The Ordinariness of the Newtown Massacre
December 20, 2012 7 Comments
The words “unimaginable,” “unspeakable,” and “unbelievable” have been used countless times to describe the killing of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. Indeed, my good friend Brad East has said, “This is not intelligible. This is not comprehensible. It is absurd. It is evil. It is not a genus of a species (whether this be “evil things” or “mass murder shootings”); it is not an instance of a larger nameable phenomenon. It is entirely dumbfounding.” And, while I understand the sentiment behind such statements (which are almost always ironically followed by thousands of words of commentary which make it clear that they believe it is none of those things), I believe they are mistaken and actually hinder our ability to respond appropriately to Newtown. In reality, someone did imagine Newtown, we all now believe it can happen, and we have been speaking about it for nearly a week. And if we continue to act as if this is not the case and that it is truly unintelligible and incomprehensible we will be saying the same words in a few months when the next Newtown occurs. Instead, we should admit that, sadly, Newtown was to be expected in contemporary America.
Perhaps one of the saddest facts about the massacre, other than the dozens of deaths, is that what so surprised most of us was that it was children who were the primary victims in a mass school shooting and not that there was another mass school shooting in the US in 2012. Part of the reason for that is that in so many ways Newtown was so ordinary. And it is the ordinariness of Newtown that so troubles me.
I’ve written before about the peculiarity of American male violence. Ours is a culture which shapes boys into young men who see violence as an organizing principle of life in the world. We are formed by our society to be violent. Prof. James Garbarino’s research has consistently made this clear. In a recent CNN op-ed, “How a Boy Becomes a Killer,” he says,
We start by recognizing that many young Americans (and other young people around the world) develop and carry with them a kind of moral damage, which I have come to call “the war zone mentality.”
However it develops, they grow up with a damaged sense of reality. They view the world as if they are soldiers confronting a hostile environment that they perceive to be full of enemies. Once they get fixated on this damaged world view, they may hatch the delusion that even teachers and young children are their enemies. For Adam Lanza, apparently even his mother was an enemy who had to be destroyed.
There is no one cause. It is as if they are building a tower of blocks, one by one, that can get so high it falls over, with innocent people dying. These building blocks can be found in a dangerous neighborhood or a school rife with bullying…through the internet and mass media…web sites and videos that promote paranoid views of the world…in pervasive and intense playing of video games…
But moral damage and a misperception of reality usually are not enough to lead to murder. The typical killer is emotionally damaged and has developed mental health problems, perhaps exacerbated by being bullied and rejected by peers, or abused and neglected at home…
The crucial point is that even “crazy” people operate in a particular culture, a particular society, a particular time and place, and within a certain world view of how to manage your rage, your hurt, and your sadness. While not uniquely American (it has happened in recent years in Europe and the Middle East), the mass murder that took place in Newtown, Connecticut, is especially American.
Our socially toxic culture promotes paranoia, desensitization to violence, almost unlimited access to lethal weapons, opportunities to practice mass murder via realistic “point and shoot” video games and games that justify violence as a legitimate form of vengeance in pursuit of an individual’s or group’s idea of justice.
And, in a related op-ed Prof. Michael Kimmel says,
Why are angry young men setting out to kill entire crowds of strangers?
Motivations are hard to pin down, but gender is the single most obvious and intractable variable when it comes to violence in America. Men and boys are responsible for 95% of all violent crimes in this country. “Male criminal participation in serious crimes at any age greatly exceeds that of females, regardless of source of data, crime type, level of involvement, or measure of participation” is how the National Academy of Sciences summed up the extant research.
How does masculinity figure into this? From an early age, boys learn that violence is not only an acceptable form of conflict resolution, but one that is admired. However the belief that violence is an inherently male characteristic is a fallacy. Most boys don’t carry weapons, and almost all don’t kill: are they not boys? Boys learn it.
They learn it from their fathers. They learn it from a media that glorifies it, from sports heroes who commit felonies and get big contracts, from a culture saturated in images of heroic and redemptive violence. They learn it from each other.
In talking to more than 400 young men for my book, “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” I heard over and over again what they learn about violence. They learn that if they are crossed, they have the manly obligation to fight back. They learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.
In other words, our culture intentionally creates people – overwhelmingly men – who commit violence, and in the extreme mass murder. From the violence we inflict on children to the violence we teach them to inflict on others and the violent definitions of masculinity we insist they conform to we create young boys and men who believe it is natural and right for them to commit acts of violence. This is why Ta-Nehisi Coates had so many stories of men committing violence against women to draw from in his recent commentary.
And, while Garbarino and Coates are correct that better mental health care and stricter gun laws would help curb potential violent perpetrators from committing specific crimes, these legal and political restraints will not help us form nonviolent citizens instead of the violent ones we now create. For that to occur, as Prof. Garbarino also points out, we need a radical change in culture – from entertainment to parenting to politics to religion. We must become a different people if we are to avoid future Newtowns. Because – and it hurts to write this – we are a violent people for whom domestic violence, inner-city youth violence, constant warfare, and even mass shootings are our way of life.
In basketball they say “ball don’t lie.” In other words, at the end of the day the ball goes in the hoop or it doesn’t, and the winners are the ones who put the ball through the hoop more than the other team. We could say when reflecting on our common life together, then, that “bullets don’t lie.” And the bullets keep flying. And they keep killing. Because this is who we are.
Bullets don’t lie.