• Thinking with School Shooters

    I recently came across an odd interview that Adam Lanza gave to an anarchist radio show in 2011, about one year before he shot and killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary. In it, Lanza discusses the life of a TV commercial chimp who, after years of a human-like existence in a suburban home, mauled his owner’s friend. Lanza seems to prefigure and explain away his own violence allegorically, through the story of the primate. He presents Travis the chimp’s attack as understandable and reasonable in light of the ills of civilization:

    Look what civilization did to [Travis]: it had the same exact effect on him as it has on humans … His attack wasn’t simply because he was a senselessly violent, impulsive chimp. Um, which was how his behavior was universally portrayed … His attack can be seen entirely parallel to the attacks and random acts of violence that you bring up on your show every week — committed by humans, which the mainstream also has no explanation for — and actual humans — I just don’t think it would be such a stretch to say that he very well could have been a teenage mall shooter or something like that.

    The monologue is a defense of the autonomy of Travis the chimp (who was not “senselessly violent” or “impulsive”), of the teenage mall shooters for whom Travis is a proxy, and, in light of what he later did, of Lanza himself.

    The strange and striking interview made me wonder about the thoughts of other shooters. As I looked into their writing, I found that many issued similar correctives to common treatments of their action in the media. Insisting on his own autonomy, Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, wrote in his diary: “It’s MY fault! Not my parents, not my brothers, not my friends, not my favorite bands, not computer games, not the media.” Alex Hribal, who went on a stabbing spree at Franklin Regional High School, similarly expressed hope that “people [wouldn’t] scapegoat … video games, mental illness, religion or access to weapons” for his violence.

    Before reading Lanza’s interview and the writing of other school shooters, I had thought of their crimes as so bizarre as to be necessarily “unknowable.” This is the common wisdom — expressed in the exclamation of “How could anyone do this?” which follows (with less and less of an excuse) on the heels of each new tragedy. Andrew Solomon’s New Yorker profile of Adam Lanza (which admittedly came out before the aforementioned interview surfaced) suggests that we could never know why Lanza killed. When we do not outright deny the intelligibility of these acts, we tend to offer psychological and sociological explanations of them, pointing to mental illness, isolation, and gun access. In many cases, these are perfectly sound, parallel explanations. But in light of the way the shooters portray themselves, they seem incomplete.

    The more I read, it became clear that a distinctive trait of the writing of these young men was that they wished to be taken as political and philosophical. And to some extent they were such things —  they just weren’t very smart. Hribal tries to invoke Hobbes, Lenin, and Caesar in defense of his future stabbing. Dylan Klebold, Harris’s accomplice at Columbine, adopted the posture of the remote spectator on human affairs, saying, “Yet, the actions of human beings interest me, like a kid with a new toy.” Klebold seems to desire being seen as possessing a strong, hardened intelligence that places him above his peers — to me it reads like a feeble attempt at Nietzsche’s aristocratic tone. Similarly, Eric Harris understands Columbine as the logical consequence of his schoolboyish nihilism, writing, “There’s no such thing as true good or true evil, it’s all relative to the observer. It’s just all nature, chemistry, and math,” then goes on to explain how this justifies indiscriminate murder.

    Crude political thought is consistent throughout these writings — Eric Harris conceived of his violence as “kick-start[ing] the revolution” and Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, thought that his act would “reverberate throughout every home and every soul in America,” and in this way “inspire the Innocent kids that you [i.e. his enemies] have fucked to start a war of vendetta.” The indiscriminate character of the attacks is supposed to assure its transmission by the media, the influence of their writings, and therefore the shooter’s revolutionary potential.

    In light of these aspirations, the problem with psychological and sociological accounts is not only that they are insufficiently specific as explanations — for the question always remains with the psychological or sociological account, why didn’t the mass of other people faced with these conditions (isolation, anger, bipolar disorder) do anything? — but also that they foreclose the possibility of a richer response: when one understands school shootings as partially the product of ideas, the possibility of responding to them with ideas opens up. Though we have tended to call for reduction in guns and increases in therapists as a way of combating this ideological violence, one may also respond to ideas with countering ideas. In my experience teaching teenagers with similar (though less extreme) views and dispositions — teenagers with philosophical aspirations — it has proven very productive to take them up on their sense of self, to ask them, “Alright, young genius, let’s have it out. What do you think and why?” Their thoughts, like that of these school shooters, seldom hold up to scrutiny.  

    Moreover, those who take themselves to be exceptionally reasonable, as most school shooters do, ought to be particularly responsive to refutation. Confronted with refutation, it becomes difficult for this kind of entitled, ambitious, ridiculous, and ignorant young man to continue to understand himself as this hyper-rational Übermensch. Considering that shooters so frequently understand their murders as a way of declaring their seriousness and exceptional intellect — or, as Eric Harris put it, “genius,” as Elliot Rodger put it, “To show the world [his] true worth,” and as Hribal put it, “his art,” etc. — then treating would-be shooters as thinkers could actually address two problems at once. To do so would mean both meeting a need to be treated as thoughtful that, having gone unfilled in their eyes, led to their decision to announce their brilliance violently, and, one hopes, rebuking some of the horrible ideas undergirding their killings.

    I really wish someone had indicated how misdirected their ideas were, and how poor a job each did at uncovering the root of the (sometimes real) problems they faced. For instance, the problem of conspicuous consumption comes up again and again in shooter diaries; Eric Harris and Seung Hui Cho seem to understand it as a manifestation of some kind of natural flaw in human beings. And because it is irrevocable for them, violence seems to become justified. In their eyes, there is literally nothing else to do with a species that has greed wired into it. But this practice could also be explained as a way of getting ahead in a competitive society, as a non-necessary, alterable feature of their worlds. And then the question is: why is society competitive? How did it become this way? Must it be this way? What are the advantages and disadvantages of making competition, rather than cooperation, our primary ethic? These questions make terrorism seem like an increasingly insufficient response to the problem it was supposed to resolve.

    Then there is the violence-as-logical-consequence-of-nihilism move that Eric Harris, Alex Hribal, James Holmes, the Century 16 shooter, have all made. Like Harris, they said in effect, “There’s no such thing as true good or true evil, it’s all relative to the observer. It’s just all nature, chemistry, and math,” and then justified indiscriminate murder by that logic. There’s a kind of dim reasoning here — indeed, science produces a different kind of knowledge from ethics, and indeed, there are numerous ethical systems in the world, rendering any single system’s claim to supremacy dubious. But from these points it doesn’t follow that there can be no principles. It is easy enough to point out that shooters possess and advocate ethical principles themselves, principles they try to defend and then unfortunately act on. If they did not possess them, how could and why would they act? In other words, their nihilism is inconsistent. Maybe the destruction of the chain of philosophical reasoning that culminated in their decision to kill could prevent killing in the first place.

    Or take Elliot Rodger, an extremely shy and aggressive anti-feminist boy who killed six people as revenge for women not wanting to sleep with him. There are the sorts of things that therapists might point out to such a person — say, how Rodger’s shyness and misogyny likely had to do with no one wanting to talk to him. Then there are the sorts of things that therapists often don’t say, because they are not trained, nor encouraged to undertake political debate and are, generally speaking, supposed to help people attain visions of themselves, rather than challenge those visions. One could imagine Rodger discussing Ami Srinavasan’s London Review of Books article about him, which identifies and then challenges Rodger’s perception of a right to have sex. Where does this sense of a right come from? And what happens when you no longer feel it?

    I’ve also found that it is no small consolation for heterosexual teenagers to learn that fewer and fewer of them are having sex, and that this new facet of daily life seems to correlate strongly with an increase in cell phone usage and probably the sort of long trend toward atomization detailed in books like Bowling Alone. Again, the reaction one has to these complicated political discussions of personal problem are quite different from the responses a boy has when he thinks that girls are out to get him. The blame shifts from them onto a new technology and historical changes. Better yet, you get a boy to abandon the notion of blame, and to look instead at the way in which this rootless sexual entitlement makes little sense, and hurts himself and the people around him.

    This is all just to say: the foolishness of the thoughts driving these tragedies points not only to terrible social conditions, not only to illness, but also to educational failures, in terms of the critiques that might have been offered and discussions that could have been had. A Socratic discussion about schoolboy nihilism or the shoddiness of their economic diagnoses, about the roots of atomization in America or the harmfulness and arbitrariness of masculinity might weaken certain ideas, and in turn weaken the resolve to kill. We ought to get better therapists on the ground and more guns away, but we ought also to ask ourselves questions like: “What steps in our own moral and aesthetic education took place, such that we no longer find Christopher Nolan’s joker (the spiritual role model of school shooters, whether they consciously admired him or not) so terribly brilliant? How can we help others through those thought transformations?”

    But compared to the incomplete suggestions offered so far, the immediate, practical response to these attacks has been even worse. The reaction has mainly been to heighten security within schools by bringing in more police officers and introducing more rigorous checks of student belongings. A Pennsylvania school now keeps buckets of stones in classrooms, which students are supposed to throw at potential gunmen. After Nikolas Cruz’s attack, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High-School made its students wear clear backpacks, so that everyone could see concealed weapons. These kinds of responses breed distrust between people, heighten fear, and tend in the direction of atomization. In other words, they further the isolation and distrust that sociologists seem to agree feeds into these attacks. They beget the conditions they are meant to address.

    The response to the new rule from Marjory students points the way to a better solution. They’ve taken to posting slogans, stickers, and signs in the clear backpacks. One student posted the Benjamin Franklin quote in their bag: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Another, “this backpack is worth more than my life.” One made the backpack into a fish-tank, and there are several rather grim SpongeBob memes concerning gun control on their clear backpack Instagram account. They transformed a device for surveillance into a space for discussion.


    Images from msdcamo2 Instagram account