Mass shootings are horrifying, terrible, heartbreaking, enraging. For me, as for many, the most recent mass shooting at a public elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut has been particularly painful. Its pall clings to me, and I suspect I’m writing this blog in part to attempt some diminishment of its effect, some exorcism.
The powerlessness of bearing witness, even through the distorted lens of modern media, leaves me enervated. I have only the meager power of writing to fight back, but it’s better than remaining voiceless. And I’ve got something to say.
We don’t just have a gun problem in the good ol’ USofA, we’ve got a problem with mad men – and we’re not talking about it.
Frankly, I don’t know if I should even publish this blog. The pain of the event is still so powerful, so fresh. Expressing a somewhat analytic commentary will, I’m afraid, come across as detached; or worse, as a cynical move to advance a personal agenda. But I sincerely believe that mental illness, coupled with really terrible things we do to boys and men in our society, are setting us up for more and worse.
As a callow youth, Dear Reader, I spent a lot of time working with an organization in Madison, Wisconsin called Men Stopping Rape. While our primary work was about preventing violence against women, we knew that to accomplish this men would have to better understand themselves, and the impacts of male socialization. During the 1990’s, at the time that I was involved with MSR, there were a number of national men’s movements including the drum-beating retreats led by Robert Bly; the stadium-packing conservative Christian-based Promise Keepers; and a bevy of male cultural interpreters ranging from Sam Keen to Susan Faludi. Their messages were myriad, but what they all agreed on was that we had built a culture where men were trained for violence and oppression. A friend summed it up this way: “You’ve got to beat a dog to make him mean.”
Those men’s movements, for better or worse, have pretty much fallen by the wayside. It heartens me, however, that there have been real and lasting impacts in our understanding that things like bullying, corporal punishment, and repressing emotion are not just developmentally harmful, they are in fact inhuman. They damage our very natures, whether we are the ones experiencing the oppression, or the ones doling it out. They should not be allowed to continue. Their legacy is pain, isolation, humiliation and hidden rage that leaves us stunted.
What’s more, I believe they create a virulent psychological environment in which rage and self-hatred can flourish. In short, we sow the seeds for mental illness, for both the blind, violent lashing out and the desire to die, to be done with the pain and the hopelessness of ever feeling human and connected.
The New York Times conducted an analysis of 100 mass shooting incidents and among other important observations found:
- “The rampage killers were overwhelmingly male — but not entirely. Six were female, and they exhibited many of the same disturbed, aggressive characteristics of the males.”
- “…These cases may have more to do with society’s lack of knowledge of mental health issues, rather than a lack of security. In case after case, family members, teachers and mental health professionals missed or dismissed signs of deterioration.”
- “…There was often a precipitating event in addition to histories of failure and mental illness – a spark that set off the tinder, and gave the crime the appearance of being at the same time deliberate and impulsive. By far the most common precipitator was the loss of a job, which was mentioned as a potential precipitator in 47 cases. A romantic issue – a divorce or breakup – was present in 22 cases.”
- Regular criminals try to get away with their crimes… but among the 102 killers in the Times database, not one got away. Eighty-nine never even left the scene of the crime… [and] 33 of the offenders killed themselves after their crimes. Nine tried or wanted to commit suicide, and four killed themselves later. Nine were killed by the police or others, perhaps committing what some refer to as ”suicide by cop.”
It’s an analysis well worth reading, and includes other compelling information about race (mostly white), age (mostly older), education (many with college degrees), and history of violence (little obsession with violent games or media, little evidence of prior violent activity, but lots of ex-military).
To summarize: Most mass shooters are men, and all show the same patterns of rage; many have a history of mental illness; many express their intentions in advance; homicidal rage and suicidal hopelessness are linked. We all struggle to understand why anyone would commit an act so profoundly inhuman, and the point I’m trying to make is this: we’ve laid the conditions.
The availability of guns makes this terrible situation even worse. Gun violence of all kinds is far too common in our country, and if you want to get a sense of how we compare to the rest of the world I recommend spending a few very informative minutes at www.gunpolicy.org. The US is comparable to Russia, Pakistan and the Sudan. I agree with the renewed calls to better regulate weapons manufactures, sellers and buyers.
But the solution must also address the deeper faults within our society by creating greater recognition of mental illness, particularly when coupled with what I can only call our ongoing oppression and repression of boys and men.
Thanks to an anonymous reader who sent me the following comment via email:
Really appreciate this post. Witnessed so much of this in my conservative military-based-bound upbringing coupled with private Christian school education (where children were spanked as punishment). Really curious “what men are supposed to do” these days – and what kind of solutions there might be.
That’s my tangent 🙂 Happy holidays!
Thanks so much for your feedback and thoughtful question. I think I’m going to work directly on a follow up blog that talks about some of the bigger picture institutional issues (like the fact that we train boys and men to enforce through violence, or that our mental health system increasingly relies upon medication rather than therapeutic approaches to manage mental illness).
The resources I use to think about these issues tend to come out of my social work training, and can be kind of academic or esoteric. I have to translate them often into personal experience. While those old books like “Fire in the Belly” by Sam Keen can be helpful, there’s no easy blueprint for how we begin to change our culture and the way it trains men. In short, if you want some answers you have to dig. Would it be helpful if I published a list of resources in the blog that I’ve used? I guess I’m answering my own question on that one – yes.
Stay tuned for more – Man About Town.
Powerful. It’s disheartening that this won’t be acknowledged to the degree it should. More likely is more & more calls for gun control, eventual legislation, more black market weapons. There is something wrong with our culture on a deeper level than guns, absolutely.
The most important thing I learned from studying economics was to search beneath the surface for the true nature of a thing. Changes in gun control policy are debatable, but I don’t think there’s any question that many of the sick-minded men engaging in these acts suffer from an endless well of sexual frustration & confusion about how to express their masculinity.
I don’t know that I have any answers or solutions. The problem, to me though, is clear: The majority of young men in this country are fed so many lies & half-truths that they are bound to come of age in a false, demented reality. I have spent the past few years of my own life (male in his mid-twenties) trying to unwind & respin what I was told growing up & form it into some manageable truth. Many men will never do this; they will go through their entire lives in frustration & hopelessness, or they may even choose to commit unimaginable atrocity & take their own lives early as well.
Perhaps one great counter would be active fatherhood in this country again. Fathers who are there for there children, not just on Thursday nights & every other weekend. This father need not necessarily be in biological form. Mentors, grandfathers (in my case), etc. Boys who don’t have fathers around will look to every possible resource for guidance in developing a personal legacy. It is our nature & we have to do it. When these fathers aren’t around, culture provides many wrong paths for us, & it’s inevitable that many will choose the wrong leaders & leave tragic legacies instead.