Part II of The Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture
Mass shootings have taken place at schools, university campuses, entertainment venues, nightclubs, churches, shopping complexes, and even army camps. No venue is entirely safe; the gunman can strike anywhere and at any time of his choosing. It is important to underscore the fact that the mass killer is overwhelmingly male. Homicidal killings by women account for about 10-13% of the total in the United States, but mass shootings by women are even rarer. Indeed, women account for less than 8% of homicides by firearms; when they do wield firearms, they seldom if ever carry assault or automatic rifles. What passes for “research” these days will doubtless establish the fact that a majority of mass killers have been known to harbor considerable resentment towards women; among serial killers, who may be distinguished from mass killers, a considerable number in the United States have been known to target prostitutes. One might argue that sex workers make for easier targets: they are generally single, placed by the very nature of their work in compromising situations, and they may not be missed by family members or friends. Their murder goes undetected for days, weeks, even months on some occasion. We do not know what kind of funerals they receive, if any, and if mourners are present. But this would be a benign reading of the serial killer’s fondness for sex workers as targets, since the serial killer is just as likely, and of course without any trace of irony, to see himself as an emissary of God sent to rid the world of sin and wickedness. The sexual promiscuity of women is particularly bothersome to them. Mass killers, for their part, are commonly described as sexually frustrated: a few, in recent killings, have even been found to hold to the view that they ought to have sexual rights to any number of women of their choosing. Women, that is, owe them sex; or, to put it differently, the right to women is construed as their entitlement.
Though this aspect of mass shootings is infrequently mentioned in press reports, the profiles of mass killers point to the problem, which perhaps has not been adequately addressed by any civilization and remains the most potent locus of violence in the US, of masculinity. It is not necessary, in ruminating about this matter, to entertain clichés about rifles as phallic objects, or, more persuasively, speak at length of the fondness of mass killers for heroic, military-style undertakings with assault rifles. We are, and are not, in Dr. Strangelove universe: our last scene need not be the cowboy astride the nuclear rocket, riding it to its climatic explosion in the enemy’s womb, but there is a ‘strange love’ that informs the mass killer’s worldview. One of the more recent words to have insinuated its way into the English dictionary is incel, short for involuntary celibate. The word describes the man who is celibate, but not by choice; his celibacy arises from the humiliating rejection to which he has been subjected by one or more women. It is these women who deny him the sex which he views as his unquestionable entitlement. Incel is now more than a word, and is more akin to a movement—everything becomes a movement in the United States, for those who care to observe—with an arch priest, or a reigning philosopher. It is not certain whether Nikolas Cruz was an incel, but the Santa Fe killer, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, appears to fall in that category. One of his ten victims was a young 17-year old woman who, to cite media reports, “spurned” him repeatedly; according to her mother, the young woman “had four months of problems from this boy”, and “he kept making advances on her, and she repeatedly told him no.”
Survivors of shootings are always inclined to ask, ‘why me?’ The killer may strike anywhere and anyone at will: there may be ‘signs’ that, in retrospect, that should have been noticed by parents, siblings, friends, school authorities, and others, but neither an uncanny ability to read signs nor sheer mindfulness can do anything to bring predictability to acts of terrorism. That is one kind of arbitrariness; let me return, however, to the question of the school as a venue of mass shootings, even as the reader is urged to keep in mind that many other venues besides schools have been targeted by mass killers. A shooting at a school has a poignancy that is all its own: whatever the conceptions of childhood in a given culture, and howsoever traumatic childhood may have been rendered for some by warfare, street violence, or sexual abuse, some notion of the innocence of children persists across cultures. A school, moreover, is a place of learning, and thus of growth and development; it carries with it the insignia of a sanctuary and a refuge from the storms of life. The vulnerability of children is greater as they place their security and well-being in the hands of those who are empowered to act on their behalf. It is for these reasons that school shootings seem particularly horrifying, even to those who have no children of their own, or who harbor no special affection for children.
A recent Washington Post study has established that since the school shooting on 20 April 1999 at Columbine, Ohio, where teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide, over 187,000 children have been caught in the hail of fire, or exposed to gun violence, across schools in the United States. The study notes that shootings where there were no casualties, except to the perpetrators of violence, are excluded from the count; suicides are similarly excluded, as are shootings at schools and colleges. According to the Post study, the shootings led to at least 130 deaths, and twice that number were injured; however, the study does not include, in its tally of those who were “exposed” to violence, a much greater number of school children who were informed by teachers that the school was going into “lockdown” since a threat had been received. Reports of such lockdowns, when the anonymous tip of a threat turns out to be a hoax, make it to the local community newspaper, but no reasonable calculation of how students’ lives are upended can be made.
On April 4th, to take one illustration, Menlo-Atherton High School, which is located in one of the country’s wealthiest districts, home to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and tycoons, went into lockdown in the late morning after Atherton police received a possible unspecified threat against the school. A photograph of a 15-year old boy at the school brandishing a firearm was found on social media. Students were sequestered in locked rooms and the lockdown was lifted two hours later. This lockdown would not have come to my attention but for the fact that the daughter of someone who is very close to my family is a student at this school. The incident did get reported in the local newspaper, though the day when such an incident does not get reported at all may not be very far into the future; indeed, had the school been located in a poor district, there is every likelihood that the school lockdown would not at all have been “news”.
(to be continued)