For the past few years, I’ve been trying to figure out why so many of our youngest men are turning homicidal.
Admittedly, I’m not especially well-prepared to answer that question, being neither a social scientist nor a mental health professional. Unfortunately, those who are qualified seem disinterested in the question of “why,” for the most part, and prefer to blame the problem on the “how,” specifically, guns.
The problem with that proposition (other than the obvious one of blaming an inanimate tool for the acts of the person using it) is that we’ve always had guns, but we haven’t always had an epidemic of homicidal teenagers. In fact, I suspect that the percentage of homes that had guns was higher when I was a child than it is now.
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, and every fall, practically all the men in the neighborhood would pack their guns and head for the hills to go hunting. I doubt there was a single house in the neighborhood that didn’t have guns — and back then, no one had gun safes or trigger locks. The guns were usually stored in a closet between hunting seasons, where anyone in the family had access to them.
We kids all knew where our parents’ guns were. Hell, most of us owned guns, too. Maybe not legally: They were registered in our parents’ names if they were registered at all. New York City required even rifles and shotguns to be registered and required that their owners be licensed, but the law was widely ignored.
I think I was about 10 years old when I got my first “real” gun: a .22 caliber rifle. Although that would horrify some people nowadays, it wasn’t unusual back then. Most of my friends and relatives my age had guns, too. We took them out and compared them in each others’ homes.
I also was an NRA Junior Member and was enrolled in their very structured marksmanship program, as were many of my friends and relatives. Consequently, we not only owned or had easy access to guns, we also knew how to use them.
But none of us ever thought to use them to kill our classmates.
Don’t get me wrong: I think that children should only use firearms under their parents’ or another responsible adult’s supervision, and that the guns should be locked up when they’re not being used. That’s just common sense. But even if they’re not locked up, I still can’t accept the proposition that easy access to guns is to blame for the wave of school shootings. No one had easier access to guns than I did, and I never so much as thought of shooting anyone, nor did any of my friends, until we entered military service.
So why are today’s young men (I don’t think there have been any female mass-shooters) turning homicidal? Why are they killing their classmates, friends, and other random people who wind up in their line of fire? They don’t have any easier access to guns than I did.
The ramblings of the shooters themselves provide a clue, as do the comments of other young people who knew the shooters. The shooters themselves almost always say that they were seeking notoriety. The shooter 18-1958 (no, I won’t use his name) of Parkland, Florida infamy summed it up in a rambling cell phone video. “When you see me on the news,” he said, “you’ll all know who I am. [giggles] You’re all going to die.”
This same desire for fame seems to run through most, if not all of the mass-shooting incidents. The shooters wanted to be noticed. But why that way?
I don’t have any answers, but I do have a few ideas. Maybe they’re off the wall, or maybe not. But either way, I’ve decided to put them out there. Maybe they’ll inspire people smarter than I am to think more deeply about this tragic and terrifying phenomenon, rather than blaming a tool for the actions of the person using it.
Most of these ideas are products of comparison of my own childhood with those of today’s youngsters because that’s really all I have. I’m not any kind of psychologist or sociologist. But I’ve lived long enough to witness a lot of changes in the ways that kids are raised; and I suspect that somewhere in those changes lie at least some of the reasons for the sad phenomenon of teenagers turning homicidal.
Idea One: Lack of Wholesome Opportunities to Excel
Almost all of the mass shooters say they wanted attention and notoriety. Why didn’t they get it in more conventional ways such as sports, academic contests (“spelling bees” and the like), scouting activities, and so forth? Why not become a track star instead of a mass-murderer?
I have to wonder if the answer is that there really isn’t any opportunity to excel any more. Non-scored sports are becoming more common in intramural scholastic athletic programs; and even in scored, interscholastic sports programs, everyone gets a trophy these days.
What value does a trophy have when everyone gets one? They used to have to be earned. Now even the kid who struck out every time he or she was at bat gets one. They’re meaningless.
Even worse are “participation awards,” which educators came up with to encourage youngsters who weren’t all-star athletes to participate anyway, and to reward them for doing so. I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time: Even if the kid sucks at the sport, we’ll give him or her an award for trying.
The problem is that the kids aren’t as stupid as their teachers. They all know that participation awards are bullshit. In fact, one youngster told me that the absolute worst thing that can happen to a kid in a sports program is to receive a participation award. “It may as well be called a loser award,” she told me. “It makes it official that you’re a loser. You can’t slip away quietly and hide anymore. You have to stand up in front of everyone and accept your loser award so the whole world knows that you suck.”
Idea Two: Weak Discipline
When I was a kid, the most common means of disciplining a child for serious misbehavior was to beat the living shit out of them. While I don’t advocate a return to that sorry practice, I do wonder if the lack of unpleasant consequences for misbehavior is a factor in both minor and major bad behavior among some of today’s youth.
For example, when I went to high school, “cutting class” would result in a failing grade for that marking period. Yes, one cut, and you flunked. They even had a special grade for it: 55. The only way to get a 55 was to cut class.
Nowadays, it seems that kids are free to cut as many classes as they want. They even walk out of school to protest whatever is not to their liking, with absolutely no consequences for doing so. To someone my age, that seems preposterous. If we’d marched our sorry asses out of school other than during a fire drill, we’d all have been unceremoniously flunked.
Idea Three: Meanness and Other Poor Examples by Adults
We live in a very polarized and dehumanized society, especially as regards political opinions. Respectful disagreement is passe. Nowadays, political disagreement is more of a blood sport, especially among celebrities. Cases in point:
- A comic suggested that an accomplished Black woman is the offspring of a union between the Muslim Brotherhood and an ape.
Another comic called the daughter of the sitting President a “feckless cunt” and suggested that she sexually seduce her father to achieve a political end.
An actor (actually, several of them) openly and publicly contemplated assassinating the President.
A comic had a picture taken of herself holding what was supposed to be the decapitated head of the sitting President.
If children are raised listening to comedians and other prominent people dehumanizing and even advocating the murder of others simply because they happen not to agree with those people’s political opinions, is it unreasonable for those youngsters to come to believe that murder is an acceptable way to deal with people they don’t like?
If nothing else, it seems to me that listening to “jokes” about things like assassination and incest can’t help but desensitize youngsters to the horror of those acts.
Idea Four: The Decline of Religion
By religion, I mean faith systems that include a deity. My reason is simple: If there is no God, then who’s to say that one person’s idea of what is moral behavior is any less valid than another’s? If human will is the sole determinant of right and wrong, then every person’s definitions have equal weight.
I was raised in a religion, and before I matured to the point that I could make reasoned decisions about moral behavior, the idea that there was a God who could toss my sorry ass into Hell if I behaved badly enough sufficed to keep me more or less on the straight and narrow. Fear of eternal damnation was an effective, if old-fashioned deterrent to rottenness.
Many people scoff at religion today. Kids (and adults) who are religious are considered stupid at best by some, and “haters” at worst. The idea of God is ridiculed as “the man in the sky” or compared to the “flying spaghetti monster” of the satirical Pastafarian Church, which is to say that it’s considered to be nonsense.
But what’s taking the place of religion? The value system that says it’s okay to decapitate a President in effigy, or to compare a Black woman to an ape? I doubt that would have worked to help me keep my childhood behavior under control.
Idea Five: Too Much Supervision
When I was a kid, no one knew where I was or what I was doing most of the time. There were no cell phones or GPS trackers. We had boundaries, but no one watched us all that closely to make sure we were staying within them. Most of our time was spent unsupervised and structured only to the extent that we, the kids ourselves, wanted it structured. As long as we got back home before the streetlights were lit, we were pretty much on our own.
When we strayed from our boundaries, we had to find our own ways back. We couldn’t text Mom or Dad to come pick us up. And when our bad behavior — “bad” back then being more along the lines of drinking beer in an alley than shooting up a school — attracted attention and brought bad consequences, we accepted those consequences. We didn’t want Mom or Dad advocating for us. Hell, that was the last thing we wanted. Mom or Dad would probably beat the shit out of us if they knew we were smoking and drinking in an alley.
That’s why cops back then rarely called kids’ parents when we were caught in minor misbehavior. They knew the deal. They didn’t want us getting the shit beat out of us. Sometimes they’d lock us in a cell for an hour or so to sweat it out; but more commonly they’d put us in the back of a squad car, drive us around for a while, and drop us off in some area we weren’t familiar with and from which we’d have to find our own way home. That made us happy. Anything was better than what Mom or Dad would have done to us.
At some point, most of us figured out that life was easier if we stayed more-or-less within the rules. We also figured out that if we didn’t, there were consequences. But the point is that we figured it out because we had the opportunity to. All that unsupervised time spent navigating life gave us the opportunity to make minor mistakes and to work our own ways out of them; and when we misbehaved noticeably enough, we were reminded that the long arm of the law was there to rein us in. We were able to figure those things out because we were largely unsupervised.
I suppose every generation believes that things were better “in the old days.” But in this specific instance, they actually were. Of all the things we worried about — and there were many — being assassinated by one of our classmates wasn’t one of them. We need to figure out why kids today have to face that fear. We need to stop obsessing on the how and start looking for the why. The very survival of a generation depends on it.