The tragic events in Roseburg, Oregon last week call for my first blog post in three years. Predictably, the killing of nine people at Umpqua Community College has precipitated the recurring media flow of profiles of the shooter, analysis of any possible motive, and debate about gun control. Meanwhile, the victims are essentially ignored. This is why I’m particularly intrigued by today’s New York Times article exploring the notion that each mass shooting and the media reaction inadvertently encourages others to commit mass murder:
Experts in violence prevention say that many, if not most, perpetrators of such shootings have intensively researched earlier mass attacks, often expressing admiration for those who carried them out. The publicity that surrounds these killings can have an accelerating effect on other troubled and angry would-be killers who are already heading toward violence, they say.
The killing of nine people at an Oregon community college last week was a textbook example. Before opening fire, the gunman, Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, reportedly uploaded a video about the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The perpetrator of the Sandy Hook murders was himself a student of earlier shootings — in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 13 people were killed, and in 2011 in Norway, where 77 people were killed.
The implication is that each time an angry, alienated young man goes to a public place and discharges a firearm capriciously to kill as many strangers as he can, and sometimes taking his own life, there are one or several other young angry men who say “That’s a good idea! I could do that!” and proceed to plan and execute their own violent fantasy, creating more victims and continuing a tragic cycle that then inspires other angry, alienated, would-be shooters.
But why? So many people are lonely in our world. So many are weird in some way or another. So many are quiet in class, fearful of interaction, and keep to themselves. Most are not particularly angry or prone to any form of violence. And yet in our world many people are angry, about their jobs or lack thereof, about family situations, politics, or whatever. And still they do not kill anyone!
For all the media investigating and profiling, there seems to be no conclusions about what triggers certain silently angry young men to kill at random, while many others with apparent similar characteristics go through life without ever physically harming anyone.
And it is always men. Usually men in their twenties. Sometimes there is some issue that raises their ire – in the Oregon case there are hints that the shooter was outraged by organized religion. In Charleston, sadly, the shooter was motivated by racism. In another case, the shooter appeared to be jealous of other men’s success in picking up women. For others, the reason for the individual’s madness has been entirely unclear. What compels some men to such devastating and pointless violence? That is an open question, as none of these cases make any sense to me.
There is no legislative solution to this. There are certainly cultural changes we need to make to decrease the likelihood of future mass shootings. Look out for one another. Engage in compassionate conversation aimed at encouraging kindness instead of feeding wrath and hatred. And yes, stop glorifying guns and make it more difficult for individuals with a history of mental illness to purchase a firearm. But there are so many guns in this country already that whoever is inclined enough to violence is going to find one by legal or illegal means.