(I originally posted this article in Good Men Project back in June 20, 2014 after the Isla Vista killings. 4 years later and NOTHING has changed.)
Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.
As we horribly wait for the next school shooting, which should happen in a couple of weeks if the prevalent pattern continues, we desperately try to find answers and solutions. We try to empathize with the killers, if for no other reason, out of guilt for failing these young men. You would think with the 74 school shootings within the last 18 months, we would have a clear profile by now. Yet, to date, the FBI’s attempts to profile school shooters haven’t found a determinative set of specific traits they consider good predictors. These were ordinary men and boys who chose out of the ordinary actions to express themselves… And there lies the profile, “Ordinary Young Men.”
And we begin to feel sorry for them and our guilt kicks in. Did we really ignore the suffering of these young men? Did we bully them into retribution? Did we ignore all the signs of mental illness evident to cause these disasters? Is our society really this messed up?
And then, one interesting bit of information pops up. FBI studies show that school shooters tended to feel an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and that they reacted negatively when they were not treated the way they felt they were entitled to be treated. This sense of entitlement usually promotes an expressed intolerant attitude toward racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as towards women and the LGBT community; all groups they view as being given unfair “special treatment.” This results in a sense of “aggrieved entitlement”, and as they view themselves as someone who “should be” at the top of the social order, this heightens their sense of being mistreated. When we take this into account, we begin to realize true magnitude of the problem.
As we think of criminal violence, we have the idea of the chaotic city, where random shootings done by “bad guys” carrying illegal guns happen every day. This fear has led to a rise of the “safer” homogenous community. What they have failed to realize is this kind of community is exactly where active shooter situations happen. Almost all school shootings happen in suburban and rural districts with multiple seemingly random or unspecific targets. The vast majority of these events were committed with guns purchased legally. Most of the killings were committed with semi-automatic hand guns or assault rifles.
But as psychologists try to create a profile of mass shooters, they are hit with the problem of “ordinariness.” As we try to create a relationship between mental health and active shooters; the reality is that most people with mental illness are not violent.
Many mass shootings are motivated by revenge or envy. That’s why many take place at a school or a workplace where shooters felt rejected. But again, to what degree is this feel a result of an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and to what degree is it actual rejection? These killers often exhibit risk factors that are generally tied to criminality: a history of abusive behavior, a tendency to hurt animals, a sadistic streak, self-centeredness, and a lack of compassion.
They plan out their actions and research their intended target area. In around 80% of school shootings at least one person had information that the attacker was thinking about or planning the school attack. In nearly 2/3, more than one person had information about the attack before it occurred. But how can this happen right under our noses without anyone noticing? We DO notice, but we choose to look the other way. And that’s where we have failed as a society.
The shooter may have journals; videos which they may send out to media outlets just before the attack or leave them accessible to the police. They may play off the notoriety of such events, fantasying about the infamy they will receive. At its core, these shootings are nothing more than an extreme demonstration of Trolling, an exhibition of egotistical narcissism to challenge the ordinary lives they lead.
We tell our kids every day just how special they are, and how proud we are of them no matter what. We love to brag as to how we feed their need to feel accepted, loved, and cared for, even if we don’t actually do it. We will fight any teacher who says they aren’t good enough or insult any coach who doesn’t take them into the team. We will sweep under the rug any problems they got into because that’s what a parent does. We will stand and fight for them, no matter what, because it’s our kid, and they are special and unique and the best kid around. Just like every other kid in their neighborhood.
Some embrace this sameness, others are eaten by it.
And we see the results of this attitude expressed all over society. From this perspective, we can realize how Elliot Rodger’s actions were a result of this aggrieved entitlement, and not just his hatred towards women. We can understand where a comment like “being sexually assaulted is a coveted status” comes from and the need to walk around with a fully loaded high powered rifle to go and pick up a box of Oreos. They create a disconnect with reality, where the only thing that matters is being the center of attention. They openly want the position of martyr, because at least as a martyr they are somebody. With all the media coverage, a school shooting is the ultimate demonstration of this attitude.
There is a way we can fix this situation and it’s creating a mentality of empathy, but not in the way you think. It’s not about being empathic with the boys, but about teaching them empathy. We need to fight the current society of self-centered narcissistic trolls that promotes this current trend of notoriety hunting. We need to stop worrying about the world we are leaving our children and start focusing what kind of children we are leaving the world.