Mass Shootings are Nothing New — We Just Now Care About the Victims
I woke to the news of two more mass shootings. I know before I go online that there will countless people asking, “why?” and of course plenty of heated debates about guns, mental illness, and bullying.
We have this collective idea that school shooters are a new phenomenon. The more I study history, the more I realize that this is nothing new. Our country has a long and bloody history of white men slaughtering innocent people. It’s just that now we suddenly care about these victims. Suddenly, none of us are safe.
The more I learn the more I realize what indigenous people, people of color, queer people, and other marginalized groups have known all along — the random killing of innocents with little or no provocation isn’t the historical exception, it’s the norm. Maybe the leap to spraying a classroom or public space with bullets is a direct result of our sanctioning of violence against others since our country began.
Something my father said years ago about my grandfather has been on repeat in my brain lately — that Grandpa was a “war chaser” who lied about his age and ran away from home at 15 to fight in the Spanish-American War. Somehow, I don’t think he did it to Remember the Maine. I suspect he wanted to go prove his manhood by killing someone. Maybe if he killed enough people, he’d get a medal.
Men rode our west to kill Native Americans and their townspeople cheered. Men lynched, beat, and raped people of color throughout the country, and we turned a blind eye. Anyone different — immigrants, Jews, Muslims, people of color, the disabled, the queer community — were easy targets to let off a little steam. We let it happen over and over again.
By the close of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, fewer than 238,000 indigenous people remained, a sharp decline from the estimated 5 million to 15 million living in North America when Columbus arrived in 1492. History.com
“In Mississippi alone, 500 Blacks were lynched from the 1800s to 1955. Nationwide, the figure climbed to nearly 5,000.” PBS.org
“The gay and trans “panic” defense is a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.” LGBTbar.org
I was at my son’s DARE graduation last month and got into a conversation with our town’s mayor. He felt that our suburb was “safer” because we had in-house counselling in the high school, provided by the Cleveland Clinic. It’s a nice thought — that we can eliminate school shootings by providing good mental health care for the bullied and vulnerable — but I think it’s a narrative we use to reassure ourselves.
What the mayor was reacting to was this idea that school shooters were bullied. We like this idea, because that means that we have a universally appealing agenda — eradicate bullying (which everyone is in favor of) and we eliminate the possibility of school shooters. We don’t have to argue about gun control, religion, race, or anything else disagreeable. We can just fix bullying and everyone lives. Win-win.
Except I don’t believe it’s true.
I’m all for counseling and positive mental health, but my suspicion is that the kids that at are greatest risk for becoming murderers aren’t the kids queuing up in front of the counseling center. Yes, you can look at the histories of murderers and find that most were victims of child abuse or bullying. But there are a hell of a lot of people who were abused or bullied that didn’t go on to kill anyone.
I am a memoirist by trade, and I can tell you the number of people who had horrific childhoods and went on to make art with their lives far outnumber the people who were bullied/abused who then went on to wholesale slaughter innocent people.
There’s more. Blaming bullying is at its heart, victim blaming. We whisper to ourselves, “at least one of you bullied this student and turned him into a shooter.” It decreases the horror of the shooting and makes it feel a tiny bit justified. When we blame bullying, we are essentially telling the community, “You brought this on yourselves,” and we feel a little safer. Smug even. That wouldn’t happen at our school, our neighborhood. Except we’re wrong.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m in favor of anything that reduces bullying. The problem is that we discount anything that counteracts this narrative. We stop looking for real causes. This random killing has always been with us, and the longer we ignore that, the less likely we are to form answers that are actually effective. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that the conversation has to change. We need to look at mass shooters as endemic to our society, not flukes. Only then will we have any hope of making our world safer.