It’s difficult to think about the mass shootings that have become a regular feature of American life because the conversations that follow them repel thought. When Nikolas Cruz got out of his Uber ride on February 14, 2018, and entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15, he reanimated a gun-control debate that had been dormant for only four months, when Harvey Weinstein’s firing in October knocked the Las Vegas shooting off the top of the New York Times’ website. The gun-control debate is a Frankenstein’s monster, undead and therefore unkillable, shedding bits of flesh with each passing year but senselessly marching along, no different from what it was after Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine. There is no other public debate so thoroughly permeated by bad faith. Democrats do not “love” and “respect” the Second Amendment (they are just too frightened to say so). Republicans do not think an AR-15 is for hunting (they are just too frightened, for now, to state their belief that an unlimited capacity for violence is the birthright of all white men). Neither party is at all troubled by the quantity of violence the United States exports to people all over the world.
This time around, magical forces — that is, young people — were supposed to save us from the gun-control debate. There was something unsettling or self-serving about the excess of praise adults heaped on the Stoneman Douglas students who boarded charter buses bound for the Tallahassee statehouse just a few days after watching their classmates die. “This shooting is different from the other ones,” a 16-year-old boy told a Times reporter. “I just have a gut feeling — something is going to change.” It’s understandable that the student should feel this way; no previous school shooting had happened in his school, to his friends and teachers, and no previous group of school-shooting survivors had organized so quickly, on such a scale, in response. But his representatives quickly demonstrated that it was not different enough. Florida’s legislature voted down a motion to debate an assault-weapons ban. Later, at a nationally televised town-hall meeting, a Stoneman Douglas junior brought the crowd to its feet by asking Senator Marco Rubio whether he would refuse further donations from the NRA. Rubio said he would not refuse them, and he was not hesitant or ashamed to explain why. “I will always accept the help of anyone who agrees with my agenda,” he said. “People buy into my agenda.” These government officials may sincerely care about the safety of the children they represent, but they do not care about what the children themselves have to say about what would make them feel safe.
In March, the students had another go at making their representatives listen, with #MarchForOurLives protests organized all over the country on the first Saturday of spring. Just as the Women’s Marches had turned tens of thousands of previously depoliticized middle-class women into community activists, candidates for local office, and Democratic campaign volunteers, these marches, too, looked like a moment of genuine political awakening. In many of the speeches you could hear a demand for drastic change learning to voice itself. A striking thing about this demand, however, was that when voiced in its most powerful form, it quickly moved beyond school shootings to broader concerns: the economic despair of working-class communities, the racism at the heart of American policing, the steady and intentional impoverishment of the country’s public schools. A number of speakers said the name of Stephon Clark, the young, unarmed black man who was shot twenty times in the back by police in his grandmother’s backyard less than a week before the marches. You could sense these young activists realizing what kind of country they’re being raised in, the kinds of lives they’re being prepared to live, and mustering all their energy, all at once, to try to change something. To see that desperate energy was inspiring and awful in equal measure.
In Washington, however, and in much of the media coverage of the marches, children were portrayed as calling for little more than the most toothless of what Obama always called “common-sense” gun-safety measures: restrictions on assault weapons, intensified background checks, closer communication between police and mental-health professionals, bans on bump stocks. Some of the teen activists really were just calling for these things. In the Guardian, the staff of the Stoneman Douglas student newspaper published what they called a “manifesto” for new gun laws, demanding the reforms listed above and funding for armed police to patrol all of the country’s public schools. The caution of these brand-new activists was visible here, as were the guiding hands of the adult liberal wonks and politicos who have uselessly pursued these half measures for years — adults who clearly believe that with traumatized children to speak for them, they’ll finally get what they want.
What they’ll get, it looks like, are the bump-stock bans, plus a raise in some states of the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21, plus federal funding for metal detectors and more police officers in schools. By now we know that these legislative measures will increase, not decrease, the number of guns in schools and public places. They will intensify the surveillance and criminalization of mental illness, and when specially trained and certified teachers begin to keep guns in their desks in case the worst happens, the worst eventually will happen, and then we’ll have teachers gunning down their own students while trying to save them. An armed police officer was stationed at Columbine on the day of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s massacre, and more than a dozen police were assigned to Virginia Tech’s campus when Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people over the course of two hours. Cops don’t stop shooters. What they do is target children. Police have conducted around one million arrests in public schools since Columbine. But because “evil walks among us,” in the words of NRA head Wayne LaPierre, we will “harden our schools.”
This dystopian vision of American life is one the country has been actively pursuing for nearly two decades. Soon after September 11, 2001, Americans made a collective decision that in response to a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe, an event whose scale and devastation were unrepeatable, large swaths of American life, as well as the country’s relationship to most of the world, would be militarized on a permanent basis. Since then, the ways in which politicians and journalists have responded to terrorist attacks and school shootings have been so consistently similar that it seems foolish not to think of the shootings as extensions of the war we are waging around the world, epiphenomena of the war on terror. Public discussions of terrorism and mass shootings both lean heavily, for example, on an exaggerated sense of danger that bears little resemblance to the risks that actually menace us. On American soil, more people have been killed by falling furniture and appliances than by jihadist terrorists since September 11. In schools, roughly two hundred children have been killed by gunfire since 2000. That’s almost twelve children a year — or, to put it another way, about three-hundredths of 1 percent of the thirty-three thousand Americans who have been killed by gunfire every year, on average, over that time period. To allow school shootings to drive the policy debate on gun violence, as they currently do, is like allowing traffic safety policy to be dominated by discussions of the drivers who die when a piano being moved by a crane slips out of its harness and drops onto the roof of a sedan.
Numbers are not everything. The murder of an ordinary person will do little to register in the public imagination beyond a day or two of news coverage, while the murder of a head of state will provoke an international crisis. The symbolic resonance of a violent act matters, and a society that guns down children in school is one in which something has gone very wrong. But as with terrorist attacks, the symbolism of school shootings mutates into spectacle, and if symbolism resonates like a plucked guitar string, the spectacle is the sound of that string fed into an amplifier and then trapped in a feedback loop, increasing in volume and intensity until the only possible response is panic and anger. Al Qaeda achieved what it wanted on September 11 insofar as the attacks were successfully spectacular, a series of Hollywood-style explosions in real life, filmed and photographed from every possible angle, in the biggest news-media town in the world. The broadcast images of September 11 were as much the attack as the destruction of the buildings and the people inside them. The power of school shootings similarly derives in part from their spectacular qualities, the photographs of children sobbing in each other’s arms, the aerial footage of students streaming out of school in a line, hunched forward with their hands aloft as SWAT officers scream at them to get clear of the building. Stoneman Douglas added an element not seen before: cell phone videos shot by the students as they huddled in a classroom corner and waited for help to arrive. One video, shot from the back of the group, showed that a number of students were all filming at the same time. Police officers with assault weapons entered the room and told everyone to put their hands up. One set of hands, at the very edge of the frame, was shaking uncontrollably. The officer told everyone to put down their phones, and a few students began to sob as the video ended. These images are like the sound of a sick infant wailing, so viscerally upsetting as to make one feel that anything to make them stop would be justifiable.
Debates about how to stop the attacks, however, have been at pains to confine themselves to the tools used to carry them out and to methods of physical prevention: how to keep potential shooters from buying weapons, how to improve police-response times, how to ensure that FBI screenings don’t miss any red flags. These debates have stayed away from questions of motivation that bear equally on preventing attacks. Why school shootings? Why not supermarket shootings? Why mass shootings? Why assault weapons and crowds of innocent people and suicidal attacks? The school shooter’s reasons for carrying out his attacks, like the terrorist’s, are treated in public debate as either totally unknowable or pathological, outside the realm of rational thought. In the time since the Stoneman Douglas shooting, President Trump has described Nikolas Cruz and mass shooters in general as “mentally disturbed,” “a big problem,” “a savage sicko,” “cowards,” and “bad people.” The less vulgar among us use different words that mean the same thing, assuming that shooters must be mentally ill. We talk about terrorists in the same way, as “cowards,” “fanatics,” members of a “death cult.” In the first major speech he gave after September 11, Bush said that the terrorists “hate our freedoms.” In America, “hate our freedoms” is how you use the vocabulary of a civics class to call someone mentally ill.
But the motivations of terrorists and mass shooters are neither unknowable nor pathological. Al Qaeda carried out the attacks on September 11 because of the sanctions levied against Iraq by the United Nations in 1990, the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War, and America’s support of Israel, Egypt, and other repressive Middle Eastern regimes. Since then, America’s military adventures throughout much of the Middle East have continued to serve as a potent recruiting tool for jihadists. The profile and motivations of mass shooters are also more or less understood by psychologists and sociologists. Mass shooters are socially isolated young men who are angry because they feel they are not getting the social standing, attention, and recognition they deserve. Their attacks are efforts to force the people around them to recognize them at last.
As for the cultural environment that makes mass shootings seem like an attractive outlet for these feelings of isolation and rage, some investigators have plausibly cited video games as a contributing factor, not so much for their explicit violence as for their obsession with narratives in which almost exclusively white male heroes remake the world around them, all on their own, by killing people. The intensely competitive atmosphere of American education may also play a role. As Malcolm Harris wrote in an editorial for Al Jazeera, “In a society that pits each kid against the whole world for a shrinking number of success slots, shooting up your school seems like a misunderstanding. You’re only supposed to figuratively kill all your classmates.”
Terrorism is another of these factors. Today’s mass shooters have all grown up in a country that lives in constantly reinforced fear of a kind of violent spectacle in which an individual who is willing to die selects a public place and kills as many people as he can. No other violent act is more feared, more discussed, more capable of causing society to change itself — nothing gets more attention and recognition. The mass shooting is our domestic variant of the jihadist terrorist attack. Were the US to abandon the specter of terrorism as the organizing principle of the country’s foreign policy, travel laws, and security procedures, the mass shooting would lose much of its dark appeal. But during this century so far, America has responded to terrorist attacks by deepening its fears and further entrenching itself in militarism and surveillance. It is responding to mass shootings in much the same way. So long as that pattern holds, angry and unstable young men will continue to act in accordance with the world they’ve inherited.