The Culture Behind School Shootings

Photo by Phil Roeder | CC BY 2.0

Another week, another mass shooting and still the discourse remains primarily about individual violence. The goal is to inject a fear into the populist. The goal is to divide us. The goal is to make us afraid of each other. The goal is to justify further control of the people and to continue to obliterate civil liberties. The old phrase “If You See Something Say Something” has popped up again. This is the phrase that came out of 9/11. It enlists each one of us in the war on terror, the war on crime, the war on guns. The other phrase now is  ____ Strong. Plug in any name. No matter where the shooting happens we must become “stronger”. Not more peaceful. We must become stronger. We remain at war with somebody. And like the war on terror and the war on crime, the villain is both everywhere and nowhere. One of those Middle East countries, forget which one. One of those kids with a hood, forget which one.

As wretched as Donald Trump may be this paranoid autocratic form of American fascism is a post-9/11 phenomenon. And in large part should be laid at the feet of Bill Clinton and his pivot towards mass incarceration. The hysteria around gun shooters is not entirely different from the talk around Muslim terrorists, immigrant rapists or black super predators. The difference of course is that white male violence is often excused as issues of mental health. Which brings us to the necessary point that there is a false hope in our law enforcement when we advocate gun control laws without discussing criminal justice reform. If gun control laws are employed anything like anti-terrorism or anti-crime laws there will be supreme racial profiling, a collapse of individual rights and mass incarceration.

This is not to say that gun control wouldn’t be helpful in reducing deaths. There is good reason for activists to advocate for guns not to be put into the hands of those who practice domestic violence or animal cruelty, for example. But this response also subjugates these forms of violence to secondary, as the lack of access to a semi-automatic will only save the rest of us. It is not surprising that violence against women in the home has not become a serious issue, even though it remains far more damaging than gun violence. Who would care about these victims? Their cases are isolated. The implication of terrorism is that it could happen to anyone at any time. So further crackdown of military like forces to save us becomes necessary. This violence is only mentioned because it can justify more violence. This is why terrorism in the Middle East is mentioned. This is why violence against women in the Middle East is mentioned.  It is worth noting that police are wholly inadequate when it comes to domestic violence, with a 2015 Hotline survey indicating that eighty percent of victims believed police would do nothing about domestic violence.  And why would they? These guys are the most violent people in the country. The police are highly militarized themselves. They shoot first and ask questions later. This Atlantic article details how police are actually the worst perpetrators of domestic violence.  It compares them to NFL players, who do less domestic violence than the general public but are consistently seen as the most violent—this is highly racial too. Donald Trump wanting to kick NFL players who kneel for the national anthem out of the country is a sign of the new fascism highly related to Clinton’s mass incarceration, and Bush and Obama’s war on terror and civil liberties. Misbehavior in regards to the military, police and immigration officers are taken much more seriously than any real violence that occurs.

Now we are all supposed to be police. Look at George Zimmerman. Look at Charlottesville. Look at the purposed policy of arming teachers. What we must recognize is that this strain of reactionary paranoid vigilante intervention that is advocated will always be employed against the poor and the Othered people in our society. There will always be a mass of people deemed too suspicious to exist. This hysteria is consistent with the high number of people who actually do feel the need to solve any of their problems with violence. The mass shooters are echoing the way our leaders solve their problems.

Both the right to bear arms and the right to incarcerate, search and jail are highly linked to white supremacy. This is why the issue is so complex. Because as much as the implications of further gun control implicitly marks the dark body it remains fairly middle class white men who do the shootings. Both tactics echo the supreme white supremacy of Donald Trump, who is at once the greatest predator and the most paranoid.

The highly militarized police state, the 800 plus military bases around the world, the belligerent and arrogant foreign policy by our leaders and the assault on the environment by our corporate masters are all systematic forms of violence that are too big to condemn. Likewise, the horrific nativist agenda of Republicans is equated with an alt-right populism that is gripping the nation from the bottom up. This narrative ignores that Trump voters were richer than Hillary voters. Self-interest, while often associated with the state-dependent poor, is a privileged position. If one lives on the margins of society they simply cannot afford to act as Trump and his ilk do and get away with it.

The culture of Trump—one of resentment, individualism and lawlessness does come from somewhere. But it is not leaking through the cracks of some anti-establishment plot of persecuted people. It comes from the most entitled and simple minded people within our established culture. This latest shooter, a pathetic nerd from Santa Fe, fits the cultural profile of America. But there is a difference between him and people like Scott Pruitt or Dick Cheney. He cannot kill and get away with it. But he is at least a child of the American Empire.

This shooter was another “lonely misunderstood” guy. Boo hoo. Sorry, no love lost here. But it should be noted that neoliberal America is deeply infected with a culture of isolation. Remember, Donald Trump said he doesn’t have friends. Like literally doesn’t have them. While Trump’s lack of friendship may be treated as a strength, the completely isolated school shooters are seen with a disgusting amount of sentimentality. The lone cowboy image highly linked to Manifest Destiny. He is pensive. He is misunderstood. He hasn’t been given everything he wanted. Because he acted on these feelings, he is now a hero.

In America, we are told we can have whatever we want. If we don’t get it, we can take it. This is how our foreign policy works. Everything is unknown, everything is scary. Restraint and thoughtfulness is a weakness. Bigger is always better. There is a profound innocence to our culture that is projected onto the bodies of these young men who are not seen as the psychopaths they are. Rather we see them as another misunderstood soul on the quest for his dream.

Trace this story to our latest shooter who shot up the school because he was rejected by a girl. This comes from a culture soaking in narratives of self-interest. This comes from a culture that is supremely superficial and judgmental. This comes from a culture that has expectations of wealth and conquest that are always too high to achieve. This comes from a culture that runs on shame. What lessons are we teaching to our children? What are the implications of a society that says you can have whatever you want? What happens when one’s innocence is crushed? How do we expect people to respond?

Trace this anywhere you want but to me this is most found in American films. The lone wolf rejected nerds are a common trope now. Like Trump, they are endlessly persecuted and must get revenge. What Trump is ultimately is a snob. An uncurious, arrogant snob. Who would rather be alone in his own fantasy world than deal with other people.

This is the increasing way of the American people in the digital age. How many of these school shooters spend their days alone on their laptops and Xboxs playing their games in alternative universes where they rape princesses and conquer castles? Log on to Facebook then and see impossible and artificial beauty standards. Turn on a Judd Apatow movie of smug nerd conquest. Turn on a Quentin Tarintino movie for artsy nerd violence.

Despite our profound ignorance, America remains an elite and snobbish country. We are snobs about everything. About our subcultures, about our political ideologies and even, absurdly, about our ignorance. I mean seriously, Donald Trump is a snob about being ignorant. And this culture runs on resentment. We are promised so much and given so little. We will bleed you out and expect more. The American Dream has always relied on pillaging of some people, whether that be Native Americans, Blacks or countries around the globe.

What lies at the heart of American culture is an inability to accept difference and to accept truth. Why are we the last holdouts on climate change? Why do we continue to elect stupid, I mean really stupid leaders?

But this is not a culture that starts at the bottom. It is a culture that starts at the top. And it is most concentrated there. This arrogance and ignorance and lawlessness is a privileged position. Without our richness, our nation would not be able to pillage the entire world. Most people simply cannot afford to be blind to truth. They cannot afford to fight and bully every person they know. Only the richest can do such a thing and get away with it. Only a man like Donald Trump could bankrupt himself four times and get away with it.

Americans, especially the well to do Americans, are all at the end of the day children. Dark and twisted children, yes, but still some form of a child. No one is more sheltered, delusional and angry. There are temper tantrums everywhere. Outrage, meanness and violence everywhere. But we also adults. Pessimistic, stressed, self-righteous adults.

What remains astounding about America is the persecution complex we have. We still play the victim. And amazingly we believe it. These school shooters are no different. We believe we can take whatever we want. We believe that this world does not contain differences to be negotiated, but foes to be defeated. These are the stories of killer cops who shoot young black boys. It is the story of men who shoot women that reject them. It is the story of Donald Trump when negotiating with other world leaders.

The fact that the Democrats can only advocate for gun control shows both their lack of moral imagination as well as their deep ties to the financial institutions that permeate violence throughout our lives. The Republicans meanwhile can advocate for anything but gun control, but they only seem to be able to come up with strength and God. Therefore the Democrats maintain the only merit they have left: they are not Republicans. How many deaths will prove that this is simply not enough?

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at