Friday, December 21, 2012

Masculinity and "Suicide by Mass Murder"

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), Cho Seung-Hui (Virginia Tech), Steven Kazmierczak (Northern Illinois University), Jared Loughner (Tucson), James Holmes (Aurora, CO), and Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary School).

Do all of these "rampage" killers share common traits? Which of these is not like the others?

Second answer first - Loughner and Holmes did not kill themselves after killing many other people. All of the other shooters seemingly planned to kill themselves before they could taken alive.

First answer -  Rachel Kalis and Michael Kimmel, with the Department of Sociology and SUNY Stony Brook, studied the first three murders in their paper, Suicide by mass murder: Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement, and rampage school shootings [Health Sociology Review (2010) 19(4): 451–464], and identified some common elements.

All the perpetrators were males, all were students in the rural or suburban schools they terrorised, and all evinced a self-justifying sense of righteousness to their actions. These characteristics conform to the pattern established by the other cases.

Interestingly, these three killings were perpetrated by young men significantly older than the average school shooters:

Harris was 18 and Klebold was 17, both high school seniors; Cho was 23 and Kazmierczak was 27. The average age of the perpetrators in the other cases was 14.7, and the modal age was 15. (Of the more recent American cases, for example, consider 16-year old Evan Ramsay, from Bethel, Alaska; 16-year old Luke Woodham, from Pearl, Mississippi; 14-year old Michael Carneal, from Paducah, Kentucky; 11-year old Andrew Golden and 13-year old Mitchell Johnson, from Jonesboro, Arkansas; and 15-year old Kip Kinkel, from Springfield, Oregon).

There are two other differences between these mass killers and the younger boys who have killed their peers. (1) These killers took more people with them, killing and injuring dozens of people. (2) These three killers took their own lives as or before police arrived.

[T]he school shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois all seem to be cases of what we can call suicide by mass murder.

Adam Lanza fits the model of these three other cases.

* * * * *

Granting that all of these young men were in some way mentally ill, can we say something intelligent about the situation that acknowledges this fact and also expands the conversation into more fruitful territory? Mental illness is a given when someone commits violent acts on a massive scale and then kills themselves, and the majority of people who are labeled "mentally ill" are not violent and will never hurt anyone (other than possibly themselves).

Again, one of the common traits shared by these young men is that they were male. There are qualities in the unhealthy male archetypes in this country that contributes to rage or rampage killings.

These perpetrators were not just misguided ‘kids’, or ‘youth’ or ‘troubled teens’ – they’re boys. They are a group of boys, deeply aggrieved by a system that they may feel is cruel or demeaning. Feeling aggrieved, wronged by the world – these are typical adolescent feelings, common to many boys and girls. What transforms the aggrieved into mass murders is also a sense of entitlement, a sense of using violence against others, making others hurt as you, yourself, might hurt. 
And there's more:

  • Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation.
  • Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man
  • Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.

In order to take a wider perspective on these killers, Kalis and Kimmel looked at three major weekly news magazines (Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report) and three of the largest daily newspapers (USA Today, Ne York Times, Los Angeles Times) to identify any related patterns to their explanation.

In conducting our analysis, we found a striking pattern from the stories about the boys who committed the violence: Nearly all had stories of being constantly bullied, beaten up, and, most significantly for this analysis, ‘gay baited’. Nearly all had stories of being mercilessly and constantly teased, picked on, and threatened. And, most strikingly, it was not because they were gay (at least there is no evidence to suggest that any of them were gay), but because they were different from the other boys – shy, bookish, honour students, artistic, musical, theatrical, non-athletic, ‘geekish’ or weird. Theirs are stories of ‘cultural marginalisation’ based on criteria for adequate gender performance – specifically the enactment of codes of masculinity. We can learn from queer studies that gay youth have higher rates of suicide then their straight counterparts (Remafedi et al. 1998). The shooters here display evidence of such marginalisation, but they choose a decidedly heteronormative way to combat it: violence.
Again, as is true with mental illness, millions of kids have been teased, bullied, picked on, threatened, and "gay baited," including me. But only a minuscule number of them take their own lives or the lives of others. This makes it challenging to pinpoint alienation and marginalization as explicit "causes."

However, it is males who tend to be most successful in suicide attempts, even though girls make more attempts (they choose less lethal means than boys).

There is another commonality among these killers that, to me, may be one of the best explanations for why these boys choose this route to their own death.

School shootings take place in front of others, a public display of violence. In fact, the public nature of school shootings are an example of their instrumental nature; they are done to get a point across, to send a message that the shooter wants to convey to the localised culture that has marginalised him, as well as the larger society. The detailed plans laid out by school shooters, as well as their methodical reasoning for their actions that impose blame on their peers demonstrate how they view their actions as public, as well as the entitlement the feel in their actions. The note left behind by Columbine shooter Eric Harris explicitly places the blame for his actions on his surrounding community (Klein and Chancer 2000).
Rampage murder/suicides are public performances, they are enacted to make a point, to assert power over those who have hurt them, and to do so as publicly as possible, and they have no doubt that their actions will be the talk of the nation for days or weeks after they have killed themselves - they have grown up in this culture and they know that mass killings will be covered 24/7 for weeks.

Still, this is not sufficient.

Kalis and Kimmel make a point on which they do not have space to follow-up, namely that we must also consider the schools where these killings happen, as well as the communities - and possibly (as in Adam Lanza) the families.

[It does not] diminish the specificity of that tragedy to also note that all the schools in which random school shooters also exhibited certain similarities. The schools themselves share characteristics that make random school shootings more likely in some places than in others. We believe that profiling the school shooters must be accompanied by a profile of the shooters’ schools.

We are never looking simply at the acts of a single person (or pair of persons) - these acts occur within a system, so if we hope to understand them, we need to look at the whole system, from the individual biology and psychology of the killer(s), to their families, their schools, their communities, and their society - all of these are systems interacting as a metasystem - we need that wide of a perspective.

This is an interesting and provocative paper - definitely worth your time to go read the whole thing.

1 comment:

Fat Bastardo said...

The common thread with the mass shooting is psychiatric meds.