Current and future sons of America, we have failed you.
Two weeks ago, a white man entered a college classroom and started shooting. Another man, Riley Howell, charged at him. Howell died in the process of stopping the shooting.
Last week, two white men entered high school classrooms and started shooting. Another man, Kendrick Castillo, helped tackle one. Castillo died in the process of stopping one of the shooters.
These five men represent the rising generation of American men. They are two different sides of a toxic coin of chance.
The shooters did what we train our men to do: They expressed their frustration, disgust, and rage through violence. At no point do we sit down with our Future Men and tell them to open fire on innocent people. Instead, our training comes from a systematic removal of options.
Men don’t cry. Be a real man. What kind of freak are you for acting that way? Man up. Don’t be a girl. Stop being such a pu**y. You’re a f***ot. Don’t just get mad, get even.
You deserve it. You’re a winner. There’s no such thing as second place. Victory is yours. Real men don’t settle. The world is your oyster.
When I was a child, these messages were driven into my skull and my psyche. Even a transgender man, as one of the shooters is, understood the programming well enough to know what his expectations were.
In his 1980 release “Family Snapshot,” Peter Gabriel draws a painful picture of an assassin. The picture contains self-entitlement (“If you don’t get given, you learn to take.”). It includes violence.
And it includes abandonment, shifting just as the assassin shoots at his political target to a childhood memory. After finding his toy gun on the floor while his parents are fighting, the boy remembers: “I’m growing up sad. I need some attention, I shoot into the light.”
In 1980, Gabriel could see the direct line between the way we were failing our boys (of which I was one, then) then and the violence of adult men.
In their 1992 release “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam writers Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament draw a painful picture of a school shooter. Jeremy is a victim of violence who finally explodes (“Clearly I remember picking on the boy … but we unleashed a lion”).
Like Gabriel’s antihero, the song deals with emotional abandonment: “Daddy never gave affection.”
And both songs deal with the need for men who feel downtrodden to be noticed. “I want to be somebody, you were like that, too,” writes Gabriel. “Try to erase this from the blackboard,” dare Vedder and Ament.
In 1993, Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down” draws a similar picture of a man who, feeling overwhelmed and increasingly meaningless, turns to violence to be noticed. As I wrote prior to the 2016 election, though, his outrage “is drenched with a sense of entitlement and privilege.”
Repeatedly, the male artists have reached out to try to change the cultural current, and repeatedly, we have failed to heed the call.
We have failed you, future men of America.
We have taught you how to hurt, but not how to express that hurt. Instead, we have taught you to bury that hurt deep inside until it explodes. That’s why 97% of mass shooters are men.
We have taught you that the world owes you something. In The Smiths’ 1984 song “Still Ill,” Morrissey sarcastically sings, “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving. … Ask me why, and I’ll spit in your eye.”
A few times, sure, we’ve tried to change our message. In 1998’s movie “Pleasantville,” Tobey Maguire’s David tells his mother, “There is no right house, there is no right car… it’s not supposed to be anything.”
We don’t “deserve” success. We don’t “deserve” security. Those are great things, as are respect and opportunity, but if you don’t get those things, you don’t have the right to hurt innocent people because of it.
And now we are in the process of committing our worst failure to date. We are abusing the way we have programmed you: To protect, to sacrifice, to put aside your own fears for the sake of others. Be a hero! Be a man! Stand up and fight!
Reports say that Riley Howell was shot multiple times before he finally tackled the shooter in his UNCC classroom. Howell kept going. Like a charging animal. Like a robot.
What Howell did was heroic. What Castillo did was heroic.
That either of them not only had to do it, but were told to do it, were programmed to do it, is a shameful stain on our culture.
We know what needs to be done. In 1980, Gabriel told us what the problem is. In 1992, Pearl Jam reminded us. It’s 2019. And what have we done?
We need to educate our boys on how to cry, how to feel agony, how to be survive being ignored without exploding. Have we?
No. We have failed you. We desperately need school programs on helping boys confront and break out of the box we’ve put them in, but those continue to be few and far between.
We need to address how easy it is to get access to multiple extremely lethal weapons, but instead, we’ve loosened restrictions. And to be clear: Gun control legislation is only a bandage. Not because criminals will always get guns; that’s an inane argument. Rather, because it doesn’t address the core problems of gun fetishization in this country and emotional suppression of men.
But controlling gun access is too controversial.
And teaching boys it’s okay to cry is too controversial.
So what do we do instead?
We teach boys to give their lives in order to save others.
When this is the least controversial of the three options available to us, we have failed you.
When this is the solution we’ve come up, we have given up, because this is no solution.
Boys, it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to talk to someone when you feel pain. There are services available to you. Unfortunately, most of the men around you were broken by the same system that’s breaking you. Most of them are suffering just like you are, but they also lack the tools to navigate through.
Men, these shootings ought to have been a wake up call. We are now telling our boys to die rather than tearing down our own walls.