Part 1 Of A Two-Part Look At the Parkland Mass Shooting

Another horrific school shooting. Followed, as usual, by instant outrage, virtue signaling, finger-pointing, and “do-something” demands, all before facts and circumstances become known. Some scream at the sky, some post social media rants, some demand that somebody do something, and seemingly everyone has an opinion.

Despite this deluge, I find a terrible dearth of “why is this happening” dialogue. Clearly, many blame the existence of guns, and in particular the “assault weapon” guns that have become the visual marker of mass murder, but guns don’t fire themselves. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman observed in the movie Full Metal Jacket, a rifle is only a tool:

It is a hard heart that kills.

Despite the popular narrative, the reality is that gun violence has been on a steady decrease in America for the past three decades. And, again, despite the popular narrative, and despite efforts to redefine terminology to advance that narrative, the frequency of mass shootings hasn’t really changed over time. What has changed is the lethality – the number of people killed per incident. Some might point to assault weapons as the cause for that, but these types of rifles have been available to the public (apart from 1994-2004) for half a century, and assault weapons have only been used in about 1/4 of mass shootings. In addition, and vitally, the monstrosity of these acts – the murders of large numbers of civilians and/or schoolchildren, shocks us far more than the far-greater steady-state murder statistics (more have been murdered in Chicago in the first two weeks of February than died in the Parkland mass murder). This is why people flood the news and social media after a mass shooting but not over the far greater death toll of urban crime.

Responding to this and other mass shootings with dialogue about guns is preemptively narrowing the debate to what is, in effect, a symptom, rather than the disease. We don’t cure a sickness by ignoring its underlying causes. I’ve come to believe that there’s a growing sickness in the country, a breakdown of our basic humanity and respect for the humanity of our fellows. Whence this breakdown? I’ll point my finger at three elements of modern culture.

First, the easy one: the dehumanizing element of our modern means of interaction i.e. the Internet. Just as we are more likely to scream confrontationally from the safety of our cars in road-rage moments than we would face-to-face, we are more likely to wax aggressively across social media, thanks to the safety of physical distance it affords. Moreso, the temporal displacement – the time lag between statement and response – mutes the feedback that would normally remind us that the person we’re addressing is a fellow human being. If you’ve posted a rant on Facebook, ask yourself if you’d scream those same words in a friend’s face. Even if so, do you think that accomplishes anything positive for your relationship with that friend? I’ve written quite a bit on this matter, so I won’t belabor it further.

Next, there is the normalization of hate that our cultural front-runners have caused. The people at the fore of our culture – public figures, the media, taste makers, widely-followed celebrities, late-night talk show hosts – have normalized blind hatred for “the other side.” It takes the form of condescension, derision, sneering, and other forms of dehumanization. Throughout history, humor has been a great tool for speaking truth to power. Satirists, court jesters, editorial cartoonists, and, since Lenny Bruce, stand-up comics, have all served society admirably by taking down the mighty. Of late, however, the humor weapon has been turned against the masses, or more specifically, the half of the masses that resides on the “wrong” side of the political divide. And, it’s done solely to reinforce “their” side, not to inspire discussion, explore ideas, or break down walls. On top of that, the breakdown of journalism into negative-sum punditry means we witness an endless stream of often-baldfaced hatred for the opposition. The elites’ endless barrage of hatred filters down to the rest of us, to the point where we are shocked and declare hypocrisy when we see Democratic and Republican politicians getting along like human beings instead of constantly being at each others’ throats.

Third, we have a normalization and near-exaltation of victimhood and not-my-fault deflection. That is topped off and reinforced by the grievance hierarchy. These combine to elevate an individual’s complaints, no matter how picayune or outwardly questionable, above those of others. When everyone is told that their feelings are paramount, when someone is told that he has a greater right to be offended than those around him have to simply walk, talk, eat, and breathe, it’s inevitable that people will stop seeing their fellows as human beings, as equal members of society. We are teaching each other the people who don’t align with one’s worldview in every way are less than human, and thus undeserving of the common behavioral norms and “golden rule” necessary for a healthy society to function.

Social media fosters a sort of self-centered, “look at me” narcissism, and it is something that deranged minds can latch onto. The shooter recently foiled in Everett, WA, after his grandmother read his journal and called the police, was looking for infamy, and studying past mass shooters and their ways so that he could exceed past performance. Copycat criminals are a phenomenon as old as the hills, and a sick mind seeking to “send a message” to the world or to people who he thinks wronged him in some way may take the notoriety of previous mass murderers as an inspiration. The unfortunate reality is that the public hungers for information about mass murderers, with the most murderous developing mythical status. A culture that fuels detached self-importance and narcissism adds yet another dangerous ingredient to the witch’s brew that produces these monsters.

What, if anything, can we do about this?

Societies move as they will, evolving organically as various external factors change over time. We can imagine that politicians might guide this, but politicians are symptoms, not causes. Government reflects the society that it overlays, and real societal change cannot be legislated without a degeneration into tyranny. No, the societal change has to come from us, its members. We, and by “we” I mean, you, me and every individual out there, need to resume treating each other like fellow human beings, of equal footing and as worthy of pursuing happiness as we are. And, we especially need to act this way to those with whom we differ or disagree. And, as one savvy Internet blogger has suggested, we should go out of our way to engage those who seem alien to us, who seem isolated, or different, or not-of-our-tribe.

It’s hard, because our tribal instincts run strongly to the contrary, and it’s harder thanks to the trifecta of Internet dehumanization, hate-normalization, and victim-exaltation cooked up with a heavy measure of narcissism stirred in. But, this is the long-term cure for this spreading disease, and no band-aid legislative solution can supplant it.

That said, just as we look to reduce a fever in parallel with curing a disease, there are some steps we can take to reduce the frequency of these mass murders. I discuss these in Part 2 – Mass Shootings and Government Action.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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