Helplessness & The Santa Fe Shooting
I’ve not blogged about the shooting today, because I’ve tried to avoid the rush to have a hot take that always happens when these horrible things occur. Here at day’s end, it seems that the shooter, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, was almost ordinary. From the NYT:
The governor said that the suspect had offered few clues that he would carry out a massacre of such scale, although Mr. Abbott did say that the suspect’s Facebook page had included a photograph of a shirt that read “Born to Kill.”
“Unlike Parkland, unlike Sutherland Springs, there were not those types of warning signs,” Mr. Abbott said. “We have what are often categorized as red-flag warnings, and here, the red-flag warnings were either nonexistent or very imperceptible.”
The T-shirt, Mr. Abbott said, appeared to be “maybe the only, if not the foremost, warning sign.” He added that Mr. Pagourtzis had no history of arrests or confrontation with law enforcement.
“His slate is pretty clean,” Mr. Abbott said.
Both weapons appeared to have been taken from the suspect’s father, who is believed to have obtained the weapons legally, Mr. Abbott said.
We’ll learn more, obviously, but the facts above are deeply troubling, precisely because unless they are contradicted by new information, they tell us that this particular mass murder could not have been stopped.
I think one reason conspiracy theory is so popular is because it gives us the illusion of control. Which is scarier: the idea that a cabal of powerful people could have colluded to have the President of the United States murdered in Dallas, or that a lone gunman, possessing nothing but a rifle and his own will, can strike down the most powerful man on earth in a split-second?
In the former case, if only someone had ratted out the conspirators in advance, or stumbled upon the plot, it could have been averted. In the latter case, there’s almost nothing that anybody could have done to have stopped the assassination. If JFK can be taken out by a puny weirdo with a rifle, what does that say about how safe you or I am, ever?
I am not a Second Amendment absolutist. I own guns, and grew up in a gun culture. I don’t fear and loathe guns, nor do I hallow them. I believe some gun control is legitimate, and even important. The only reason I get my back up on behalf of gun owners at times like this is because I believe that if somehow we passed very strong gun control laws in this country, it would not make a meaningful difference in stopping these mass shootings.
In the Sandy Hook shooting, Adam Lanza, the murderer, had access to his mother’s guns, which had been legally obtained. He was a weirdo who had mental health issues, but nobody saw this coming, least of all his mother, whom he murdered in her bed before going to kill all those children.
The state investigation found that if Lanza had been treated for his mental health problems, one contributing factor to his crime might have been mitigated. His mother should have kept the guns locked in her gun safe, and not given him the code. Maybe that would have done it. Or not.
In the more recent Parkland shootings, there were tons of advance warnings, which authorities — including the FBI — did not heed.
In the Santa Fe case, the shooter did not come with an arsenal of automatic weapons, or an arsenal at all. He had a shotgun and a .38 revolver he took from his father. I’d bet most people in my neighborhood have a shotgun and a pistol in their house. That’s so normal here in the South. My own father, like most everybody’s father in my part of the world, had many more guns. People hunt here.
And there were no mass shootings then. None. There aren’t now, there. Here. Though guns are everywhere.
Something else is going on.
Writing in 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote what I think is still the best explanation for modern American mass shootings, and it’s easily the least comforting. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex argument, essentially he argues that each mass shooting lowers the threshold for the next. He argues, we are in the midst of a slow-motion “riot” of mass shootings, with the Columbine shooting in many ways the key triggering event. Relying on the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, Gladwell notes that it’s a mistake to look at each incident independently:
But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.
Gladwell then argues that Columbine changed the thresholds. The first seven of the “major” modern school-shooting incidents were “disconnected and idiosyncratic.”
Then came Columbine. The sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Harris and Klebold laid down the “cultural script” for the next generation of shooters. They had a Web site. They made home movies starring themselves as hit men. They wrote lengthy manifestos. They recorded their “basement tapes.” Their motivations were spelled out with grandiose specificity: Harris said he wanted to “kick-start a revolution.” Larkin looked at the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine, and he found that in eight of those subsequent cases the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold. Of the eleven school shootings outside the United States between 1999 and 2007, Larkin says six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period, Larkin says all were Columbine-inspired.
Here’s the most ominous part of the Gladwell thesis. The “low threshold” shooters are motivated by “powerful grievances,” but as the riot spreads, the justifications are often manufactured, and the shooters more and more “normal.” Here’s Gladwell’s chilling conclusion:
In the day of Eric Harris, we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restrictions on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.
This Pagourtzis kid, based on what we know now, was not deeply disturbed, in the sense Gladwell means. But he massacred his classmates.
Surely this here is part of this story of mass school shootings
— CNN (@CNN) May 16, 2018
Smartphones came out in 2007, with the launch of the iPhone. Social media became a huge thing around 2010. Is there a connection?
This poor girl from the Santa Fe school tells CNN that she was not surprised. She expected her school’s number to come up eventually. Watch this:
But her fear, though very real (and heartbreaking) is not based in the facts. In March, Harvard’s David Ropeik wrote a piece for the Washington Post saying that school shootings are extremely rare. Excerpts:
The Education Department reports that roughly 50 million children attend public schools for roughly 180 days per year. Since Columbine, approximately 200 public school students have been shot to death while school was in session, including the recent slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (and a shooting in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday that police called accidental that left one student dead). That means the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000. And since the 1990s, shootings at schools have been getting less common.
The chance of a child being shot and killed in a public school is extraordinarily low. Not zero — no risk is. But it’s far lower than many people assume, especially in the glare of heart-wrenching news coverage after an event like Parkland. And it’s far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports.
We sometimes seek protection from our fears in ways that put us in greater peril. In responding to the Parkland shooting, we may be doing just that to our kids.
Ropeik talks about the reasons why the prospect of school mass shootings make us so unjustifiably afraid. We are allowing our emotional responses — what feels true — tell us what is true. Our children are exponentially more likely to be killed in an automobile accident on the way to school, and at greater risk of death by gunshot when not in school, than to die in a mass school shooting. That’s factually true. But it doesn’t feel true when these things happen, especially when these horrible events receive wall-to-wall media coverage. More Ropeik:
Fear also leads us to do things in pursuit of safety that may do more harm than what we’re afraid of in the first place. Think about the psychological effects on kids from all those lessons about when to run, how to hide, directions from their parents to call home if a shooting occurs. A few children have even brought guns to school, saying they wanted to protect their classmates . What happens to children’s ability to learn if they spend their time in the classroom wondering, even if only occasionally, who’s going to burst in and open fire? What does the chronic stress of such worry do to their health? What do constant messages of potential danger in a place that’s supposed to be safe do to their sense of security in the world? Across the population of public school children in the United States, fear of this extraordinarily rare risk is almost certainly doing far more overall harm than have the shootings themselves, horrendous as they are.
Read the whole thing. It’s important.
Don’t read me as saying that we shouldn’t have stronger gun laws. Once again, in principle, I can support that. But I don’t think that will really stop these things. Something else is happening. Something deeper and darker that I don’t think anybody can yet fully identify.
To what extent is our impulse to blame based on a logical interpretation of the data, and to what extent is it based on our deep need to bound our terror by telling ourselves that we can stop these things by doing _____ and _____?
I always think about the victims’ parents on these nights. You pour yourself into your child with every bottle in the middle of the night, every hand held crossing the street, every ride to practice, every hug, every laugh, every cry — and then to lose him or her like this. RIP.
— Willie Geist (@WillieGeist) May 19, 2018
UPDATE.2: This comment from Jones is insightful:
“I think one reason conspiracy theory is so popular is because it gives us the illusion of control. Which is scarier: the idea that a cabal of powerful people could have colluded to have the President of the United States murdered in Dallas, or that a lone gunman, possessing nothing but a rifle and his own will, can strike down the most powerful man on earth in a split-second?”
I think this is true. To be honest, I think the entire discourse around mass shootings in the US is driven by that same basic feeling. We’re Americans. We’re rich. We’re (usually, when these shootings provoke outrage) white. We’re the most powerful group of people ever assembled in human history.
School shootings are a punch to the gut of those Promethean feelings of omnipotence and omnicompetence. On a macro level, the number of people dying to these shootings is a rounding error. There is basically no way to improve our systems to deal with it because it’s already such a small number. But the impact it has on Americans’ sense of power and control is totally disproportionate to that number.