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Profiling School Shooters?

Katherine S. Newman, a sociologist, has studied the preconditions for school rampages and argues that you can profile future massacrists: First, rampage school shootings are never spontaneous. Before they loaded a single weapon, Michael Carneal, Andrew Golden, and Mitchell Johnson … Read More

By / May 1, 2007

Katherine S. Newman, a sociologist, has studied the preconditions for school rampages and argues that you can profile future massacrists:

First, rampage school shootings are never spontaneous. Before they loaded a single weapon, Michael Carneal, Andrew Golden, and Mitchell Johnson had let fly with dozens of hints, ranging from vague comments like, "You'll see who lives or dies on Monday," to more-specific warnings to friends to "stay away from the school lobby." Those warnings started months before the shootings themselves. No adults ever heard them. But the boys' peers — particularly groups they hoped to impress — got an earful. Most had no idea what to make of the comments. After all, Michael, for example, was known as a socially inept prankster who often said bizarre things. Most school shooters have a history of trying to ingratiate themselves into a pecking order that doesn't want them. Hence, as frightening as the threats appear in retrospect, at the time they were dismissed as "one more crazy thing that Michael said."

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School shooters are problem solvers. They are trying to turn the reputations they live with as losers into something more glamorous, more notorious. Seung-Hui Cho, a student of creative writing, probably didn't get a lot of "street cred" for his artistic side. Young men reap more social benefits from being successful on the football field. When their daily social experience — created by their own ineptness, and often by the rejection of their peers — is one of disappointment and friction, they want to reverse their social identities. How do they go about it? Sadly, becoming violent, going out in a blaze of glory, and ending it all by taking other people with them is one script that plays out in popular culture and provides a road map for notoriety.

I've been out of school for half a decade now, but such a heuristic seems either too reductionist or too self-evident to be of any preemptive value. Anyone who issues even vague death threats in casual conversation or the setting of a classroom should not have to have his dire verses or short stories workshopped by psychotherapists to be labeled an accident waiting to happen. Call the cops. Similarly, for every wannabe goth who buys an Uzi, there's a non-violent hedge fund analyst in the larval stage. Alienation does not a machine gun-wielding murderer make, else the world would be suffering from a conspicuous population shortage.

The tragedy of the Cho affair was that he was called out on his threatening behavior by a conscientious poetry professor. It wasn't a matter of vigilance on her part so much as common sense — common sense, that is, inconveniently ignored by a college administration that might have made use of it before it was too hate.

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