We had yet another high school shooting, with 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis in Santa Fe, Texas, prowling the hallways shooting 23 teachers and classmates, killing 10 and wounding 13. Most discussions about this and all of the similar cases are focusing on the “how”; that is, the availability of guns, so that even children and adolescents are getting them. That’s a legitimate question, though it leads us away from the specific problem of adolescent violence to broader legal and constitutional controversies. I’d like us here to discuss not the “how” but the “why.”
Why would these young people want to get a gun and use it to kill their classmates? Why would some high school students get it into their mind to murder their classmates, including peers whom they didn’t even know? Why would they have no inhibitions that would prevent them from shooting a fellow teenager? Why would they have so little empathy, compassion, or conscience?
Someone who would do such a thing would be highly desensitized to violence. He would have to regard his classmates not as fellow human beings like himself, but as dehumanized objects. He would have to have cultivated an inner darkness, enjoying the thrill of transgression.
Why would a young person get this way? We could answer that in terms of the mystery of iniquity–our fallen nature, sin, and the devil–just as secularists could offer up a psychological reason: the young man was insane. Both kinds of answers have validity, but I would like to drill down further to some specifics: Why are these adolescents tempted as they are to this particular sin of murder? What made them insane?
I would like to propose two areas for our reflection.
How Adolescent Males Entertain Themselves
The mindset of a teenaged shooter involves being desensitized to violence, dehumanizing others, and the cultivation of darkness and transgression, can it be that one factor in forming this mindset is entertainment that is violent, dehumanizing, dark, and transgressive?
The entertainment culture–the music, graphic novels, movies, websites, and video games–that is sold to adolescents today is very much that way. I know that it is no longer fashionable to blame the video games and other entertainment media for adolescent violence, as it once was, but I don’t think we have ever thought this through sufficiently.
Seventeen-year-old Dimitrios, the Santa Fe killer, had a photo of himself on his Facebook page wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Born to Kill.” Who sold him that T-shirt? Why would a company make, market, and sell such a product? Reportedly, every time he shot a classmate, he would recite the line from the popular song, “another one bites the dust!” He was wearing a trench coat–in 90 degree weather–just like in The Matrix movie, just like the Columbine killers–and the Florida killer dressed up in paramilitary garb, theatrical costumes suggesting that they were playing a role in a story.
Consider video games. I know they have become very sophisticated, have complex narratives, are art forms, etc., etc. I’m not against them at all. But isn’t it true that many of them are still “first-person shooters,” in which the player basically strolls through a setting shooting people?
But that’s not real! Of course it isn’t. And that’s the problem. You are shooting people and watching the increasingly realistic effects of their blood spattering and their brains flying everywhere, but they aren’t real. No one is real. Only you. This is why such games are dehumanizing. And also desensitizing, since you commit virtual violence and it doesn’t bother you. Rather, it is fun.But there is no evidence that violent video games are harmful! Maybe such games are cathartic, offering a purely imaginary channel for our psychological aggressions, which actually reduces the amount of external violence. OK, although Christians should still be concerned, since sin and its corrupting effect on the soul has to do with what goes on inside us, and not only in our external actions (see Matthew 5:21-30). And it would certainly be incorrect to say that violent video games cause violence, since if they did, we would have much more violence than we actually do.
And, yet, if, say, only two individuals out of tens of millions, decided to act out in reality what they played in virtual reality, the percentage would be statistically insignificant. You couldn’t prove causation or correlation from such small numbers. And yet those two would still have shot up two high schools, and their actions could have been shaped by their games.
We often talk about the beneficial, elevating effects of the arts. If the arts, considered broadly, are so powerful that they can make us more sensitive, more human, more compassionate, why do we assume that they could not have an equally powerful impact in the other direction?
Could it be that our schools and the youth culture they form might also be desensitizing, dehumanizing, and transgressive?
The knock against home-schoolers is that they should send their kids to schools for “socialization.” But what kind of socialization comes from segregating hundreds of children together, socializing only with their peers, with little adult supervision outside of the classroom? That is certainly not “normal,” by historic standards.
Is it any wonder that Lord of the Flies conditions sometimes emerge? Hundreds of adolescents spending most of their time with each other is a formula for cliques, social pressure, quests for popularity, rejection, status climbing, tribalism, resentments, cruelty, and hurts of all kinds.
The shooters sometimes have been bullied, and sometimes they are the bullies. The Columbine killers were pathological loners. But Dimitrios was on the football team. It has been observed that the shooters are becoming more and more “normal.”
Would it help to have smaller schools, ones that would presumably be more “personal”?
More parental involvement in their adolescent’s lives, more family relationships with their siblings and other relatives to supplement their friends, would seem to help.
But I don’t know. Any suggestions?
In the early school shootings, the perpetrators would give their performance a big finale by killing themselves or letting themselves be killed by police. But these last two surrendered meekly and are now in custody.
This gives us the chance to interrogate them deeply, to get inside their heads. I’d be curious how they entertained themselves, what video games they played and what music they listen to (Death Metal?). I’d be curious what they say about their school, their peers, and their families.
Maybe then we could get some answers about the why’s of adolescent violence.
Illustration: Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto IV by Silvio Sousa Cabral via Flickr, Creative Commons License