Mass shootings used to send me to the computer. Hands shaking, I would read everything I could find about the shooter, desperate to know why.
Now I swipe the reports away, numb as an iced elbow. Andrew and I make caustic remarks to each other: “Gee, there hasn’t been a mass shooting in three days.” Sheer repetition has turned shock into a sick new normal.
At least, that is how it looks. The truth is, as shootings proliferate, I have switched from shooter bios to meta-explanations, desperate to find patterns and, in them, deeper causes.
A piece that ran in The New York Times a few months ago seemed promising. Researchers at The Violence Project were reporting the signs of crisis that prefaced mass shootings over the past half-century. But while a few of these signs were extreme (“He believed his family tried to poison him”), many were ludicrously mundane: “He dropped out of school and was angry about tuition,” or “He became depressed after learning he needed knee surgery.”
The researchers were using these specifics to show that mass shootings were not inexplicable or unthinkable; that they could be decreased if we improved mental health care and reduced social isolation. But readers slammed back.
“If being ‘depressed about knee surgery’ triggers a mass shooting, we have a lot of work to do.”
“All of the cited things have happened to many, many people over time in the past. The difference is the guns—and social media.”
These shooters were not the first humans to suffer despair; rather, they were “the first people who were able to obtain high-powered military-grade weaponry to wreak their vengeance.”
Some readers agreed that isolation and mental illness were huge problems and suggested setting up counseling centers in libraries and churches where people could get free coffee and talk. Others retorted that when someone is already isolated, disturbed, and resentful, they are not receptive to a cozy chat. Even increased screening and treatment would only Band-Aid wounds caused by hyperindividualism and a lack of social structure and community.
Some readers underscored maleness. (Of the 172 mass shooters The Violence Project studied, only two were women acting alone.) “Reinvigorate a non-misogynistic, modern concept of masculinity,” one man urged. “Men need purpose.” A woman suggested that men address this with other men: “Women have tried, and all we have to show for it is an increase in domestic violence and the removal of our bodily autonomy. Women are tired. Fix yourselves.”
Some readers went deep: “Don’t these pathologies sometimes start in childhood? What do we do about that?” “It’s the rage of a baby screaming, who wasn’t tended to when he needed attention.” It’s “the templates that are formed for each of us in early childhood (and in utero) of how to respond to stress/hardship/trauma.”
And readers from other countries did not hold back: “Clearly the USA’s harsh version of capitalist individualism fails to provide the minimal degree of hope required for a functioning human society.” “You are the same society that has had literally billions of air travelers the world over almost strip naked and walk barefoot in airport security lines for a full quarter of a century—all because some deranged zealots used planes as weapons…and yet you look at ‘gun controls’ as an anathema and an assault on some quaintly worded amendment to your sacred Constitution.”
I nodded along at almost every comment. It was all true, and signs of crises were everywhere. But what about motive? The most common causes in the project database are psychosis, employment troubles, and interpersonal conflicts—but other causes include fame-seeking, economic or legal issues, religious hate, racism, misogyny, and homophobia. A grab-bag. Too many variables, and many of them interconnected, with a romantic failure triggering race hate or religious bigotry as paranoia sets in and mixes with the rage and sense of entitlement acquired because the shooter never acquired a solid self, and so now feels useless and hopeless and wants to go out in a burst of glory the way other people did on social media.
How do you tackle that sort of muddle? Instead of isolating specific, idiosyncratic causes, we have to look at the larger framework. Because something about where U.S. society has landed is giving dark emotions more of a foothold. Resentment and despair are not new. Guns are not new. But shootings at this level and frequency are.
“There is something totemic about these events,” writes Sam Kriss in The Point. “They aren’t like the ‘going postal’ killings of the Reagan era, when people who had been screwed over by their employers brought a gun to work and shot up the place; that made a certain sort of easy sense. These events distill a whole world into a single point. The technical term is ‘overdetermination.’ What causes people in the richest country in the world to kill at random? Everything, it’s everything: every unspoken truth and repressed emotion, the swirling totality of everything wrong. Political paranoia; racial panic; the terror of women; the emptiness of the future.”
Kriss, too, comes back to guns, because however high-tech and sleek we become, we still “believe, somewhere deep, that freedom means one man striding around with a rifle in his hands.” He also comes back to gender: “America keeps birthing these half-finished men, wasting their lives on video games, still watching cartoons, so turned in on themselves that there’s simply nothing there for another person to desire.”
I saw some of that when I dug into the raw transcripts of Patriot Front interviews, all those angry young White men disgruntled at social changes that did not favor them and sick of spending their time playing video games instead of saving the nation. With violence, ideally. But they were not turned in on themselves; it only looked that way from the outside. Most were bitter idealists, desperate for a larger purpose, a chance to be heroes. And they were half-finished because they could not find a way to matter.
“The entire system is in collapse,” Kriss concludes. “Rates of sexlessness are rising, more people are more alone than ever before; something is happening, something vaster than male entitlement, that expresses itself in random mass murder.”
Saying people have no sense of hope is a cliché—because it is so often true. Here in this sprawling, grand experiment of a country, we have lost our childish conviction that every year will be better, every purchase will make us more content, every generation will be wealthier than the last, every innovation will bring us closer to the happiness we are told is our quarry. We were a land of promises, and we broke too many. We were a land of individuals, and we forgot how to be a community. The kind of community that helps parent the kids; that notices when somebody’s not well; that grabs the hand of somebody on the edge of the circle and draws them into the center. All that seemed too intrusive; we were private and self-reliant, and we wanted our social services filtered through an impersonal bureaucracy.
Nor did we want to learn about people different from us; there was too much variety, and it became a chore and a frustration. Easier to cluster together, like with like, and mistrust or demonize the rest.
And now here we are, some of us smug, others baffled or furious, and all of us either lonely and despairing or scared of those who are.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.