From Columbine to Chelsea, We’re No Closer to Solving Mass Violence

Bombs in pressure cookers; there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Three years ago this week, I was getting ready to release The Columbine Effect: How Five Teen Pastimes Got Caught in the Crossfire and Why Teens are Taking Them Back. I hoped the book would reshape national conversation around two things: 1. Acts of mass violence, particularly those perpetrated by teens, and 2. The kinds of things we tend to blame for those acts, particularly violent video games, heavy metal and the occult.

Basically, I wanted to show that these interests were beneficial (or at least harmless) and that we needed to look elsewhere if we were going to prevent future attacks in schools and elsewhere. That has happened, although almost certainly not because of the book, and we’re not in a much better place than we were when I started researching in 2007. As I write this, we are reeling from what looks like a domestic terror bombing in New York City and yet more murders of unarmed black males by police.

We still have a long way to go.

I’ll admit, my plan to somehow prevent mass violence by defusing silly moral panics was a little unusual. When I was ready to sell The Columbine Effect, I queried more than four dozen agents who represented books on culture, society and even parenting. Many of them said the same encouraging yet disappointing thing to me: “This is a wonderful idea and a necessary book — but I don’t want to represent it because I don’t know how to sell it.”

It was 2012, and we were in a lull between truly shocking mass shootings. Which is to say, they were happening with remarkable frequency — as Mother Jones has been tracking — but had almost become commonplace. Then, in mid-December, not long after the last of the agents and editors had kindly turned me down, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in Newtown, Connecticut, and, like many, I fell into despair.

Despair that so many young lives, not much older than my then-3-year-old-daughter, had been taken for no reason. Despair that news articles blamed shooter Adam Lanza’s actions on his hours spent playing Call of Duty like any other teenage boy — or on his autism diagnosis. Despair that pundits showed no interest in the actual reasons someone might commit such violence — or in the easy availability of firearms. Despair that even after Sandy Hook, nobody wanted to publish a book that said we were looking in the wrong places for answers and harming teens in the process — and that even if it were published, I was no longer sure it would help.

On the other hand, I began to see other writers fighting back against the idea that something as pervasive as video games could be at the root of Lanza’s violence. I began to see others push past the stigma of discussing rare but violent mental illnesses that might lead kids to commit mass violence. And I began to see more people and elected officials speak out against the U.S. gun lobby and the NRA over ready access to firearms, even though that discussion has not, unfortunately, led to better gun laws.

It felt as though some of the things I’d wanted to say in The Columbine Effect were getting out there. It mattered more to me that those conversations were happening than that I’d been the one to start them.

Almost four years after Sandy Hook, though, we are no closer to figuring out how to prevent mass violence, in schools or elsewhere. We have had dozens of mass shootings, along with incidents that are classified instead as domestic terrorism, including the shootings in San Bernardino in 2015 and at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando this year, and the bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013 and in New York’s Chelsea district last week.

We have also had reams of discussion in print and online about the people (mostly men) who perpetrated these attacks, attempting to classify them in neat-ish categories like “rejected loner,” “lone wolf” or “terrorist” (or, uh, “lone wolf terrorist”). Many times, these categories are based on such things as the race, ethnicity, age and assumed religion and/or citizenship of the attacker. A young, skinny white kid goes in one bucket, while a brown-skinned man with a beard and a Middle Eastern name goes in another. As far as I can tell, none of those discussions has gotten us any closer, as a society, to understanding why mass violence happens or how to prevent it. I’m not at all convinced that this kind of categorization and even profiling is useful. I wonder if our energy would be better spent looking at what all these attackers have in common.

Little, perhaps none, of the discussion has looked at the many, many police officers who have shot and killed black and brown people for seemingly no reason. Black and brown people who were often unarmed and doing their best to cooperate, or who were legally armed but not causing trouble. I know that one cop shooting one civilian doesn’t qualify as mass violence, but when you add up the number of minorities in this country killed by police (258 black men in 2015, according to the Denver Post — compared to 46 people killed in mass shootings that year), you could argue that police have perpetrated a mass killing of minorities. Especially when you consider that training practices are shared across police departments, and all are state entities tasked with enforcing the same or similar laws.

And it keeps happening. People keep killing each other. The discussion is no longer about Satanism or violent video games — it never really was, since those discussions were really just distractions anyway. These days, the discussion is about things like the United States’ intractable situation with respect to the Second Amendment. It’s about racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and, in a few circles, about the fact that men (and again, it’s mostly men) are taught to solve their problems with violence.

But we are talking in circles — and these issues feel un-solvable. Bystanders who are grieving with their communities or watching the daily violence unfold on the news feel more and more hopeless. Some of our most vulnerable and traumatized communities, including ethnic minorities, religious minorities and queer folks, are further traumatized by violent acts and then by the news cycle that follows. Not only are we no closer to solving the puzzle of mass violence; it feels like something — those in power, perhaps — are actively preventing the puzzle from being solved.

I’m glad I eventually got The Columbine Effect out, even though it was self-published and it didn’t receive the attention I’d hoped. I’m glad other writers with bigger platforms carried similar messages, and I’m very glad the national conversation eventually shifted. I once hoped that the constant chase toward a potential explanation would eventually land upon one; I find it difficult to imagine that outcome anymore. There is, after all, some evidence that humans (mostly men) are hardwired to kill.

Maybe we don’t need an explanation. Maybe we never needed one. Maybe all we need is better ways to keep humans from killing each other for no reason. But how we get there is anyone’s guess.