Aurora, Santa Barbara, and Waseca as an invitation to reflect

Last night my wife’s friend joined a news show panel a big TV network, so of course we tuned in to “cheer her on” through the screen. The subject was John LaDue, the upper-middle-class, never-been-bullied, no-reason-to-ever-go-wrong, almost-perpetrator of yet another violent, tragic school shooting.

He, of course, is only the latest in a line of demographically similar young men who have, for reasons yet under debate, become violent. The Aurora shootings shocked us because the location and event seemed vaguely symbolic: a movie theater, at the premier of a much-anticipated movie claiming to delve into the darkness of the human soul. The Santa Barbara killings angered us because the killer wrote elaborate fantasies about being violent, especially toward the women who unfairly denied him sex and the men who received in his stead. John LaDue’s planned violence stands out because the police stopped it–and because his matter-of-fact assertion that he felt mentally ill, that he wanted to kill his peers and hold out until taken down by SWAT, is a chilling glimpse into psychopathy.

The talking heads of the panel were all very unsympathetic towards young Mr. LaDue. The talked about how he was “simply evil,” “beyond rehabilitation” and the like, while the host sagely agreed. They may be right, of course, though I hesitate on principle to presume what someone might do out of respect for certain legal protections on which the United States are founded, but by and large I agree with them: Mr. LaDue ought to be charged with all the crimes associated with planning such a terrible deed (conspiracy to commit murder comes to mind).

It was interesting that they referred to previous, similar crimes–which actually took place–almost as aggravating circumstances. As if the fact that similar spree killings in the recent past somehow made his planned attack worse. It might just have been a trick of phrase; I’m fairly sure the commentators simply wanted to draw attention tangentially to this mystery of young men, from what we collectively consider to be “good” homes, who slowly and without concealment develop a rage and desire to kill, and then execute that desire despite a host of teachers, counselors, and peers who warn against them. I think it’s wonderful that the police caught Mr. LaDue, and if that was the result of a greater awareness of such crimes, then bravo to the talking heads. But the whole exercise in condemnation seemed to be dodging the main issue.

I suppose it’s natural to vent frustration on Mr. LaDue. He did, after all, plan to murder as many of his classmates as he could and (he hoped) some cops sent after him as well. And as a large portion of spree killers end up dead by their own hand, it’s satisfying to finally have someone to punish–especially if he is a better receptacle of our anger than James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora Theater shooter, who presented convincingly as a complete psychopath, and who showed all amusement and no remorse for the court proceedings against him.

Yet I wonder how much of the anger directed at people like Mr. LaDue and Mr. Holmes is to assuage our own consciences. I wonder how much of the condemnation and indignation, however superficially righteous, serves to draw a distinction between us and them; to say in essence, “the spree killer is evil and I am not, therefore get him away from me into jail and then death.” Perhaps shock and anger sometimes mask the relief people feel that they know what is “bad” when they see these spree killers, and it is not them. Perhaps too much of the talk about such men–easy laments about the decline of our society, titillated surprise that the scions of upper-middle-class stability, satisfying outrage at expressions of psychopathy and misogyny–is disassociation.

This bears some discussion. After all, the young men in question grew up among us. They received the same stimuli from media and from our pervasive culture as we have, and they had all the material things they needed. Clutching our pearls and wondering in bemusement how such criminals and terrible crimes could occur is the easy way out, a safe way to avoid hard questions about our own behavior–or at least our participation in a social behavior–which may have (at least) set the stage for a spree killing. Worse is to use these events to forward a philosophical or socio-political agenda, like the opposing crusades of the NRA (which seems to want to arm all teachers) and those who advocate total gun control. It’s ludicrous to think that arming teachers or taking away all guns would somehow solve the problem. The problem isn’t the weapons or lack thereof, it’s that young men decide to spree kill and then do it. They can do it with sticks, steak knives, home-made explosives, or bows and arrows. The problem is that they do it, and it’s our problem because in important ways the perpetrators are similar to us.

At this point I’m sure many readers have rejected this train of thought. They angrily proclaim that bad people exist, and that bad people will always exist, and that there’s absolutely no similarity between the sickoes that spree kill in schools and the rest of us law-abiding Americans. They may angrily point out that only young men have ever committed spree killings, and so it’s not a problem for women in our society. They may passionately argue that if nobody had access to guns, nobody would be able to kill so randomly. Or they may simply brindle at the suggestion that they are anything like the monsters that kill, and decide they don’t really want to discuss it any further. But if so, these readers are taking the easy way out. They are disassociating. They are saying that the problem of spree killing is not their problem, because spree killers are wholly alien. They would rather be right, ultimately, than make the sacrifice of compassion to see if there is any way such killers could be reduced.

Nearly every recent spree killer has come from the same demographic makes a mockery of coincidence. Nearly every spree killer has come from, and targeted, the influential middle class. Nearly every spree killer has evinced rage, most notably the Santa Barbara killer who (horrifyingly) seemed to actually believe that mere fact of others having sexual relationships was a violation of his rights. And nearly every spree killer seems to want attention–they choose schools and movie theaters and prominent universities as their tableau, knowing that they will earn headlines and time on “The Situation Room” and endless panels of talking heads like the one I saw last night.

That, actually, may hold the key to the problem. Attention. Why do spree killers want attention? Attributing it to their generation, as many do, is doubtful–otherwise more entitled millennials (in full disclosure, I’m a millennial too) would turn to violence. No, I would guess that spree killers want attention for the same reason that normal people develop a need for attention: some kind of fundamental, developmental neglect.

Now before people break out the mocking tears and sneer about mommies and daddies not loving their children enough, consider: first, numerous studies have shown that young girls without a close relationship to their parents are statistically more like to engage in promiscuity, drug use, and other risky behaviors; and second, studies into gang membership/affiliation (male and female) cite lack of dedicated parents as a prime causal. It’s not about whining on a daytime talk show, it has been studied and proved that neglected children have a higher propensity towards clinically anti-social behavior. And I have unfortunately met too many middle-class or wealthy parents who are more interested in the next vacation destination, or the new episodes of Mad Men, or in their own jobs, than in their children. Though it looks like stay-at-home-parenting is on the rise, the teenagers and young adults of today are perhaps the generation most commonly dumped into daycare so that parents could have satisfying careers and social lives.

Where it comes to males in all of this, to young men, is a sort of generalized neglect. Wait, hear me out. I know that across the board, women make less than men for similar work. I know that there exists an insidious “motherhood” penalty in the workplace. I think that as the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us has grown, life across that gap on the wealthy side has preserved and protected the old male-dominated social architecture. But back here, in real life, important changes are taking place: compared to men, women collectively get better grades in school, participate in more extracurricular activities (including sports), attend college at higher rates, and in many cases are more readily hired. These are all very good things, and hopefully a harbinger of true equality in the workplace.

Other investigative journalism indicates, however, that laudable attempts to push women to higher social achievements have unintentionally marginalized men. “Socially acceptable” extracurriculars in high school have shrunk to a few high-profile sports in order to spend equally on women’s teams. Universities faced with a majority of female students have invested money in programs of study and student life infrastructure which cater specifically to women. Companies hoping to achieve a certain diversity actively pursue female employees. And I wonder if maybe developmental authority figures like teachers have become mostly female, and less interested (understandably) in focusing on traditionally male interests like war. None of this is to blame the system, but rather to suggest that the intersection of parental neglect and social neglect may be a place frighteningly devoid of normal social obstacles to psychopathy, narcissism, and spree killing.

Obviously not all neglected children turn to violence. And women almost never turn to violence, perhaps because they usually have less aggression due to lower testosterone (though there are exceptions, of course). But I think it no accident that most spree killers commit their deed(s) after puberty, and they all seem to be seeking attention and revenge. Attention, maybe because they never got it; revenge, likely against those who refused to pay attention to them (or suitable surrogates). And I also think it telling that spree killers are usually characterized as loners, and notably lack the comfort and restraint of a social group–a family or a team–to draw them towards good social relationships. Maybe they aren’t necessarily born loners, but possibly are made loners by their development. I wonder if the anger and hatred that many women sense, in catcalls (check out #NotJustHello on twitter) and sexual dominance (#YesAllWomen), isn’t rooted in this cauldron of socially marginalized young men. And I wonder whether a parent, a mentor, a teacher, a friend who cared about [insert name of spree killer] might not have made the difference.

I don’t advocate sympathy for any spree killer. It is for the good of society that they be charged and punished to the full extent of the law. I also don’t advocate some kind of large-scale enterprise or campaign to remedy social wrongs. I suspect that by the time spree killers start exhibiting the signs (posting YouTube rants, rage-filled blogs, and so on) it’s too late for intervention and time for police involvement. But I invite us all to not wring our hands, spit out righteous rhetoric, and go about our daily business, comfortably believing these events have nothing to do with us. I invite us to take the hard road and try to see the killers with compassion, and hopefully to see a way that we can, in the future, make a difference.

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