One of the saddest and clearest indications of the existence of the “big black hole we all need to fill” in contemporary life is the fact that the term “school shooting” exists at all. In the post-Columbine era, we all know exactly what it means. Our first reaction on hearing it is always the same: “Oh no, not again.” The definition of the term keeps expanding as the number of incidents mount up: at this point it can be any grade from kindergarten through college, the shooter or shooters can be anyone from a kid in your daughter’s class to a person from the outside with no obvious connection to the school. The common factor is the location (school), the targets (children and teachers) and the fact that people die.
What “school shooting” incidents also have in common is being a subset in a larger category we could call “acts of violence against random persons, usually resulting in multiple fatalities, frequently (but not always) resulting in the death of the perpetrator or perpetrators”. This larger group includes the growing number of attacks in shopping center parking lots, movie theaters, restaurants, public events like the Boston Marathon and even on military bases, where you’d think they’d be ready for it.
They aren’t. None of us are. We can’t hide all the guns and we can’t build walls high enough. Half the time, the killers are already inside. The other half they walk in like ordinary citizens – because they are ordinary citizens. The sad fact is we can’t protect us from us.
If I come off sounding a bit technical, it’s because we need to be. We need to understand what we’re dealing with. In all these events, questions of “who” and “how” tend to get answered in the first twenty four hours, a few days longer if it takes some time to run down the killers – but they get answered. “Why?” doesn’t get answered and keeps coming back for more.
As I spent a lot of time going over in “The Holy Bluff”, “Why?” is different from other questions. “Why?” can’t be answered by “just the facts”. “Why?” isn’t about the facts. It’s about the reasons behind the facts. And on this planet, only a human being can answer this particular question, since we’re the only ones who have individually created reasons for the things we do. If a wolf attacked a school child, no one would ask it why. They’d just shoot it and give out more hunting licenses. It’s not that easy with human beings, especially those who kill other human beings for no apparent reason. Frequently the answers die with the killers. The sad fact, though, is that we don’t get much better answers from the killers who survive to come to trial – a lot of background and speculation, reports from doctors, but no clear statements that make a whole lot of sense to anybody but the killers, if even to them.
It’s time to take the gloves off. We know what’s going on. It’s been going on for as long as there have been human beings. The only difference is that the weapons are better and now it’s on television, which makes a big difference – because what we’re talking about here is symbolism, plain and simple – symbolism gone wrong – and in our world mass media is the language of our symbols, both external and internal.
Let’s take a look at another subset of our larger group – the terrorist attack. Take away the political/religious underpinnings and it’s no different from a school shooting. A lot of people with no personal responsibility for a problem end up paying for it because they happen to be in the wrong symbolic place at the wrong real time. The terrorist and the depressed teenager have more in common than might meet the eye. Both are looking for symbols to make sense of their lives. Finding no positive symbols that keep the darkness at bay, they turn to negative symbols.
What mass media has to do with it is in some ways obvious. The amount of information constantly coming at us about random acts of violence has had the unavoidable effect of increasing the “symbolic arsenal” available to the depressed person or the potential fanatic. What’s not so obvious is that Newspaper coverage of Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic had the same effect on the general public’s arsenal of potential transportation options. Something that had not been heard of before was now possible. 9/11 presupposed the Wright brothers. Today’s school shooting presupposed the Alamo. One symbol leads to another. Positive and negative get mixed up in the symbolic soup, the movie ends – and the shooting begins.
Perhaps the most chilling part of today’s coverage from Nevada was the line “he didn’t seem like the school shooter type” at the top of one of the press releases. We expect the killer to look a certain way, to have certain predictable problems – broken home, history of mental illness, difficulties at school or in the community. We need to remember that we all fit the profile. We all need positive symbols to keep going. Life is more like a movie than we imagine. We need to pay better attention to the script, for everybody’s sake.
More to come.