Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

How to talk (and not to talk) about school shootings

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes

[caption id="attachment_15899" align="aligncenter" width="750"] Student protest over guns outside the White House, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Student protest over guns outside the White House, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.[/caption]

Yes, as weall know, we have been here before.

Twenty years ago, the nation was shocked by the Columbine High Schoolshooting. On June 1, 1999, the day after the massacre, President Clinton gave animpassioned speech inthe Rose Garden in which he announced a national campaignagainst youth violence.

The campaign was to mobilize businesses, volunteer organizations and the media to develop violence-reduction programs. Attorney General Janet Reno said she would be clamping downon advertising, movies, recordings and the video games industry. She urged parents to be more aware of the violent content their children were absorbing from these media. She said: We need toknow more about how children learn of their existence. The head of the Federal Trade Commission pledged to oversee the impact ofadvertising on child behavior and to work with thebusiness community tomonitor what children saw. President Clinton and Hillary Clinton declared anational epidemic of youth violence, in which the Columbine shooting was anextreme example.

Clintons vigorous campaign encouraged city officials, churches, schools,mental health services and families to unite against youth violence. WallStreet advertising executivesrecruited youth leaders from inner cities tointerruptflare-upsin school playgrounds and street corners, using gangslang ("squash it!") and hand signs to "cool it!" A "Just Say NotoViolence" campaign enlisted schoolchildren to cover city walls with paintedhandprints memorializing those who died in gang wars and street violence.Teachersintroduced "behavioral self-management" through meditation andmindfulness to sensitize theirat-risk pupils(i.e. poor black andLatino children) to "senseless homicides, drugs and racist rapmusic."

Clintons campaign also established an academic advisory board headed by aprominent educational anthropologist, John Devine, who engaged with verydifferent premises. Henoted that school shootings werenota blackissue but thatinner-city schoolshad become a pathway to prison forinner-city children. He defined the problem as institutional andstructuralviolence based on race, poverty and social exclusion. Our committee consistedof 20 prominent urban social scientists, including myself. We identifiedcertain variablesmissed by the presidents campaign. We differentiated "massshootings" in suburban schools (mostly white and rural or suburban) from youthhomicides in poor communities. Whilegunswere a problem, "legitimate" homicides of black and Latino youth by police were even worse. We questionedcriminological labels such as "death by cop," then a euphemism for "suicide-by-cop" (Geberth 1993), which attributed police homicides to suicidal victims who hadprovoked the police to shoot them.

In our report, we explained the "code of the streets" and the "search forrespect" that led to a cycle of retaliatory deaths. We linked hypersensitivityto imagined insults to a cultureof shame, defeat and self-hatred honed by theU.S. prison system. We described the lethal association of white male honor with "stand your ground" legislation that allowedhomeowners to murder a suspectedintruder, even if mistakes were made (Spies 2018). We made connections betweena militarized societyandviolence in homes, streets andschools. Welinked the "epidemic" of violence to our countrys relentlesswars abroad thatcame home to roost in social "epidemics" of homelessness, drug addiction, PTSD anddomestic violence among war vets.

We identified youth who were both dangerous and endangered, victims andperpetrators. We drew parallels between state schools and prisons, and werejected calls for enhancedsecurity systems video cameras and metaldetectors in state schools or using armed guards to police school corridorsand bathrooms. Finally, we wrote of the dangers of accessto guns and weaponsof war for troubled youth and alienated young men. After many edits, wedelivered our final report to the presidents office. It was not well received.

Our conclusions went against the grain and the report was sent back foranother round of editing to remove any passages concerning access to weapons.Our proposal to pay gangleaders to surrender guns, a tactic used widely andsomewhat successfully in Brazil, was deleted. Censorship and self-censorshipruled the day. But even the highly redacted reportdeliveredto the presidentand his staff was shelved. One can barely find it online, hiddenin digitized government archives. The report was bureaucratically "disappeared."

A new suspect: The mentally ill

The Clinton campaign put the national spotlight on inner-city black youth,despite the fact that the Columbine shooters were white and middle class. Weknew a lot less then aboutlone wolf shooters and the festering alienation ofangry white men.Thus, the default was black youth violence. If violence wasthe question, black youth was the answer.

Since Sandy Hook to Parkland, Florida, there have been some 200 schoolshootings and more than 400 victims. Today,the focus is on the mentally ill. This began with AdamLanza, the Sandy Hookshooter who took his own life as well as that of his mother, 20 children andsix adults. The 2013Report of the States Attorney for the judicialdistrict ofDanbury on the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School concluded that Lanza had Aspergers syndrome and his "obsessional and anxioustraits affected his ability to live anormal life or to interact with others." But many people including Ludwig Wittgenstein, the late Robin Williams andTempleGrandin,the autistic scientist who was shy ofpeople but attunedto the emotions of animals have shared these same characteristics. Each usedtheir cognitive and emotional differences to build a better world. Mentalillness orcognitive differences, including autism or Aspergers syndrome, is alame excuse for mass murders. It criminalizes the mentally ill who alreadysuffer from social rejection andstigma. It is a slander to all the creativeand good-hearted mentally ill who have a hard enough time trying to fit into asociety that so often misunderstands them.

A day after the massacre in Sandy Hook, a Spanish psychiatrist, Lola Morn, published an article in the newspaper El Pas in which she challengedthe idea that social withdrawal,shyness and isolation could convert a personinto a ruthless killer. She argued that the shooter was cultivated by a cultureof violence. Morn wrote: "I ask myself why the UnitedStates media are so benton finding a psychiatric diagnosis for a murderer who had been livingside-by-side with firearms since infancy, and who for the massacre dressedhimself inmilitary fatigues. Perhaps the issues have more to do with thenaturalness with which the use of arms is 'lived' than with mental disorders" (Calve Ehauge 2018).

Adams rampage may have been motivated by his sense of alienation andvengeance against a world that had excluded him, but that is no excuse for massmurder. If Adam had "suicidal-homicidal preoccupations," then so do terroristsuicide bombers (Atran 2003). Taking this a bit further, mass shooters likeAdam Lanza and Nikolas Cruz could be seen ashome-grown terrorists. It is timeto put aside our psychiatric manuals and to face the reality of evil. As theAmerican comic strip character, Pogo, said: "We have met the enemy andhe isus."

The wild Westgun culture in the U.S. isrightlyattributedto the perverse power of the National Rifle Association (NRA), whose strategyis to expand the unrestricted ownership ofguns. The NRA is a sophisticatedlobby for arms manufacturers. U.S. legislators and political leaders acrosspolitical parties have treated the NRA and their lobbyists as a third rail.Even President Obama, despite his moving speeches following 14 shootings duringhis presidency, did not use his executive authority to ban the high-poweredrifles that tore out thehearts of so many schoolchildren under his watch.

Less needs to be said about our current president, whose chaotic, ramblingand contradictory responses following the Valentines Day high school massacrein Florida show him tobe confused at best and a coward at worst, desperatelylooking from one staffer to another, to cover his tracks. The idea that Trump,of all people, would have jumped into the highschool shooting "without a gun" is a childish fantasy, reminiscent of the national folklore about the Kentuckycongressman, Davy Crockett, "grinning down a bear."

An epidemic of cowardice has shackled some American politicians across theparties. Following the Tucson, Arizona, shoot-out of 2011, in which six peoplewere killed (includinga federal judge) and 18 others were seriously injured,former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, one of the injured, wrote in the New York Times about her struggle to regain theability to speak and touse her right leg and arm. She expressed disappointment in thefailure of Congress to pass a bill increasing background checks on gunowners,while she also reassured her readers that she and her husband were "politicalmoderates" and "proud gunowners." She asked that identified "stalkers" and "domestic abusers" be prohibited from purchasing guns, avoiding the problemofpublicshootings. She advocated mental healthcounselinginschools so that the "dangerously mentally ill might find iteasier to receivetreatment than to buy firearms." Governor Jerry Brown told me thatin the state of California it has been prisons,not schools or communities, that receive thebulk of state funds for mentalhealth care.

Radical hope

The U.S. isthe only democracy that allows its citizens to purchase and store privatearsenals of war weapons in their homes. Today there is a change in the air.Second Amendmentfundamentalists who repeat the NRAs mantra that more guns inthe right hands will stop mass shootings are ridiculed. Beyond theSecond Amendmentthat originally had in mindanorganized militia, notindividual gun slingers, we have a constitution that guarantees the right tolife, liberty and happiness "natural" rights that have been ripped away fromourschoolchildren.

Bill Clintons hope that business communities could play a role inpreventing mass shootings is playing out today in the voluntary reduction,restriction and boycotting ofautomatic weapons by some of the nations largestsellers of guns and ammunition in the U.S. Dicks Sporting Goods, Walmart andthe Kroger Company have begun to clear theiraisles of automatic rifles andguns. The momentum is growing and Delta Airlines has decided to refuse specialdeals for NRA members. We hope that a chain of boycotts, driven bya sense ofpolitical and moral decency will follow suit.

However, it is the inspirational mobilization of the teenage survivors of the Florida massacre that is waking up an aging country of voters long asleep at the wheel. The truth is that house guns and automatic rifles kill children as well as animals in a horrific way. Pity the surgeons who tried to save the young peoples bodies and organs that were destroyed by shrapnel, so that the local emergency department looked like a field hospital in Syria. " Bones are exploded and soft tissues are absolutely destroyed," one surgeon lamented.

On February 28, we went to a school play at Santa Fe High School in New Mexico, a production of "26 Pebbles," a dramatization of the voices ofchildren, parents, teachers, clergy andordinary citizens who were torn asunder by the Sandy Hook school shooting. Thedrama teacher apologetically introduced the play saying thatit was perhaps tooclose to the horrendous school shooting in Florida. He wanted to cancel it, buthis high school students insisted that they could handle it, even though therehadbeen a real threat to the school a few days earlier. The campus of Santa FeHigh School is large and the theater seemed vulnerable. Nineteen high schoolstudents acted the parts ofthe Sandy Hook survivors, their families and thecommunityas theyprocessed the mass killing of small children in the iconic NewEngland town. The playwright, Eric Ulloa, hadconducted interviews with realmembers of the Newtown community and crafted their narratives into a dramaticpresentation revealing a tsunami of contradictory emotions,thoughts andsuffering that followed the horrific event. It was a sombre evening. The youngactors were ready, but some were visibly trembling. The audience was quiet, theapplause decorous and the schoolmates with flowers were shy about giving themto the cast. Cars filled up and quickly exited. Too much burden on the studentactors, I thought. Butnot so. The following day (March 1), the students held apublic rally. They yelled, they wept, and they pledged to "have a voice" against gun violence. Among the speakers was asenior student, Sophie Colson,who asked a question that captured the generational divide: "Are your guns moreimportant than our lives?"

The Floridastudent leaders have forcefully articulated their right to be safe from gunviolence in schools that should be a childrens sanctuary. They alsoarticulated the right to livein a world that is not cloaked in the fear ofanother mass killing in their schools. Theirs is the first cohort that haslived with the everyday terror of school massacres. In 1941President FDRarticulated the four freedoms that all people ought to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Our children have everyright todemand that society protect them from fear and provide them with abasic trust in their ontological security in the world. Converting schools intoarmed fortresses and teachers andcustodians into riot squads can only increasetheir sense of ontological insecurity. Surely there is "something rotten" in a nation state that allows a smallminority of adults, the 3.7 percent of the population who own half of the 300 millionguns awash in the country, to override the two-thirds of ourcitizenswho wantstronger gun controls and the banning of assault weapons. We now live in a society in which ourpresident behaves like a petulant baby tyrant, and our teenage youth leadersbehave like sober and rational adults.