of sense (it seemed, as your parents would say, self-destructive).

    Now, after 20-30 years of a declining quality of life and where's-my-f-ing-American-Dream(tm) the most recent econmic crisis pushed those on the margins (i.e. lower-middle class) back on their economic heels? Spice up some economic insecurity with the bile that passes for "political rhetoric" from the right and it's all the time angry angry angry.

    I get nervous traveling home – everyone is so wound up and about to pop. To me, no wonder people explode more now…. Wait til the next economic crisis and seriously, bar the door.

  • @zebbidie: I think you may be right. I live in a pretty upper-middle-class county, and the last high schools built here were in the 1970s. The county population has quintupled since then. The solution is not to build more schools, but to cram kids more and more tightly into existing buildings. It's the same situation with the roads; most of the roads in the county were in place in the 1940s, when the population was a fraction of what it is now. Consquently, "rush hour" now begins around 5 am and lasts until around 10, and picks back up around 2 and lasts until 7. Every day. Getting anywhere is becoming harder and harder–need milk on a Saturday morning? You'd best just do without because it's not worth the hassle of sitting in traffic for a half-hour to go 2 miles (and don't even think about biking or walking because you'd be run over by a monster SUV commandeered by a texting moron). There's significant road-rage and home-rage, because the population density means it's impossible to sit on your porch and enjoy the neighborhood, because so many of the neighbors are leaf-blowing or power-washing or revving the car engines or listening to kuntry music at 200 decibels.

  • I'm surprised no one has mentioned the internet. If you grew up bullied today you can google school shootings and find wiki entries on how they achieved every step of the way. Would you have even known about previous school shooters as a child in the 80s? Would you have known about mail ordering guns and whatnot? I would not have thought of that on my own.

  • @Benny Lava, read the comments, both c u n d gulag and Mojidoji did. And I think it's a significant factor as well. However if we look at Rodger for example, the importan't factor was not a 'how to' manual for violence, it was a thriving community of encouragement for kids that in 'the olden days' would have been isolated loners and outcasts. Like me :D

    It's the perpetual reinforcement and challenges of bravado in the online community, I think, that 'normalize' this kind of behaviour, be it in the MRA, Sovereign Citizens or Jihadi sphere. My two cents.

  • sheila in nc says:

    I agree with JakeInDk. The internet allows almost anyone to find a community of likeminded people. For the people within any given group, it is possible for ideas and attitudes to become normalized in a way that would have been hard to do pre-internet. Think of all the creepy subreddits you hear about. Sure, we've always had militias and misogynists and pedophiles, but now they have ways to support and reinforce each other's attitudes more effectively than ever before.

  • No thanks. These comments are like reading a fucking book. Also I don't think guns are more available in households, today because fewer households own guns.

    Eh, I have not seen the evidence that people become shooters because of internet support groups. That seems pretty far out there and contra all evidence I've seen.

  • I have a question that no one seems to be able/willing to answer:

    Why are 99% of the mass shooters (school or otherwise) in this country WHITE MALES?

    (Yes, I know there are some outliers – one Asian man, one black man, and just recently, one woman.)

    The MAJORITY of people who commit mass murder with guns have been WHITE MALES.

    Why is that?

  • @Sinned,

    "Sorry, John Doheny, but there have been a couple of school shootings in Canada since the Montreal massacre. One in Alberta (1999) and another one in Montreal (2006)."

    Wow, two school shootings in 25 years, as opposed to, what, 74 here in the last two years? Gosh that really deflates my argument.

  • Leslee asks:

    Why are 99% of the mass shooters (school or otherwise) in this country WHITE MALES?

    (Yes, I know there are some outliers – one Asian man, one black man, and just recently, one woman.)

    The MAJORITY of people who commit mass murder with guns have been WHITE MALES.

    The thing is, they’re all outliers. The percentage of people in this country who are mass murderers (shooters or otherwise) is vanishingly small.

    It is generally impossible to apply meaningful statistical analysis to extreme outliers. And we don’t know why any particular individual becomes a mass murder, while tens or hundreds of thousands of others who, before the murders were known, would have appeared to be no less mentally ill, do not.

    Whether you look at it from the bottom up or from the top down, in the present state of our knowledge, there are just no tools available that could answer that question. Any hypothesis we could suggest would be an untestable guess.

  • Leslee,

    For what it’s worth, to give it guess (and that’s all it is), this white male suspects:

    The male prevalence probably reflects psycho-physiological differences. Males appear more prone to being outliers in dimensions related to aggression and anti-social behavior. As a group, our brains probably exhibit greater variance and less stability in some not-yet-understood ways which result in more individuals who are far out of bounds in violence, psychopathy and the like.

    The racial disproportion might just be a random occurrence of no significance, or it could reflect the fact that white people (and hence white genes) have been more protected for quite some time than those of other races; this could have allowed dysfunctional heritable traits which would have been extinguished by (relatively more) natural selection in other races to have persisted. In other words, there might be more outliers among whites because we have protected our own long enough that more bad genetic developments could have survived among us.

  • @ Coises (both comments):

    You're analysis is prolly correct–I'm not qualified to argue against it–but there is one major difference, I think.

    I don't go to gunshows or turkey shoots or the Knob Creek Gun Range Machine Gun wargazm but from the footage I've seen they tend to be overwhelmingly white. I'm willing to bet that if a majority black group, let's say Nation of Islam–as a hypothetical–decided to hold a weekend long firearms demo, sale and swap meet that featured a lot of "off site, no background check" sales, the various LE agencies would be on it "like white on rice". So, there's that.

  • Sorry to poke the troll, but… Let's do this @Benny Lava!

    "I'm surprised no one has mentioned the internet" you said. I pointed out that several had, and you should read them first. You replied with "No thanks. These comments are like reading a fucking book".

    So. You are surprised that you don't know what people have written in the thread you are commenting on. I am not surprised either. Please do continue.

    "Also I don't think guns are more available in households, today because fewer households own guns". Nice statistic – in total? per capita? number of guns per household? hunting rifles or automatic handguns? I'm sure you agree that guns are in fact more available generally. That is, for purchase online or at gun shows.

    "Eh, I have not seen the evidence that people become shooters because of internet support groups". Elliot Rodgers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Elliot RodgersJerad and Amanda Miller, just as the first eamples that pop off the top of my head, were heavily involved in online communities.

    "That seems pretty far out there and contra all evidence I've seen". All that sweet sweet evidence – care to shre it with the rest of us?

    Sorry, I know I'm increasing the troll facyor her (smite me now oh ye gods of civility!). But hat whole "I'm surprised no one here has mentioned the internet/contra/No i haven't, reading comments is like a f*kin book" thing.. classic.

  • *note to self, don't write screeds on an iphone on the train*

    Moderator, do a brother a solid and clean the spelling up for me .)

  • @Democommie that's the god's truth, remember the fox freakout over 2 black 'panthers' opening doors for old ladies at the polling station?

    RNC New Black Panthers Open Carry 2016! Are ya with me Allen West? Rick Perry? … is this thing on?

  • @ Graham:

    As is entirely predictable there were 899 comments.

    The first one was tone troll.

    You want to own gunz, buy the fucking things; don't lose them, don't sell them, don't consider them to be fashion accessories and don't use them as a substitute for your nonexistent self-esteem.

    FUCK.YOU.ASSHOLES.WHO.WANT.ME.BE.POLITE.

    I hope that wasn't too strident.

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