In the year since Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and murdered 26 people and then himself, the various experts have come up with a single “explanation”: it is unexplainable. The recent Connecticut State’s Attorney report concludes: “The evidence clearly shows that the shooter planned his actions, including the taking of his own life, but there is no clear indication why he did so.” This is not meant as a confession of intellectual powerlessness, but a whole conclusion. As summarized by USA Today: “It remains a mystery and probably always will be.” Case closed.
President Obama, in his national address after the Newtown massacre, noticed with dismay how routine mass shootings have become in America today. The message, however, is that this can only be a case of “evil,” unfathomable. The Newtown massacre only became national news because the victims were small children, setting a new high bar for the next school shooting, which everyone knows is just a matter of time. And it’s just another thing we have to live with. Surely, it’s worth asking: why?
The public debate
Last year, on the Sunday talk shows after the Newtown massacre, the politicians all introduced their positions on gun control by saying: now is a time of shock, we shouldn’t talk about the massacre, we are in a phase of grieving. It would seem insensitive, cheap and wrong to try to explain it; explanations can’t do justice to its monstrosity. Then they would go on to talk about the gun policy they favor.
What this does is forbid any question about the killer’s motive. It says that explaining the killer’s act is the same as showing sympathy for him. It confuses explanation with justification. The prejudice behind it is that such events can’t happen for reasons that are normal to this society. It needs to be excluded from the outset that it can be traced back to reasons found here.
Its always the same after a school shooting: we hear a long list of “factors” that make the killer’s motive “highly complex.” We hear about mental illness, video games, access to guns, “our culture of violence,” bad mothers. What all these “explanations” have in common is that they do not look at what the killer thinks and how he interprets the world, but at the special conditions for his act.
With most acts of violence, it is normal to interpret, make conclusions, analyze. There is no such thing as violence committed “senselessly,” e.g. for its own sake, without purpose or content. It only needs to be asked: What is the judgment the killer had about himself and those he killed? What is the logic behind going out and killing people?
Control guns or crazy people?
The main political issue that came out of the Newtown massacre focuses on the killer’s means, not his motives. One side says: doesn’t this demonstrate the need for stricter gun laws? The other side says: guns don’t kill people. It goes back and forth. But one thing should bother both sides: nobody kills because of a missing law. The law already says that it is illegal to kill. Nobody kills because they want to want to break the law, but because they have a reasons. So it must be asked: what is it? What would make somebody kill people he doesn’t even know, something usually only done in war?
When a motive for a school shooting is talked about, it is always in terms of mental health and treatment: the killer was crazy. Any discussion about what he wanted to achieve is traced back to a psychological deformity; no rational person would ever do such a thing. Certainly, his thinking was messed up. Still, there was a thought process behind it: the Connecticut State’s Attorney says that it was “planned.” It was driven by premises and conclusions, a consciousness and a will.
If school shootings are treated from the beginning as a deviation from the norm, then that’s what the investigators look for. But normality is highly political. It is well known that anything can be a sign of deviance and certain deviations can mean nothing. Behavior doesn’t express any motive except what is observed from the outside. The criteria for what counts as “latent violence” is made by whoever is doing the observing: a teacher, a bank clerk, a policeman. By definition, “latent” means that the violence doesn’t show itself. Quiet people, loners, those drawn to certain styles of music, etc.— there’s quite a large pool to draw from. This is a well known slippery slope. Liberals and conservatives argue about what is normal or deviant — but leave the motives unexamined.
Sometimes psychologists even mention revenge as a motive: school shooters are said to be characterized by a pronounced sense of being treated unfairly, that the world has conspired against them. But then they say this can’t be an explanation because most people don’t go on killing sprees. Of course, the lengths the killer went to were extraordinary — but not the content of what he was trying to prove. And this is not extraordinary, but socially encouraged: go out and show everybody how special you are. “Be all that you can be.” That’s the message: life is all about showing how great and powerful you are. What’s wrong with that?
How schools mass produce losers
The Connecticut State Attorney’s report considers it a mystery why Adam Lanza’s chose an elementary school to carry out his terror. But it is probably not a coincidence, even if he didn’t know the students or the teachers there. It is likely that he chose it because it represented the institution he held responsible for harmful attacks on his personality. This shouldn’t be reduced to the subjective delusion of a sick mind which has nothing to do with the reality of school. What are schools about? Why do so many young people seek to enact revenge on schools, so that schools are now regularly equipped with video surveillance, metal detectors, and armed intruder drills?
Schools are about sorting young people into their future roles in class society. That’s the whole point of organizing learning as a performance comparison with tests and grades. In this competition, some must fail when others do relatively better. And students succeed by making losers of others. For some, this leads to the higher positions and incomes; it condemns a lot of others to hard work and poverty. Losers as well winners learn that their position in this competition corresponds to what they are made of; not that these differences are the intended result of competition. They learn that their social rank is an outcome of whatever lies within them; each person decides their own fate according to their willingness and ability to compete: you get what you deserve.
Students learn that the most important thing is to end up with the winners and not the losers. On top of and alongside the performance competition, students also create their own complementary fields of competition for recognition: how sexually attractive they are, how physically strong, the clothes they wear — all this proves their superiority over others. They want to see themselves as special, honorable, to take pride in themselves. They do not just want to have self-esteem in their own capabilities, but turn it into a demand that the community must respect. They fight for their pride, their honor. Schools are notorious for all forms of bullying and bragging. These forms of competition last long into adulthood — a fancy car, an impressive house, a happy family, a lot of sexual partners. This demand for the applause of others even overshadows any rational consideration of a person’s material living conditions. It is so ingrained that Americans never tire of contestant shows searching for the next “idol” and half the fun is watching losers delude themselves into believing they are “superstars.”
Our society, which is misnamed a “meritocracy,” already at an early age produces a large number of losers who have shitty “chances in life.” Some take this judgment to heart, going as far as seeing themselves as “losers” and suicide. Kids learn that a person without self-esteem is nothing and nobody stands a chance against the demands of school, family and the streets without it — which is why self-esteem has become another task of education. If this is the case, it can’t be surprising that the occasional Adam Lanza or Columbine killer is a byproduct.
Mass murderers are not different from normal citizens in that they turn their wounded self-esteem into fantasies of revenge after frustrating experiences with families, teachers, bosses, and acquaintances. It’s only in isolated cases that this turns into real mass murder. And of course, this step is not mandatory, but it is also not out of the question.
The connection between the psychology of a killer and the psychology of a normal person is that they all accept the criteria of competition as the material for their self-esteem. That’s how seriously they take their position in the competition. They see it as a reflection on what they are made of. And nobody criticizes competition, because it is like the air we breath.
Vigilante justice for self-esteem
The competition organized by schools does not explain school shootings, but their basis. The next step is to ask: what does the school shooter think when he does it? He is no longer demanding respect — he is finished with that. He has made a conclusion: his right to be respected is not accepted by the community. Therefore, the community is defined as the enemy. He executes his negative judgment by demonstrating that he is powerful despite everything. He feels entitled to revenge and capable of killing to demonstrate his superiority.
A school shooter shows a sense of honor so important to him that he sacrifices his own life for it: “Before I go this is what I need to do.” He has accepted the criteria of competition by inventing his own psychological field for it; if the society does not validate his feeling of superiority over others, he will then brutalize himself and his victims in order to enforce his right to it.
Such a statement about self-esteem required Adam Lanza to not just kill his mother, but to kill a lot of people. And not just kill them, but make it known that he was capable of killing them. He considered the public outcry beforehand and made sure that his name would be known: “Look at how many people I can kill.” He was not only interested in the body count, but in that it was as spectacular as possible (children at a grade school) and something that won’t soon be forgotten.
This was not only his personal opinion about his self-esteem, but a sentence he pronounced over others. He acted as judge: “I am the one who has the power to sentence you to death. I am powerful, superior to you.” That’s what he wanted to prove with his act. Not just “look at what I can do,” but: “I am correcting a judgment cast on me by society; you have all underestimated me. Look at what I am capable of!” Its not a personality disorder, but a thought: “They say I’m not good enough; I’ll show them; now I’ll demonstrate my power, my superiority.”
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A school shooter does not learn that violence is the ultimate argument from video games, but from the law and its highest guardians.
There is no reason to doubt that the politicians who voiced their horror at the Newtown shooting were sincere. But that the enormously brutal business of competition and sorting people into winners and losers has to continue — that’s beyond question.
Geoffrey McDonald edits Ruthless Criticism.