Does America's Toxic Culture Breed Mass Murder?

4798As a parent, an American and a human being, I'm having trouble functioning in the wake of Friday's elementary-school shootings in Newtown, Conn. You'll read this some hours after I write it, so you'll know more than I do now about the children and adults who have died and the families who are enduring unbearable losses, and about the life and death of Adam Lanza, the young man who apparently inflicted them. Those things are dreadfully important to the people involved, but they won't change the bigger picture much. That's a picture of grief and horror and profound collective mystification about how such a thing could happen, a picture of a disordered culture that produces these spectacular outbreaks of psychotic violence more and more often, even in an era of relatively low crime.
While the grief and horror are understandable, as well as fully justified - I'm forcing myself to move my fingers across the keyboard, when I would probably be better off sitting quietly in a darkened room, or spending time with my own children - maybe we shouldn't be quite as bewildered as we claim to be. I don't mean that we should understand, or even try to understand, how a person can become so angry and sick that he picks up a gun and starts shooting other people's children at random. There may be artists and psychiatrists and philosophers who can glean something useful from looking into that kind of hateful and bottomless despair, but I sure don't want to do it.

What I am saying is that we've had enough of these events over the last few decades to see undeniable overlapping patterns, and the same toxic stew of legal, cultural and psychological factors recurring in almost every case. Some of this information has to do with readily quantifiable data, such as the fact that most mass shooters acquire their guns legally on the open market, and most use assault weapons or semiautomatic handguns that would be far less easy to obtain if we had more reasonable and realistic gun laws. Some of it is blindingly obvious but not openly discussed, such as the fact that this is almost exclusively a male problem. (As a remarkable survey published a few weeks ago by Mother Jones attests, 60 of the 61 mass shooters in America over the last three decades have been men or boys. Now, I suppose, it's 61 of 62.)

Some of it is more nebulous and subjective, such as the media's pornographic fixation on events of this kind, even though they make up a small proportion of the firearms killings in the United States every year. As a culture critic by trade, I tend to resist cause-and-effect explanations that blame violent entertainment for real-world violence. (I'm not saying that it hasn't happened in individual cases.) But I find it unfortunately plausible that the massive media spectacles erected around incidents like the one in Newtown, or the "Dark Knight Rises" shootings in Colorado, with their grave and studied theatricality - the somber-looking anchors, the wobbly amateur video of people crying in a parking lot, the police photograph of some crazy-looking guy in a prison jumpsuit - can inspire copycats and emulators who want to be that famous too.

Whether these patterns point the way toward preventing these kinds of horrific events I really couldn't say. Maybe they suggest some places to start and some strategies worth trying, or maybe they just help us understand the dimensions of the problem a little better. Here are some of the key factors in these outrages, as I see them.

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