Thinking about shootings in terms of riots helps explain their contagious spread, but it also risks dismissing the phenomenon too easily as just an instance of copycat killing. If, as the evidence suggests, most shooters aren’t profoundly deviant but fairly normal Americans gone bad, then we have to ask why they turned. It’s not enough to say they were simply mimicking the true psychopaths. Indeed, why mimic them in the first place? What is it about life in 21st century America that has made nihilism such a compelling program? We overlook the root of the problem at our own peril. After all, as Gladwell is at pains to show, the shooters aren’t “them”; they’re us.
Perhaps the best way to think about this is to invert the question: What would turn a potential copycat shooter away from killing? Gun restrictions would obviously go a long way in stemming the bloodshed. But it’s also worth looking at the structures of our society. Psychologists have argued that shooters across the spectrum are driven by a desire for recognition and respect. Eric Harris wanted, in typical psychopath fashion, to prove his superiority: “Ich bin Gott,” he wrote in his school planner. (German for, “I am God.”) But others seek acknowledgement too: Alvaro Castillo, who revered Harris, explained in his video, “All I wanted was respect… No one respected me.” Elliott Rodger wanted to punish women for not giving him the attention he thought he deserved. John LaDue, who was prevented from carrying out his attack when police discovered his cache of weapons last year, admitted that he had never been bullied. But he liked the idea of making people look at him and say, “I never knew he would do something like that.”
This recurring desire for recognition has led psychologists to conclude that communities need to do a better job of “help[ing] disillusioned youths find a place for themselves in society, something many of them feel they lack.” They suggest guiding would-be shooters to find jobs or activities at which they excel and encouraging them to discover ways to use their talents that will earn them positive attention. Building stronger relationships with others in their community is part of this: “When a youth establishes ties to people he cares about, he is apt to feel that he has too much at stake to act out his brutal dreams.”
These proposed remedies indicate, if inadvertently, that something is awry in our culture: Young people feel increasingly isolated, lacking a sense of purpose and belonging. Religious and civic organizations that, in a previous age, formed the backbone of American community have fallen to the wayside, and we haven’t developed something to replace them. In Bowling Alone, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam famously noted the tremendous decline in membership in community groups and associations: The number of people who bowl has increased, but the number of people who bowl in leagues has dropped precipitously. The metaphor is apt—Americans are alone, a dangerous state of affairs for young men above all.
All duly noted, although this boilerplate gets at stuff Mark Driscoll (yes, that Mark Driscoll) was working into sermons fifteen years ago. The observation that if young men with an excess of hormones, physical energy, and a lack of social identity and potential legacy don't get a positive outlet for their anxieties they often turn to physical violence in its more antisocial forms was something Mark Driscoll used to talk about a lot.
As I've said before at this blog one of the paradoxes afoot is if progressives paid attention to what problems guys like Mark Driscoll and his fans SAY they're trying to solve they might find some overlap. The conundrum is that historically the solutions for corralling the potential energy of potentially antisocial male tendencies toward violence and acquisition tend toward ... eh ... cult formation? Yes, sometimes.