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Mass shootings as media events

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Why have mass public shootings become epidemic during a time when homicide rates as a whole have declined dramatically? One plausible explanation is that these sorts of events have a viral quality, and that contemporary mass and social media help spread them:

Diseases spread among individuals, but the contagion of mass shootings seems to spread through broadcast media. In an interview with The Atlantic in 2015, Sherry Towers, the ASU paper’s lead author, hypothesized that television, radio, and other media exposure might be the vectors through which one mass shooting infects the next perpetrator. Like a commercial, each event’s extraordinary coverage offers accidental advertising for depravity. One reason why mass-media coverage of shootings might inspire more shootings is that public glorification inspires some mass murderers. Eric Harris, the central planner of the Columbine murders, wrote Ich bin Gott—German for “I am God”—in his school planner. . .

Mass shootings are often committed by lonely and unrooted men, suffering from both grandiose aspirations and petty grievances. The postmortem descriptors are practically rote: He was coldweirdwithdrawna loner (and, one must note, always “he”). It’s astonishingly rare to read the antonyms: He is almost never warmwelcomingthe most popular kid in school. Even when mass shootings are not, strictly speaking, terrorism, they still seem to adhere to a sort of dark and nearly invisible ideology of oppressive self-aggrandizement, a bid for greatness that requires the destruction of others. Just because there is no formal institution like isis to symbolize this strain of white rage doesn’t mean that the rage isn’t ideological. It’s possible that many instances of white-male mass-shooting violence are, in fact, driven by a media-inspired religion of grievance and greatness—a mass-distributed sickness for which male outcasts are most vulnerable to infection.

A complex of factors work to spread this virus. Here are a few:

(1) We have a culture that both generates extreme alienation, and encourages the alienated, especially via new media, to think in grandiose and victimized terms about their alienation. Incel public violence is a prime example of this (the Dayton shooter may turn out to fit this model).

(2) White supremacy and fascism are violent ideologies that encourage public violence as symbolic acts of resistance against invasion and contagion, by an Other that is replacing the rightful heirs to the nation. Donald Trump explicitly encourages alienated young white men to think in these terms. Trump, via his violent rhetoric, is every bit as responsible for the El Paso murders as the shooter himself. Republicans who support Trump (that is, almost all Republicans) are personally responsible for enabling white supremacist violence.

(3) Potential mass killers have extraordinarily easy access to weapons of mass destruction. The Dayton shooter shot 36 people in about 30 seconds before he was killed by police who happened to be patrolling just a few steps from where he opened fire. They have access to these weapons because the Republican party considers episodic mass public slaughter via assault weapons to be an acceptable price to pay to ensure that wealthy people and corporations enjoy lower tax rates.

(4) American men are brought up to think that killing people is the epitome of what it means to be a man. Almost without exception mass killers are always men, who are among other things are performing their masculine identity via the quintessentially male act of killing a lot of people all at once.

(5) Have mass public shootings become functional replacements for at least one type of political assassination? The classic angry alienated young man with delusions of grandeur — Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinkley — used to try to shoot the president or some other major political figure in order to win the attention of an indifferent world: now he seems much more likely to shoot up a shopping mall in order to get his name and face on the TV, probably because that is now so much easier to do. (I should do a separate post on this, but for all the elaborate conspiracy theories surrounding Oswald, what seems to have happened is that on a Wednesday he read in the paper in the lunch room of the building where he worked that Kennedy’s motorcade would on that Friday pass right under the windows of that building, and he decided right then and there to do the deed. In other words there was no real plan, let alone a conspiracy.)

(6) Without wishing in any way to minimize the shattering of hundreds of lives and families every time one of these things happens, it seems to me the worst effect on a political level is how it poisons life in public spaces. I have a child who will start kindergarten next year. I don’t want to bring him up in a country where part of his school experience is that his teachers will try to teach him what to do if a man comes to school to try to shoot him and his classmates. (Kieran Healy is essential reading on this).

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