The Anatomy of Violence | Newsweek National News | Newsweek.com
Pathological genes, a disturbed mind, social isolation and a gun culture are not enough. Mass murderers also need the individual will to pull the trigger.
When I was in high school, I wrote a brief essay on how I felt about the Columbine killings. (Those had taken place years earlier, when I was in middle school.) Essentially, my feelings were that, while the two gunmen were solely responsible for their detestable deed, they had been failed by the society around them, a society that did not recognize their considerable intelligence and skill (instead, condemning them for being reserved or different), a society that did not venture to teach them how to use that skill for means other than senseless brutality. A plot like that, a massacre in your own school, causing thirteen deaths before you’re finished, sounded like it would take a lot of skill, anyway. I was also going from this:
Prognosis: Good. Eric is a very bright young man who is likely to succeed in life. He is intelligent enough to achieve lofty goals as long as he stays on task and remains motivated.
That’s from the police report explaining why Columbine killer Eric Harris was released early from juvenile detention (found here). I figured that adults had failed to engage with the killers’ creativity and ingenuity, failing to give them outlets other than violent aggression. (I noted that Doom did not have to be a culprit, here; it could be part of that outlet, with its level editor encouraging players’ creativity.) I asked about the abusive jock culture that the kids were raised in and were clearly rebelling against. I also used, as a framing device, an old Superman story where the hero laments the wasted talent of the young hooligans who attack him, and the slum environment that he was convinced contributed to their poor development. I thought that worked well.
The trouble is, I went to research my story to see if it held up, and it didn’t. (Well, one part did: the killers’ Doom levels were pretty ordinary, and nothing to write home about.) The kids had comfortable, upper-class lives. The shootings were random, senseless, with no clear target; they chose, when their plans went awry, to make their last stand in the library, when surely the gym or locker room would have been a better place to target football players or other high-school social elites. The killers’ diaries did include hateful diatribes against various religious and ethnic minorities–the killers were, after all, full of hate–but also against white people, against wrestling, against country music, against the WB television network. The killers never said “all jocks stand up,” nor did they ever slay a woman for affirming her faith in God (both are apocryphal and discredited). The killers were not social outcasts; they weren’t the most popular kids in school, but they were well-known and had many friends. Most of all, the rampage was not an ingenious plot; it was actually an abysmal failure, as pipe bombs around the school failed to go off, and the killers were forced to scale back their massacre to a “mere” thirteen murders, ending at the school’s library. There was no clear motive, no rhyme or reason, no sign of intelligence or ingenuity. The killers merely had many screws loose. They were insane, an unsatisfyingly arbitrary conclusion.
This disturbed me deeply, when I got to unraveling the problem. The legend has it that the killers were abused and bullied until they snapped, that the school’s jocks and preps had pushed them to the breaking point by not accepting them in the school’s social fabric. The legend was untrue, and I had grown accustomed to believing it. What I was realizing was that, in developing the legend, people–including me–were projecting onto the Columbine killers. (In my case, this was helped along by the witchhunt that followed, where teachers, now wary of “edge” cases, proceeded to isolate students who seemed “different”–students, possibly, like me–though isolation sounds as though it would exacerbate the problem of actual high-risk cases.)
What does this mean for us? What pieces of our identity are we mapping onto high-school mass murderers? What pieces of us–including me–admired these lowlifes? What made us think of them, privately, as antiheroes, bad-boy Guy Fawkeses standing up for what we believe in using methods we don’t, while publicly condemning them as rank thugs and cowards?
You may say I am merely projecting my own feelings, presuming that, because I was horrified to find I was contributing to a legend of projecting ourselves onto the Columbine killers, others must have been doing the same. That is possible. Discuss.
I will admit that, in middle school, I did have violent fantasies. They scared me, as I am not a violent person (I’m a Quaker!) and strongly believe that violence in such situations fails to solve anything, that violence is, in almost every instance, merely an excuse for one to feel powerful. I would never want to be in that situation or deal with the consequences of killing my friends, teachers, classmates, people I love and care about even if they treat me poorly; this dislike is probably related to why these murder sprees typically end with suicides. Twisting your mind into believing that your tormentors deserve death is difficult. Twisting your mind into believing that you can then stand by that decision and face the consequences is downright impossible. (Willingness to stand by your decision and accept the consequences, incidentally, is a good test for whether or not you’re sincere about breaking what you consider to be an unjust rule or law. Something inherently immoral, like murder, is something nobody wants to accept the consequences for.)
Middle school was a fairly special situation for me, and you might read about it, someday, perhaps in my memoirs. But over time, the violent thoughts, the fantasies, subsided, and to this day if I’m ever upset over bad treatment over a long period of time, I tend to fantasize more about cussing someone out or finally saying how I really feel (I imagine this is common), something else that is difficult to accept the consequences for. Shooting someone with a gun seems innately distasteful to me, and the main reason that I stay away from hyper-violent games is not because I think they will somehow “make” me a killer (give human beings credit: we’re not nearly that malleable), but because I do not want to become desensitized to violence, the way most of the world seems to be. I’m not offended by the oft-repeated fact that, in Grand Theft Auto, you can kill prostitutes; the game allows you to kill anyone, and the open world is the game’s trademark. I’m more offended by the fact that, the one time I played Grand Theft Auto III (determined to be a “good” mobster–I enjoy power fantasies where I get to be good–and vowing only to kill those whose deaths are required for the mission), it is downright impossible to drive down the street without running people over and hearing their spines crunch beneath your tires. Why isn’t that brought up as a social failing of the game? How is it an “open world” when I can’t not kill people?
I digress. Newsweek is running a feature (which I found through GamePolitics) on the “anatomy of violence,” focusing on a psychoanalysis of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer. The old drumbeat starts up again, as social isolation, American opportunism, and abuse growing up are trotted out as ingredients in the making of a mass murderer. I would presume that these killers serve as a sort of mirror, ways for us to talk about the demons inside of us while exculpating ourselves by projecting them onto murderers. It’s a useful technique, to be sure, but it needs to end. We should confront our inner romanticization of young killers (at least, if I’m right about all this), because a front like that covers deep-seated issues underneath, human issues that we all have, issues that keep us from connecting with each other and living full lives.
Back when I was in middle school, and Columbine had led to an increase in reporting on school violence (and to a myth that youth crime was on the rise), I remember when I learned of a new school shooter. This one was different… she was a girl, she was quiet, she was well-spoken, she idolized people like Martin Luther King, Jr. She didn’t fit anyone’s profile of a shooter, someone keeping the anger bottled up until she blows. (I can’t find this story on a Google News archive search, so I may have remembered it wrong.)
I remember reading that and thinking, finally, a school shooter that I can identify with! That stopped me cold. What was I thinking? Do I really think school shooters can represent me, that I can be his or her constituent? That chilled me for a long time, and led to a lot of this later introspection.
One last thing. While looking up the links for this post, I found this, explaining why the juvenile-detention authorities didn’t consider the Columbine killers to be a recidivism risk:
NMU (11/6/02): District attorney releases Columbine gunman’s juvenile records
According to district attorney spokesperson Pamela Russel, the diversion program did everything it was supposed to. Diversion officers met with Harris and Klebold twice a month, for about 15 minutes each session. Each session was documented with notes made by diversion officers.
The situation with Harris and Klebold was an anomaly, Russel said. “These kids didn’t meet the criteria for troubled teens. They came from affluent neighborhoods, two-parent households, jobs, and no serious drug or alcohol problems. They were able to conceal what was going on inside them.”