There have been more than 100 rampage killings in the last 50 years—most of them by young men. Making more laws is clearly not the answer. What is?
With today’s space shuttle launch, we’re seeing a new chapter in a dramatic story. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has emerged from three long months of intense physical and emotional reconstruction to see her husband off to work—soaring into the heavens. How great it would be to tarry for awhile in that uplifting sense of recovery.
But recovery from the deadly social malady of rampage killings still eludes us. This is a time of remembrance for rampage killings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, which took 14 and 34 lives four and twelve Aprils ago, respectively. The three shooters involved all committed suicide immediately. Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Tucson are part of a steady procession of such killings stretching back nearly half a century.
Like many who preceded him, Jared Lee Loughner had no history of violent behavior prefiguring his January 8 rampage in Tucson. Jared the killer bears little resemblance to Jared the high school kid who played saxophone skillfully, enjoyed video games, and seemed comfortable dating several girls just a few years ago. One of them was shocked to hear of his arrest, saying “I’ve always known him as the sweet, caring Jared.”
The same then-and-now disconnect can be seen in many preceding stories of young rampage killers, like Anthony Barbaro, a 17-year-old New York honor student who killed three and injured 11 in 1974 and then hanged himself in his jail cell. He left a note saying “I wanted to kill the person I hated the most—myself.”
What happened to turn such innocents into monsters?
The long-running commentary on rampage killings hasn’t focused on this question. Instead, it’s been about how to contain the violence after the Jekyll-Hyde transformation—with tighter gun control and mental illness screening laws.
But laws rarely cure serious social afflictions. Before the 1960s, rampage killings were rare, even though people had plenty of guns. Stricter gun control laws might look like the answer, but experience shows they’re not.
Remember the various “War on Drugs” campaigns? Then there’s the NCAA with its 300-page rulebook aimed at preventing unethical recruiting. The drugs and dirty recruiting roll right on. Our numerous laws against fraud don’t stop even highly visible people on Wall Street from stealing us blind.
Laws depend on deterrence. But anyone disturbed enough to be a rampage killer is beyond deterrence. Life is already an unbearable punishment, so most that such killers commit suicide or “suicide by cop” (a killer forcing the police to shoot him). The laws fail because governments can’t get to the bottom of what turns the innocents into monsters.
Here’s what’s at the bottom: us. All of us. We have a lot to do with rampage killing because it has a lot to do with thin community. Rampage killers are just the highly visible tip of a much broader social malady, and we’re all part of that picture too.
There have been “only” 100-200 rampage killings in the last 50 years—most of them by young men. But the overall suicide rate among young people age 15 to 24 tripled between 1950 and 1990, while suicide rates in the adult and elderly populations fell by 7% and 30% respectively. It is estimated that over 5,000 such young adult suicides occur annually, including most rampage killers.
Dr. James Gilligan is a noted psychiatrist, criminologist, and adviser to the National Council on Youth Violence. He has conducted numerous studies about violence, including murder-suicides and rampage killings. In case after case, he has confirmed the common causes of violence against others and violence against self: “being overwhelmed by feelings of shame and humiliation, as well as being insulted, disrespected, ridiculed or rejected by others, or treated as inferior or unimportant. … ” He sees in the violence “a desperate and risky attempt to gain respect, attention, and recognition for oneself or the group with which one identifies.” He’s talking about community, which means he’s talking about us.
The base of the social malady is broader still. Over a million suicide attempts occur annually in this 15 to 24 age group. Millions more consider it. These are cries for help and attention. Still more millions suffer from less extreme forms of desolation and despair.
Who among this sprawling demographic will turn violent? No one knows, and even if we could cull out and lock up the violence-prone ones and leave the rest to drown in their despair, could we make any credible claim to being compassionate or even civilized?
We keep hoping someone will let us off the hook by explaining the problem away. Glenn Beck, the conservative talk show host, panders to this vain hope. He assures us Jared Loughner is just “a misfit.” But every missed social fit has two edges: the individual and the group. Beck has nothing but scorn for Loughner and nothing but indulgence for the rest of us. Here is his explanation for Tucson: “Jared Lee Loughner is to blame. Period.”
That’s just what his audience and even his detractors want to hear—that this event has nothing to do with them. Beck declares that “these horrific events will always be with every nation.” But they weren’t—not before 1960. What accounts for the palpable difference between then and now?
Glenn Beck is carrying the banner of the most venerated trait in the American national identity: individualism—and he’s carrying it way too far. Since 1960, our individualism has been magnified by dramatic increases in mobility, technology, and intensified free-market competition. Our hyperindividualism has made us allergic to working for thicker community connections.
Young people do get wounded in the process of growing up. Recovering and learning from this are actually sources of growth. But no young person should have to face this without allies—a real community to feed his nascent sense of self-worth. Far too many do struggle alone, beset by difficulties like unemployment, loss of intimate relationships, dysfunctional families, and educational setbacks.
No child starts out as a troubled guest on this earth, as just one more accident. But some encounter what Jungian psychologist James Hollis calls “engulfment” and “abandonment”—experiences of being overwhelmed or ignored by their parents. Engulfment is what they feel like if the adults in their lives treat them like an empty container to fill with moral codes. Young people know the difference between being seen and being watched for signs of misbehavior.
Abandonment can be even worse than this suffocating negative attention. The adults around them are gods in the lives of children and young people. The opposite of being loved by God or the gods is not being hated; it’s being abandoned, which is spiritually lethal.
Engulfment and abandonment look very different, but they come down to the same thing: not being truly present. A parent who unleashes his superior firepower to manage his child is actually somewhere else. Only the power is actually present.
Not that long ago, there were traditional communities that understood this. The elders were the stewards of continual regeneration of individual self-worth in the community. Being an elder meant more than being old. It meant risking getting wounded and shaped by life. An elder was above all a listener—especially to young people. Someone who knew we can’t just shrug and say “that’s the job of the parents.”
The elders weren’t there to keep the young people out of trouble. Their job was to be fully present, so they could make sure the young people got into enough of the right kind of trouble to fuel their growing up, without suffering irrecoverable losses. The young people understood that they were now adults in the eyes of both their elders and their peers—no need to prove it to anyone.
How different the morning of January 8 in Tucson might have been—and so many mornings like it—if enough adults had been present enough to guide Jared Lee Loughner and his 100-plus predecessors through this kind of transition to adulthood.
There is no blueprint for this. It’s a slow expertise. It starts with showing up without 15 hold buttons still flashing in your mind from your workday. It gets traction when you are as motivated, persistent, and imaginative about this presence as you are about your job. It leads to a breakthrough when you devote enough time for the young person to realize that you are actually interested in what he’s thinking and feeling, including his anger, fear, sadness, yearning, and aspiration as he faces adulthood.
Michael Meade is an author, cultural critic, and social activist who works with men’s groups and inner city youth at risk. “The most lost and dangerous people in this world,” says Meade, “are those not emotionally bonded to family, community, and humanity as a whole …” Often the path into the adult world taken by the young person runs through wound and trouble. By these passages, as Meade has said, “Either a person comes to some self-knowledge and thereby contributes something genuine to life, or he adds to all that is inauthentic and distorted.”
What turned the innocents into monsters? Desolation and despair. This usually begins long before violence or even antisocial behavior shows up. It probably was already festering inside the high-school-age Jared Loughner, who seemed okay to casual observers. But neighbors heard rumors of family dissension. His saxophone teacher later recalled him being “withdrawn.” Then he was suspended from his community college. Employees at a local bank felt nervous every time he walked in.
After the shooting, many said they had seen disturbing changes in him. But apparently their response was either abandonment or disciplinary engulfment. Jared Loughner definitely was watched, but was he really seen?
When our children disappear, we send out search parties. But when the adult community goes missing from the world of the young people, there is no one to make or receive the call for help.
If a thicker sense of community is the help young adults need, why aren’t we present to provide it? I think the unavoidable answer is that our attention is captive to individualistic pursuits—particularly getting and spending. We act as if the presents we buy for our young people are more important than our presence in their lives. Writing about the 1980s—which we still have not outgrown—writer Laurence Shames has characterized our culture this way:
Consumption without excuses and without the need of justification—the beauty part was that it finessed the irksome question of values and of purpose. During the past decade, many people came to believe there didn’t have to be a purpose. The mechanism didn’t require it. Consumption kept the workers working, which kept the paychecks coming, which kept the people spending, which kept inventors inventing and investors investing, which meant there was more to consume. The system, properly understood, was independent of values and needed no philosophy to prop it up. It was a perfect circle, complete in itself—and empty in the middle.
It took a long time to grow into this pattern, and it probably will take a long time to grow out of it. In America we have convinced ourselves that we can engineer anything top-down, but thicker community doesn’t work that way. That has to accumulate person-to-person, bottom-up. As the poet Marge Piercy has said of radical social action, “it starts when you care to act. It starts when you do it again after they’ve said ‘no.’ It starts when you say, ‘we,’ and know who you mean. And each day you mean one more.”
It’s way past time to start.