How America's toxic culture breeds mass murder

Mass shooters in the U.S. are almost always men — angry men who can get guns more easily than mental-health care

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 15, 2012 5:00PM (EST)

                         (<a href=''>defpicture</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(defpicture via Shutterstock)

As a parent, an American and a human being, I'm having trouble functioning in the wake of Friday’s elementary-school shootings in Newtown, Conn. You’ll read this some hours after I write it, so you’ll know more than I do now about the children and adults who have died and the families who are enduring unbearable losses, and about the life and death of Adam Lanza, the young man who apparently inflicted them. Those things are dreadfully important to the people involved, but they won’t change the bigger picture much. That’s a picture of grief and horror and profound collective mystification about how such a thing could happen, a picture of a disordered culture that produces these spectacular outbreaks of psychotic violence more and more often, even in an era of relatively low crime.

While the grief and horror are understandable, as well as fully justified – I’m forcing myself to move my fingers across the keyboard, when I would probably be better off sitting quietly in a darkened room, or spending time with my own children – maybe we shouldn’t be quite as bewildered as we claim to be. I don’t mean that we should understand, or even try to understand, how a person can become so angry and sick that he picks up a gun and starts shooting other people’s children at random. There may be artists and psychiatrists and philosophers who can glean something useful from looking into that kind of hateful and bottomless despair, but I sure don’t want to do it.

What I am saying is that we’ve had enough of these events over the last few decades to see undeniable overlapping patterns, and the same toxic stew of legal, cultural and psychological factors recurring in almost every case. Some of this information has to do with readily quantifiable data, such as the fact that most mass shooters acquire their guns legally on the open market, and most use assault weapons or semiautomatic handguns that would be far less easy to obtain if we had more reasonable and realistic gun laws. Some of it is blindingly obvious but not openly discussed, such as the fact that this is almost exclusively a male problem. (As a remarkable survey published a few weeks ago by Mother Jones attests, 60 of the 61 mass shooters in America over the last three decades have been men or boys. Now, I suppose, it’s 61 of 62.)

Some of it is more nebulous and subjective, such as the media’s pornographic fixation on events of this kind, even though they make up a small proportion of the firearms killings in the United States every year. As a culture critic by trade, I tend to resist cause-and-effect explanations that blame violent entertainment for real-world violence. (I’m not saying that it hasn’t happened in individual cases.) But I find it unfortunately plausible that the massive media spectacles erected around incidents like the one in Newtown, or the “Dark Knight Rises” shootings in Colorado, with their grave and studied theatricality – the somber-looking anchors, the wobbly amateur video of people crying in a parking lot, the police photograph of some crazy-looking guy in a prison jumpsuit – can inspire copycats and emulators who want to be that famous too.

Whether these patterns point the way toward preventing these kinds of horrific events I really couldn’t say. Maybe they suggest some places to start and some strategies worth trying, or maybe they just help us understand the dimensions of the problem a little better. Here are some of the key factors in these outrages, as I see them.

Take the Second Amendment and shove it. There are numerous reporters and commentators, at Salon and elsewhere, more qualified than I am to go after the National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun lobby, who have so successfully hijacked this issue over the last 20 years or so. We’ve seen the Democratic Party largely abandon the struggle for reasonable standards of national gun control since the Clinton administration, no doubt because it didn’t focus-group well in swing districts of Pennsylvania and Michigan or whatever. And even if outrageous crimes like the Newtown and Aurora shooting begin to swing the tide of public opinion back toward a nationwide assault-weapons ban, the NRA has already won the war on the ground. The country is flooded with millions of such weapons, and short of the kind of house-to-house, black-helicopter search the gun nuts fear, we’ll never get rid of all of them.

That’s not a reason not to try, obviously. As I mentioned earlier, data collected by Mother Jones indicates that the majority of mass shooters acquired their guns legally, and that very few of them used more “normal” consumer firearms like revolvers, hunting rifles or shotguns. Yes, you can still commit murder with a weapon like that, and people do it all the time. But mass murder becomes much more difficult. Urban liberals might aspire to live in a European-style country where private gun ownership is exceptionally rare, but that’s not likely to happen here. It’s not necessary to repeal the Second Amendment, or force folks in Kansas to give up Grandpa’s blunderbuss. Americans have a long history with guns, blah blah blah – I’m actually not interested in prying your trusty .30-06 out of your cold, dead hands. But gun owners have been brainwashed to believe that private ownership of semiautomatic weapons whose only real purpose is to kill large groups of people is a constitutional right. That’s utterly insane and immoral, and over the long haul maybe they can be brainwashed back.

America has a major angry-man problem. Reading the Mother Jones article, whose lead author is former Salon reporter Mark Follman, I was actually surprised to learn that there was one female mass shooter in recent American history, a disgruntled postal worker in Goleta, Calif., who shot a neighbor and several co-workers. But the other 61 people who have so tragically acted out their twisted private fantasies on people around them have all been male. While some element of sexual or misogynistic drama was frequently involved – a mother or ex-wife or girlfriend; a rejection or divorce or suggestions of closeted homosexuality – the one thing you can point to in almost every case is perceived humiliation.

Over and over again you read stories of workplace shootings – at technology companies, aircraft factories, day-trading firms, fast-food franchises, maintenance yards and (infamously) post offices – in which some guy who got fired or lost a promotion or generally felt that everybody hated him goes and gets a gun, or several, and acts out his revenge fantasy. Of course there’s no possible justification for such an act, and it seems reasonable to conclude that anybody who shoots a lot of people has suffered a mental breakdown, probably one with deep roots and multiple causative factors. Nonetheless I suspect that economic realities play a role. It’s plausible that these grotesque events are byproducts of the downward pressure on wages, especially in the working class and lower fringes of the middle class, and reflect what has sometimes been called the “crisis of masculinity,” meaning the perceived emasculation and loss of privilege felt by some men in an age of increasing sexual equality.

I’m not suggesting this is good news, but the stereotype that these kinds of shooters are invariably white men is less true than it used to be. In the last decade or so, almost every possible demographic has been represented: There have been two infamous campus shootings by Asian graduate students, one by a Native American teenager living on a Minnesota reservation, and a couple by African-Americans and Latinos. Overall, 43 of the 61 shooters in mass killings since 1982 have been white, which is only a little higher than the proportion of whites in the general population.

Each of these cases represents a failure of the mental-health system. If, that is, you want to claim we even have one. One of the repeating elements in these dreadful dramas is an attempt to point fingers at some shrink or counselor or teacher or social worker who knew there was a problem and didn’t do enough to intervene successfully. In several recent cases, including the “Dark Knight” and Virginia Tech shootings, the perpetrators had sought help at various times before they went off the deep end into apocalypse. It’s impossible to imagine the pain and guilt a professional in that position would feel after something like this happens, but we’re pointing fingers in the wrong direction.

There’s only so much the overworked people in the mental-health field can do about someone who very likely has a worsening disorder, is by definition poorly equipped to make good decisions, and may be refusing to accept competent care and advice. But what lies behind that problem is the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a national healthcare system that could maintain standardized medical records of at-risk individuals, and at least seek to enforce a nationwide standard of care. Of course that wouldn’t prevent every single mass killing, but you can’t convince me it wouldn’t stop some of them. There are many reasons why the social-welfare states of Western Europe have lower rates of violent crime than we do – but the fact that they still have social welfare states, however decayed, has a lot to do with it.

Media fascination with violence, and the 24/7 news cycle, may have made things worse. “If it bleeds it leads” is a longtime maxim of the news industry, to be sure. By the time Martin Scorsese made “Taxi Driver,” in the mid-‘70s, the archetype of the psychotic killer as media hero was well established. But the mass shooting as a collectively created media spectacle, shared by television, the major Internet news portals, the mainstream media’s big names and millions of individuals on social media, has changed the nature of the experience. I do realize the painful and profoundly unfunny irony of raising this issue in a day-after analysis story on the Internet, one of dozens or hundreds you may come across this weekend.

When I wrote about the “Dark Knight” shootings in Colorado earlier this year, I discussed the way that particular lunatic seemed to want to elevate his evil psychodrama to the level of spectacle seen in Christopher Nolan’s film. The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday had nothing to do with a movie, but the whole thing was a spectacle all the same. News reports suggest that Lanza arrived at the school dressed in the all too predictable “black fatigues and military vest” required by his role, and he had to know that shooting little kids would guarantee him several days of stardom in a drama of his own construction, even if he’s no longer here to see it.

What Lanza apparently did was contemptible and unforgivable, and it would be better to ignore him and focus on the bigger picture. I am not suggesting he deserves our pity, but he is a victim too. Moving backward from the evidence here, I would suggest that these atrocities tend to occur in a culture with numerous fundamental problems: one that is economically divided and socially stratified, with a dark undercurrent of male anxiety and anger, one where high-powered firearms with no legitimate uses are far too easy to find, where the social safety net has been shredded and decent mental-health care is not available to all, and where our experience of the world is increasingly as a shared media spectacle. Does that sound familiar?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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