Is It Really A Big Mystery?

In this image taken from video law enforcement officers respond to a high school near Houston after an active shooter was reported on campus, Friday, May 18, 2018, in Santa Fe, Texas. The Santa Fe school district iss... In this image taken from video law enforcement officers respond to a high school near Houston after an active shooter was reported on campus, Friday, May 18, 2018, in Santa Fe, Texas. The Santa Fe school district issued an alert Friday morning saying Santa Fe High School has been placed on lockdown. (KTRK-TV ABC13 via AP) MORE LESS

First of all, this is not a criticism of Pete Williams, one of best network news reporters out there. It’s more a broader comment about how we deal with mass atrocity gun violence, how we think about its causes. A few moments ago, Pete Williams was on air on MSNBC providing the latest details of the shooting in Texas and the accused shooter, who is now in custody. Williams provided these latest details, including the suspect’s name and the fact that initial looks at his social media profiles show no evidence of connections to extremist groups, either foreign or domestic. Then he said that because there is no evidence of an extremist ideology, “why this happened, of course, remains a huge mystery.”

Here’s the video.

Is this really a mystery? This happens all the time. It happens all the time. It is almost always a young man or boy in late adolescence who enters his school or the school he used to go to and tries to kill as many people as possible rather than any particular person.

Now, to be clear, I know what Williams meant. Again, not a criticism of him in any way. It’s a broader point. He’s saying we haven’t seen any evidence of the shooter pledging fealty to ISIS or spewing far-right conspiracy theories or militia rhetoric. But I think this shows how we really miss the point of why any of these things happen.

The impulse, which is rooted mainly in young men and pretty much exclusively men, is the origin of these things. Depending on where they’re situated they express these murderous rages through an Islamist idea system, or a militia or white supremacist idea system. But I think it’s a mistake to see these different forms of extremism as the cause of these shootings. School shootings are a contagious phenomenon in American society which virtually always involves boys in late adolescence who have histories of rage and alienation and play that out in mass atrocity attacks at their school, which for them is their social world.

We can all see that they are highly choreographed, often using the same set of strategies to maximize fatalities, sometimes with new innovations which are then folded into the ritual of attack. What we call extremist ideologies are really just the languages these guys glom onto to articulate and understand those impulses. This doesn’t mean extremist groups and extremist ideologies don’t matter. For some, they clearly provide a language and a rationale and even a sense of righteousness to their actions. For some that helps bridge the path between extreme rage and actual violence.

But if that’s absent, it’s no mystery. Because it’s a mistake to see them as the real driver. Again, this happens all the time. The motive is pretty clear: angry and alienated young man, a late adolescent consumed with rage and alienation who lives in the United States and thus has become a devotee of the cult, the ideology of the redemptive school shooting atrocity. The ideology is really the cult of the mass shooting, in which the gun, with all its cultural and political omnipotence, plays a central role. Every school shooter learned from the history of school shootings, mimicked the strategies, was in a sense acting out a ritual which has become deeply rooted in our culture. We know the motive. We know the ideology: rage and alienation transmuted through mass gun violence.

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