The Mass Killing Meme: What Can We Do?

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My sense is that the cases of young terrorists and young school shooters have strong similarities in terms of underlying anger, hurt, and other feelings, coupled with an inability to communicate those feelings and be heard.

The latest school shooting in the US has once more, if not surprised, shocked so many people around the world. I guess it has not shocked people living in warzones or fleeing for their lives so much, or in quite the same way. But for those of us who live in a relatively comfortable ‘civilised’ world, the sudden emergence of senseless mass killing causes us to jolt for a minute in our sleep.

The debates start. Whose fault is this?

A sober look at the statistics of gun ownership and gun-related deaths, across the world, by the New York Times argues that the reason the number of gun-related deaths is so high, and that they are so relatively frequent in the US, is simply because gun ownership is so common. The US is committed to the right of every citizen to bear arms, and this appears unassailable despite great pressure for change within the country itself because those in whose interests it is to keep the gun culture going are funding politics.

Common sense is borne out by statistics from comparable countries such as Australia, who after overhauling gun laws saw a decrease in homicides. If guns are commonplace in a society, they are going to be used. When guns are used, there are less likely to be second chances for anybody. There doesn’t need to be a greater rate of violence in general, or of mental illness: for fatalities to rise, it’s enough that guns are used. It’s not rocket science.

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The ‘why’ question moves to the individual level — the people who are performing the attacks. All the structural elements are in place for them to do so, the means are available and a cultural template is there. There’s a script to follow. But why does anyone choose to do this?

If the mass school shootings, which are a distinctly American phenomenon, were being carried out by Muslims, the fault would probably appear crystal clear to the media and government. Resources would be spent, laws would be changed, and a whole group of people would be routinely discriminated against by association. That’s what happens when ‘they’ attack ‘us’. The knee-jerk answer would be, because of religion or race, because they are different and dangerous.

I don’t see young white men being stigmatised and feared. When ‘we’ attack ‘us’ — well, that must be ‘mental illness’, an individual anomaly. We get the absurd situation of a President whose possible mental health diagnosis has been debated by pretty much every sentient being worldwide saying that this kid was obviously crazy, and it was everyone else’s fault for not reporting him.

My sense, however, is that the cases of young terrorists and young school shooters have strong similarities. For a start, they are usually young men. The fact that men are generally considered the default group makes it worth pointing out just how specific this phenomenon is. They are young men who have violent feelings which explode in a specific, planned way.

In my work as a therapist I have encountered a lot of men who struggle with uncontrollable anger. None of them, thankfully, were considering mass murder. But the root of the anger was so common it is worth taking into consideration. It was invariably a question of feelings of deep hurt, shame, humiliation, a sense of injustice, and powerlessness, and an inability to communicate them and be heard.

When a narrative is offered explaining this — it could be ‘you’re an isolated soul in the world and nothing means anything, but some idiots think they’re happy anyway…you could show them’ or it could be ‘the group you belong to is being maligned and attacked on all sides and no-one wants to see it…you could show them’ — the possibility arises to pour all that energy into a counter-attack. There is plenty of truth in the narratives: the sense of isolation and meaninglessness built into a consumer culture is very real, and there is no shortage of reasons to be extremely angry about atrocities committed around the world; systematic oppression is rife and brutal. But these are not reasons ‘why’, because many people are aware of them and take the opposite tack of trying to make positive change.

The why lies in specific, probably ultimately unpredictable intersections of all these conditions in the heads and life experiences of certain individuals, spawning abhorrent forms of behaviour — mass executions of kids at school, or at concerts — which take on a life of their own. For those who are susceptible, it’s a heroic script, with fame/heaven a certainty at the end. It’s a form of social contagion, a nightmarish meme.

The problem needs to be worked on from all angles, including listening to boys, from a very young age, and paying real, hard attention to those who find it difficult to express themselves and connect. But first of all, for the love of God or whatever we might believe in, take the guns away.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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