Here are the big questions I’ve received about the recent Connecticut elementary school shooting spree (if you haven’t heard about it, just turn on a TV) along with my brief answers (I’ll probably be doing a lot of media and expanding on these answers in the coming days):
Is this sort of thing on the rise in America?
Yes and no. Violence, even multiple-victim violence, has been going on among human beings since there have been human beings. Violent crimes in general are on the rise in the U.S., as reflected in the FBI’s most recent statistics. When it comes to multiple-victim violence like the Connecticut school shooting, the lethality of incidents (a perpetrator can generally kill more people more quickly with a gun than with a knife) appears to be increasing more than the frequency, and it’s that shocking lethality that causes some people to overestimate the frequency with which perpetrators are committing violence. It’s not an exclusively-male phenomenon, but it’s mostly male. The male mind simply has a greater capacity for violence than the female mind, and you can see that throughout human history.
Is mental illness the explanation?
No. Mental illness is only explanatory of violence to the extent that it prevents a person from making decisions about behavior. This shooter probably wasn’t mentally healthy, but he appears to have been making decisions about behavior all the way up to and including the typically-cowardly decision to kill himself rather than face the cops and consequences of his actions (that’s what makes James Holmes so interesting, he’s the exception to the rule that these guys commit suicide, either directly or by cop, rather than allowing themselves to be arrested).
What explains it then?
This transcends psychology, but to use psychological terms, it illustrates the malignant, sociopathic narcissism at the core of these perpetrators, the sense of entitlement to take their frustration, rage, jealousy (in this case apparently at the shooter’s mother and perhaps also her students) out on innocent others. Everyone has to decide what to call the conscious decision to act on those feelings in a destructive way. I call it evil, and it absolutely does exist.
Why would an adult target kids?
Probably two reasons, maybe three in this case. 1) The shooter probably wanted to inflict the maximum amount of pain and spread it around as widely as possible (that’s that sense of entitlement, i.e., “If I suffer, you all suffer), 2) Cowardice — these perpetrators are cowards; they don’t want to fight equals, in fact, when the “equals” show up, the perpetrators usually quickly commit suicide, as this guy did. And possibly 3) This shooter might’ve had something personal against these kids, believing, ridiculously of course, that they got a disproportionate share of his mother’s attention.
Would “gun control” have stopped it?
No. Criminals, by definition, don’t follow laws, and with as many guns as we have among our civilian population, we’d never be able to collect enough of them to make it impossible (or even very hard) for a determined killer to get one. The Norwegians learned that last year with Anders Breivik — he shot approximately 80 people, and Norway has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. Ironically then, there’s a greater likelihood that more guns on the scene (in the hands of law-abiding school employees, for example) would have made this tragedy less lethal (again, these perpetrators are generally cowards, as soon as they face return fire, they typically flee or commit suicide).
How might we begin working to prevent future similar incidents?
In addition to increased security measures, we have to rethink our “deinstitutionalization” policy, whereby too often, we show more compassion for an obviously-dangerously-troubled individual than we show for the many individuals that that person might hurt. We don’t need to violate anyone’s rights. We just need to seize opportunities to take more people out of public circulation sooner, more often, and for longer periods of time than we typically have since the 1960s, after they first exhibit violent tendencies. I’m a big pro-freedom guy, but I’m pro-peaceful-people’s freedom, not dangerous people’s freedom. I can almost guarantee you that the investigation will reveal 1) multiple warning signs that this perpetrator was dangerous (there always are, nobody “snaps”) and 2) adults, maybe parents, maybe educators, maybe even judges and jurors, who didn’t do as much as they could’ve done to get him off the streets or to keep guns away from him. For example, after the Virginia Tech shooter committed relatively minor crimes but before the massacre on that campus, a judge had a chance to involuntarily commit the would-be shooter to a mental institution but declined, accepting the shooter’s assurance that he’d get treatment on his own — committing him involuntarily could at least have made it harder for him to get guns to commit the massacre later. I’m not a gun-control guy, but I’d tighten up both judges’ discretion and our national background check system when it comes to enabling demonstrably-dangerous individuals to get guns legally. We also need to get back to being the kind of culture in which kids get lots of messages, at home, school, church…about being part of something larger than themselves, thinking about the impacts of their actions on others, etc. We’ve collectively acquiesced to a coarsened and callous culture in which kids can relatively-easily (relative to past generations) grow up without internalizing the visceral disgust that you and I feel with the kind of disregard for human life that we saw in that Connecticut school. When an entire culture is moving in a bad direction, the people who were on the outer fringe of it to begin with are only going to end up farther beyond the pale. Believe it or not, even serial killer David Berkowitz recently admitted that from prison, saying, “I know it’s a bit simplistic, but to me, the whole tragedy is that [some] young people are losing direction and don’t value life or have no clue why they’re on this Earth.” I never thought I’d agree with a serial killer.
How should parents talk about it with children?
Even kids who weren’t directly affected can still be affected by coverage of the event in that it can shake their sense of the security, safety, and predictability of their world. Here are some general thoughts and suggestions for parents: 1) Listen to your children — they may not have paid as much attention to the coverage or be as anxious about it as you think (and you can minimize their further exposure to it by keeping it off of televisions, radios, and computers in the children’s presence). 2) Validate feelings and fears that they do have, e.g. by acknowledging, at age-appropriate levels of course, that there are some bad people in the world who do some bad things sometimes, and that it’s sad and scary for all of us. 3) Reassure them that they’re very safe and secure with you, that the majority of people in their world are good, and that we can work together to make the number of bad things that happen even smaller, e.g. if we take reasonable precautions, stick together, stay alert, report suspicious behavior, support and assist our first responders, etc. 4) Refocus them off of the gruesome details of the event and toward the good in people that was exhibited in the context of it, e.g. pointing out the heroism of the first responders, of the survivors who looked out for one another as that terrible event happened. 5) Act — e.g., maybe let them go with you to the blood bank if you donate blood, do something to show appreciation to your local first responders, donate to the victims’ relief fund, make a card to send to a hospitalized survivor, etc. — to help demonstrate that the “good guys” are back in control and thereby hopefully help to reactivate some of that resilient optimism that many kids characteristically exhibit. And if those measures don’t seem to be adequate for your child(ren), seek consultation with a mental health professional near you; that’s what they’re there for.
Is there any good to point out in this case?
Yes, the first responders getting to the scene very quickly and rushing right in to face the shooter without hesitation. The Connecticut incident is the second in a week (the other was the recent shooting incident at an Oregon shopping mall) in which first responders arriving quickly and in force probably saved lives by hastening the panicked suicides of the shooters (once again, the perpetrators are cowards). There are also developing stories of heroism on the part of school staff members in Connecticut.
Any pet peeves about the coverage of cases like this?
Yes. I know they don’t mean to, but when people go in front of TV cameras and say that “God” saved their loved ones from harm, they’re implying that God didn’t mind that other people’s loved ones got killed. I don’t believe that God picks and chooses who gets killed and who gets spared like that, and I always feel bad for the victims’ loved ones when the media shows survivors’ loved ones saying it.