School shooters – three hypotheses – Stephen Hicks, Ph.D.
Let’s start with a statistic: “In the past 25 years, sixteen teenagers have committed mass murder in an American elementary or high school.”* In addition, many other teenagers planned to kill but were discovered and prevented. So: Why are so many (a) young (b) men eager to (c) kill in (d) schools?
A. Focus on the young males common point. It could be mostly biological: adolescent boys and girls differ in their biological behaviors, so the same environment will stimulate different behaviors. Or it could be mostly environmental: we do well with teenage girls but don’t do these things with teenage girls, or we do bad things to teenage boys that we don’t do to teenage girls. Or a combination of all of the above. I have no guesses here.
B. Focus on specific location and targets: students and teachers in schools.** These killers are not targeting people at the mall or at a music concert or other places where many potential targets are concentrated. So: what is special about killers in schools?
Statistics also show that the motives for murder (apart from war) are most often money, hatred of specific individuals, or hatred based on religious or political ideology. Money isn’t the issue in school shootings, so let’s focus on the hate.
Think of spousal murder and the statistic that most domestic murders are one spouse killing the other. The relationship is close – hours and hours, days and days together constantly – but it has become toxic: they come to hate each other, then to despise each other, then to hate each other. Then one kills the other.
School is a toxic place for many students. Being there is a slow poison for hours, days, weeks and months – and they come to hate the place and the individuals there. As in the toxic marriage, they want to kill each other.
So Assumption 1: Unlike shopping malls and concert halls, schools are toxic places for these students, and the same aversion/contempt/hate dynamic of toxic marriages is at work in them.
VS Still, there’s an impersonal element to school shootings, unlike toxic marriages, so it’s more complicated. Students and teachers murdered very often have no personal connection to the shooter. The shooter isn’t just targeting a particular teacher he despises or a few other students he hates. He also kills people whose names he does not know and whom he has never met.
This suggests that the school functions as a symbolic place in the shooter’s mind. And that makes school shooters similar to political and religious ideologues who kill. When ideologues, for example, blow up synagogues, churches, mosques, banks or parliaments, their targets are for them generic tokens of hated abstractionsand not particular individuals and places.
So Hypothesis 2: To school shooters, School stands in his mind like a hated symbol in the same way Jewish is in the mind of an anti-Semite or Banker is in the mind of an anti-capitalist or Politician takes place in the mind of an anarchist, and the destruction of the individuals involved is generic and impersonal.
D. I’m also struck by the number of school shooters who either don’t expect to survive, don’t seem to care about their survival, or plan on not surviving the event. There is therefore also a powerful phenomenon of self-destruction at work, something nihilistic. Yet, rather than simply sinking into meaningless lives or quietly committing suicide, they plan and execute a negative an act that they know will attract a lot of attention. They want to destroy themselves and they want to cause as much destruction to others as they can by doing so.
So Hypothesis 3: School shooters are near-but-not-quite-absolute nihilists who feel empty except for despair and hatred and a need for their life to have at least one significant act to define it.
* Source: Professor Bradley Thompson.
** A sub-question to be studied later: How many occurred in private schools and how many in public schools?