The slayings in Winnenden last week throw up the stock character traits and responses typical to such a tragedy. Someone has to appear at fault; the blame game has to assume force and character. The child, with the Beretta can’t appear to be the only one at fault. He was somehow propelled by social forces beyond his control, an agent devoid of freewill. The parents must be targets (the father did not, initial police investigations suggest, entirely secure the gun); and certainly, if not the parents, then an atrophying society.
The personality profile of the teenager reveals the often ordinary nature of someone who engages in acts of extraordinary violence. Criminologists and philosophers have spent much time on the endless dispute as to what makes a mass killer. Here, we have someone who is described by witnesses as essentially a harmless sort, somewhat shy and even likeable. A perfect candidate, then, for overly keen analysis.
The psychology industry is bound to hyperventilate with excitement at the prospect of how best to deal with the latest shootings in Germany. Grief counsellors have been mobilised. The industry of tears and suffering is now fully functioning. Therapists and social diagnosticians are ready to churn the papers and produce reports.
What then, of this teenager, Tim K, who made his desire to stage a ‘barbecue’ at the school with his weapons clear in advance? Motives remain unclear. But a public in mourning cannot reason such a tragedy without motive. Surely, the argument goes, there must be a reason for murdering 15 people? A clinical reason, perhaps, or some sociological explanation? Such a question ignores that old answer supplied by such writers as Dostoyevsky: the infliction of death can be gratuitous, a self-fulfilling resort, an end in itself.
The Columbine massacre in April 1999 in Colorado produced a deluge of psychological rationales and suggestions as to why the killings took place. One began wondering who had pulled the trigger – less Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold than some social force inherent in a dysfunctional society. They had been ‘estranged’ and cast outside a ‘rational’ society. They had fallen for Goth ‘cults’ and dark rituals. Their homes were imploding. They had played morally corrosive videogames and listened to the unsettling pronouncements of Marilyn Manson.
Of course, such causal links are more or less impossible to prove, and the elimination of vicious games or naughty lyrics is hardly bound to prevent an anarchic episode drenched in blood. Political committees expend much time on the evidentiary base of such material, keen to prove connections. Such futile inquiries tend to result in reactionary platforms that chill expression and force further censorship of various industries. The Port Arthur massacre in Australia, which took place in April 1996 at the hands of Martin Bryant, was one such example, enabling the then Howard Government to initiate intrusive regulations into the entire field of television, videogames and film.
Germany’s politicians have already demonstrated an innate nervousness in reacting to the shootings. Surely, a country with some of Europe’s toughest gun laws, must do something to justify itself in the face of such an assault? The nervous reaction is to tighten the laws further, rendering the entire edifice of gun-control immaculate, foolproof. Better still, eliminate all guns at home, keeping them off the premises. This, after all, was not the first time this took place, prompting fears that the modern German school is heading for an American styled security centre, policed by prison-styled regulations.
Even with strict regulations, such individual slaughters might not have been prevented. An argument might be made that Tim K’s father, member of a shooting club, was a cornerstone of the problem. Tim K. becomes little more than a patient who needed to have his vicious candy kept away from him. But there is little reason to have assumed that Tim K. would not have sought some other means of inflicting harm. As for the proposal for a complete ban, Germany remains a country in love with its weapons, a tradition that has links to generational hunting in various part of the country. Targeting them further does not, in itself, prevent another Tim K. from transcending the state of gun control.
The world of psychobabble rarely illumines the motive of the perpetrator, often casting light on the weakness of one suggesting it. Ultimately, Germany can never be accused of not having strict limits. The old observation that people kill people still holds, and there is very little, in the end, that can be done to eliminate all contingencies. Weapons, like gold, have a habit of getting through the guards.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org