Wednesday, July 25, 2012

All of the Nation's Mass Killings Committed by Males

Another mass killing, another male suspect. All of the nation's mass killings, going back at least to the 1966 UT Austin clock tower, have been committed by males. Erika Christakis, writing at Time Magazine, is probably going to catch a lot of flack as a man-hater for writer an article about this uncomfortable fact, but that does not make it less true.

On the other hand, three men died protecting the women they had come to the theater with that night. It's far more likely for men to die protecting women and children (and other men) than it is for men to become mass killers. We must not lose sight of this simple fact.

The first issue, that all mass killers have been men, says nothing in particular about men, at least in my opinion, although it bears examination. It seems that men are more likely to kill than are women (and we usually kill each other) - and we are more prone to violence in general. When it comes to acts of violence, whether against self (suicide) or others (murder), men are more likely to choose guns than are women, which makes our violence more lethal.

These extremely violent killings, however, are so isolated that we cannot seriously predict them or the men who will commit them - not in the same way that we can predict which kids will become gang bangers or drug users. Despite the opinion of Christakis, I don't think maleness is necessarily the issue - the issue is the biopsychosocial context of the men who become mass killers, the personal and environmental triggers that push a potential suicide to become a mass killer.

The second issue is more understandable - men are protectors and we always have been. Warren Farrell has argued this point (and its Siamese twin, that only men serve in combat) incessantly over the past couple of decades. But it's true, and as a matter of biological necessity, it makes perfect sense on an evolutionary scale (men are bigger and stronger and more likely to fight off a hyena or another predator than are women).

And while there is a biological element to the protector role, now it is more of a cultural expectation than a survival need. Women can own and shoot guns and don't men to protect them, but many men are still trained to see protecting women as their role (I was raised to protect my sister and stand up for any female who is being harassed, intimidated, or abused by a man). For the three women who are alive because a man shielded them and took the bullets in Aurora, I'm guessing that they are feeling fortunate (and traumatized) that these men behaved that way [NOTE: Thanks to Arthur for correcting my original wrong-wording in this sentence].

I don't know why the mass killers are always male - and I am sure the reasons are complex and irreducible to a single soundbite, even a single magazine column.

But I do know that there are many, many more men who would never raise a weapon at anyone, who would give their own lives to protect others (men and women), and who are just as baffled as am I as to what makes these depressed, damaged, and angry young men decided to kill people they have never met.

The Overwhelming Maleness of Mass Homicide

Why aren't we talking about the one thing mass murderers have in common?
Accused movie theater shooter James Holmes
RJ Sangosti / Getty Images - Accused movie-theater shooter James Holmes makes his first court appearance at the Arapahoe County courthouse on July 23, 2012 in Centennial, Colo.

There’s a predictable cycle of mourning and recrimination that follows a massacre like the shootings last week in Aurora, Colo. First come the calls for unity and flags flown at half-mast. Then the national fissures appear: the gun lobby stiffens its spine as gun-control advocates make their case. Psychologists parse the shooter’s background, looking for signs of mental illness or family disarray. Politicians point fingers about “society run amok” and “cultures of despair.”

We’ve been down this path so many times, yet we keep missing the elephant in the room: How many of the worst mass murderers in American history were women? None. This is not to suggest that women are never violent, and there are even the rare cases of female serial killers. But why aren’t we talking about the glaring reality that acts of mass murder (and, indeed, every single kind of violence) are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men? Pointing out that fact may seem politically incorrect or irrelevant, but our silence about the huge gender disparity of such violence may be costing lives.

Imagine for a moment if a deadly disease disproportionately affected men. Not a disease like prostate cancer that can only affect men, but a condition prevalent in the general population that was vastly more likely to strike men. Violence is such a condition: men are nine to 10 times more likely to commit homicide and more likely to be its victims. The numbers are sobering when we look at young men. In the U.S., for example, young white males (between ages 14 and 24) represent only 6% of the population, yet commit almost 17% of the murders. For young black males, the numbers are even more alarming (1.2% of the population accounting for 27% of all homicides). Together, these two groups of young men make up just 7% of the population and 45% of the homicides. And, overall, 90% of all violent offenders are male, as are nearly 80% of the victims.

We shouldn’t need Steven Pinker, one of the world’s leading psychologists and the author of the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, to tell us the obvious: “Though the exact ratios vary, in every society, it is the males more than the females who play-fight, bully, fight for real, kill for real, rape, start wars and fight in wars.” The silence around the gendering of violence is as inexplicable as it is indefensible. Sex differences in other medical and social conditions — such as anorexia nervosa, lupus, migraines, depression and learning disabilities — are routinely analyzed along these lines.

For millennia, human society has struggled with what to do with young men’s violent tendencies. Many cultures stage elaborate initiation ceremonies, presided over by older men, which help channel youthful aggression into productive social roles. But in contemporary society, we have trouble talking about the obvious: the transition from boy to man is a risky endeavor, and there can be a lot of collateral damage.

Skeptics will claim that the perpetrators of horrific acts like the Aurora shootings are such aberrations that we can hardly build public policy around their evil behavior. But it’s a mistake to view mass murderers as incomprehensible freaks of nature. For example, we know that the young men who go on murderous rampages are not always sociopathic monsters but, rather, sometimes more or less “regular” men who suffered from crushing depression and suicidal ideation.

No reasonable person can imagine how despair could possibly lead to premeditated mass homicide. However, the fact that depression is so frequently accompanied by violent rage in young men — a rage usually, but not solely, directed at themselves — is something we need to acknowledge and understand.

Our refusal to talk about violence as a public-health problem with known (or knowable) risk factors keeps us from helping the young men who are at most risk and, of course, their potential victims. When we view terrible events as random, we lose the ability to identify and treat potential problems, for example by finding better ways to intervene with young men during their vulnerable years. There is so much more we need to learn about how to prevent violence, but we could start with the sex difference that is staring us in the face.

Christakis, M.P.H., M.Ed., is a Harvard College administrator who blogs at The views expressed are solely her own.

No comments: