Some thoughts about individuals who go on deadly shooting sprees

After getting over the fact that the most innocent of lives were lost yesterday in Connecticut just because somebody was angry or wanted revenge on someone else, we’re going to start asking why once again.

There is no one answer. There are multiple answers. Obviously, availability of guns is one of them. Without the guns, certainly fewer people die. But guns are not the only issue here – and focusing just on the issue of guns ignores a lot of other very important things. Gun ownership is similar in Canada to the United States, but Canada’s homicide rates are significantly lower.  The state of Connecticut, where the shooting took place, is actually at the low end of the U.S. average.

More concerning to me is the cultural values and norms we grow up with. This is a central factor in why these things happen, and holds the key to solving the problem.

They’re almost always males

I don’t remember ever hearing of a female spree shooter. A Google search brings up one case. Sure, there are females that have committed violent acts – but this phenomenon of wanting to “take as many as possible with you” in a fiery ball of rage is something that is pretty much completely associated with men. Access to guns or other weapons is the same across genders – so what are men and boys in the U.S. learning [that women and girls are not] that leads to this kind of thinking?

Women’s empowerment has become an “in thing” in many modern political circles. Though deep inequality still exists, at least the dialogue has expanded, and female needs and issues can be talked about. Hopefully things will continue that way.

For men, however, the prevailing model of male empowerment, especially in the U.S., too often involves a certain acceptance of coercion, aggression, and even violence. This is harmful on an individual level as well as a social one, and I have written a piece all about an alternative view of male empowerment. This is one other piece to the puzzle, and certainly part of why men commit the overwhelming majority of violent crimes, even as crime rates overall may be more even across genders.

Is community a dirty word?

The more modern a society gets, the more we spend time learning how to empower ourselves as individuals, and have less understanding of our power as a community. The United States is the original hotbed of this individualism – the U.S. Constitution was the first to enshrine the “right to free speech” and the “right to bear arms” for its citizens, and these were the very first two Amendments spelled out in the Constitution. But with today’s breakneck speed of development all over the world, one has to ask: at what point do such individual rights go too far and jeopardize the rights and well-being of the community? The jockeying in the U.S. over where the right to bear arms begins and ends (which varies sharply from state to state) shows how important this issue is – and the United States, because of the sharp individualism of its culture, often finds itself very unbalanced in this regard.

Now this doesn’t mean other countries don’t have issues; they certainly do! No place is free of troubles. But when it comes to issues specific to why this and other shootings seem to be happening with alarming frequency, particularly in the United States, it’s important to note the context: U.S. culture is decidedly focused around individual opportunity over community stability. There is plenty in the Constitution that tells the individual how [s]he is protected from the government, but little in the way of political discourse, let alone in historical government documents, that speaks of collective community for anything other than “national defense” or other patriotic ideas.

Somebody from another country once remarked to me that in the U.S., a poor person could not hope to have any respect unless [s]he ceased to be poor, which he claimed was not so where he came from; most other cultures, he said, have positive stories and folklore about the poor: they may be poor, it is said, but they are wise and crafty, even as they stay poor – and they are able, admirably, to keep living. and for that, they deserve a healthy dose of respect.

The United States is not the only place that the trend away from community and towards individualism takes place; I’ve heard that China is rapidly following suit, and that family structures there are now getting stressed to the breaking point with little to nothing to replace them. But in the U.S., individualism isn’t some recent phenomenon; it’s the national way of life. In the U.S., you pull yourself up by your bootstraps – or you lose. That’s the way it’s always been.

When isolated individuals go postal

What does this have to do with a killing rampage? A whole lot, actually. Ever notice how when these men go on these rampages, stuff comes out afterward about how they were isolated, marginalized, ill-integrated, gauche, weird, loners, nerds, and in a number of cases, psychologically abnormal or mentally ill? Yes, you guessed it, these are folks who failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and they often ended up becoming invisible, ignored, or mocked. The 1999 Columbine High School shooting was perpetrated by two students who were completely isolated from the social mainstream at their school. The movie theatre shooting in Aurora, CO earlier this year was carried out by a guy with a psychiatric condition for which he was in therapy, who purportedly had a miserable time integrating socially. This shooting in Connecticut? Same thing. The guy was a loner. Nobody knew much about him.

Do you detect a pattern here?

Other spree shooters have done things like professed hatred for feminists, women, people of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, gays, and so on. But here’s the thing they all have in common, besides murderous rampages: they feel ignored, invisible, and forgotten.

This is extremely important; when you live in a community but feel completely disconnected from that community as a “loner” or whatever you want to call it, it’s easy to feel like your sense of empowerment is gone. Getting angry and bursting out in any way is a symptom of powerlessness; it’s a cry to be heard, that others may listen – or, better yet, that they have no choice but to listen. That is another part of it.

But people get depressed everywhere all the time, right? What makes the U.S. so special?

Well … the individualism culture in the U.S. is indeed a special case. Whereas in other places, these depressed individuals feel forgotten about but are more likely, in reality, to be accounted for in some way or another, it seems quite possible that in the U.S., they often are forgotten about to a great extent, at least on a basic community level. Though many of these kids actually come from somewhat well-off, suburban, areas, these areas often offer little neighborly interaction and little sense of community beyond perhaps a groups activity every now and then. Yep, individual atomization reigns supreme. How else do these teenagers and young adults living with their parents stockpile weapons in their room without anyone finding out?

Not only is there often a lack of basic cultural community that is usually found elsewhere, but the political reality reflects this also: among nearly all developed countries [as well as a good number that are less developed], nationalized health care is run and funded more or less by the government, so that everybody gets access. In the United States, Obamacare notwithstanding, it’s a crapshoot at the end of a maze full of regulations and bureaucracy that serves the interests of large private corporations, rather than the citizens and the country as a whole. That makes a massive difference when you are talking about following people with possible psychological issues; the system doesn’t work for them – it works for the enrichment of its corporations. Obamacare just smooths out some of the kinks a little bit.

At the end of the day, it’s not an easy question to wrap your head around. You can talk all you want about school metal detectors, gun control, beefed-up security, harsh sentencing and so on. It won’t ease the pain. But what we can learn from this, if we listen intimately enough, is that no ideology, miracle technology, or law can replace a sense of community. We are human beings, and we have human needs to work together, to see and be seen, to learn and to be listened to. We ignore these needs at our peril, whether we are talking about local neighborhood safety or climate change on a global scale.

We’re all in it together, and we’ve got to start acting that way together – helping each other to be positive, curious, supportive individuals who can also receive support and constructive criticism. We must nurture our healthy symbiotic relationships, and work on awareness of ourselves and our place in our communities. Social networking apps, dating websites, and video games are not going to bring the empathy and intimacy we all desire – we’ve got to find our own way, and maybe, just maybe along the way, we’ll talk to someone would have done something tragic if we had ignored them.

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1 Response to Some thoughts about individuals who go on deadly shooting sprees

  1. I like your post very much; it explores some of the deeper issues behind these shootings. One key point about your article I think needs to be observed a little closer is the issue of individualism. We know it’s been embedded in US’s culture and became perhaps a stereotype of the American life. Looking at it from a different point of view it is clear that the American individualism is in actuality a very serious problem with the individual, not with the community, and that’s why the community is affected. Once we understand that a strong sense of community comes from strong individuals, not the other way around, a more fundamental and definitely philosophical issue of complete lack of personal moral values surface to expose our communal neglect of the being and his capacity to feel part of any group or family in the name of imposed forms of conduct that tends to pull us apart. To me, that comes from the fact that we as a society have invested all we are as people on general ideas, on collective patterns of behavior, together with a damaging mystical interpretation of reality and life and very little on the importance of the individual as a singular entity of existence; feeling important simply because he is an individual who is able to think for himself. When we rob each other of attention and importance, of physical contact and stop awarding the efforts of the individual to be unique and productive his own way, we exercise the idea that we are not worth, that we should eternally serve ideals because we are nobody. The individualism you mentioned very well is an act of desperation, where we exploit and take advantage of the common ground, of the other for an individual gain because of an immense need of self-value. The term individualism is a misconception. The word individual comes from the word indivisible, and the individual today is nothing but a broken, fragmented part of a failing machine we call society. The social aspects of our existence are reflections of the individuals that give them meaning. The self is what has been mutilated, and when that happens, nothing else matters.


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