February
15th 2008
Heartbreaking. Now where is our outrage?

Posted under: American history, Gender, unhappy endings

Well, another campus has been visited with death and destructionSix Five innocent students dead (so far) and fifteen sixteen wounded, including the graduate student instructor.  When I wrote the post Where can I get a high-fashion kevlar vest? last Friday morning, I was a bit prankish in tone at the end.  I should probably clarify my position:  I don’t actually think faculty and students should arm themselves for combat when going to class.  I’m outraged at the crazy right-wing gun nuts whose response to the Virginia Tech murders was “well, those wimpy students should have armed themselves so that they could take the shooter down.”  I think there’s nothing more destructive of creating a mutually respectful culture of learning than these murders and the chorus of gun nuts who believe that more guns in classrooms is the answer.  My suggestion that people should “start packing heat, if that’s your style,” was more an expression of frustration at our political culture’s inability to ensure our safety in schools and universities than a clarion call for faculty to “lock’n'load.”

One of my hooks for that post was that I saw little if any discussion about gender in the mainstream media analyses of these mass shootings–which is strange, because they are overwhelmingly committed by boys and men, and you know if they were mostly committed by women, that would be considered a very notable fact.  In the comments to that post, Nick corrected me gently and pointed out that sociologist Michael Kimmel has written about masculinity and gender issues in these mass shootings.  His article, “Adolescent Masculinity, Homophobia, and Violence (2003) analyzes junior high and high-school shootings from 1982-2001, and makes a persuasive case that gender is clearly an issue in the 1990s school shootings, as he found that “nearly all had stories of being constantly bullied, beaten up, and, most significantly for this analysis, ‘gay-baited,’” (p. 1445), not because they were gay, but because they didn’t conform to a particular performance of masculinity.  I’m not sure that his analysis is entirely useful for understanding the more recent mass-shootings of the 2000s, which appear to involve older perpetrators (men in their late teens and early 20s, instead of school-age boys) engaged in more random attacks (in Salt Lake City, Virginia TechOmaha, Denver/Colorado Springs, and now Northern Illinois University.  Mind you–that’s just the random mass shootings that have occured in the last year, from February 12, 2007 to February 14, 2008!)  Still, it’s a solid and accessible academic article that attempts to grapple with the overwhelming fact that troubled boys and men are much more prone to pick up guns than girls and women are.

What the hell kind of country is this?  Is there really no way to 1) divest ourselves of gun worship and home arsenals, 2) strictly limit firearms access to stable, mentally healthy people, and 3) screen for and identify potentially troubled students who might be prone to violence?  (Knitting Clio asks, relative to point #3, ”Why do the responses to such shootings never include increasing funding for mental health services to students?”  She is right–mental health services should not be restricted just to identifying and eliminating potentially violent students.  They should get treatment, too.)  Why isn’t this a bigger priority in our politics?  Is the big, bad gun lobby really more terrifying than seeing another episode of mass carnage in the newspaper?  Really?  Think of the hundreds–hundreds–of parents who are grieving and bereft now because their children went to school or college, like their parents hoped they would, and went to class like they were supposed to.

If you’re interested, here is some information on women’s Kevlar vests.  They range in price from $380-$549, so it’s not a trivial investment, but I’m not ruling it out.  I’m starting to think that faculty should organize to demand them in their benefits packages–a one-time purchase that’s surely less expensive than running a search to replace a dead colleague. 

16 Comments »

16 Responses to “Heartbreaking. Now where is our outrage?”

  1. Heather Munro Prescott on 15 Feb 2008 at 11:50 am #

    Thanks for the cross-link to my website. I would like to add some thoughts regarding gender (and race). Last week’s shooting at Louisiana Technical College received only a “quick take” in Inside Higher Education and a slightly longer piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Yet it is note worthy in that the shooter deviates from the standard pattern in that she was an African American female. Perhaps she is the exception that proves the rule or perhaps the gender and racial politics of these incidents deserve further scrutiny.

  2. Historiann on 15 Feb 2008 at 12:04 pm #

    That’s a good point–Kimmel addresses race in his article, noting that (on pp. 1442-43) in the 1980s the modal school shooting was committed by a male student of color in urban, inner-city high schools, and he suggests that there was less interest in these shootings because of the “inherent” violence of the city. Only when the perps turned into middle-class white boys and young men did media interest blossom. So, I think it’s quite possible that the race of last week’s assailant may explain the lack of media attention. (I thought it was really strange myself, the lack of reporting.) White kids aren’t “supposed” to be violent, but a violent black person is merely fulfilling cultural expectations.

    How sad is it that we can refer to “last week’s assailant,” to distinguish her from this week’s assailant? How sad that killing merely 2 students doesn’t really make headlines any more.

  3. nicole on 15 Feb 2008 at 2:05 pm #

    I too have been deeply disturbed to learn of our most recent campus shooting. We seem to have culturally lost a respect for human life (and I’m not talking about fetuses here but walking, talking, living humans). I am scared, infuriated and honestly left distraught at the thought that at any moment someone could end MY exciting, fulfilling life. And for what? There is nothing noble about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. What makes these people’s lives expendable? This is a cruel reality that I am struggling to come to terms with.

  4. Heather Munro Prescott on 15 Feb 2008 at 5:36 pm #

    According to the latest AP story,

    “If there is such a thing as a profile of a mass murderer, Steven Kazmierczak didn’t fit it: outstanding student, engaging, polite and industrious, with what looked like a bright future in the criminal justice field.”

    I think this demonstrates the complexity and difficulty of profiling who is a threat and who is not.

  5. mary on 15 Feb 2008 at 6:24 pm #

    I have also find this phenomenon to be distressing. Last spring, I walked out of the film 300 because I was so disgusted at its portrayal (and reward) of hyper-militant masculinity. It’s not squeamish when it comes to these things—its just that I saw the film two days after the Virginia Tech shootings and could not sit in the theater and support an industry that still perpetuates these themes. Since I had already spent my eight dollars, I hoped that that my gesture would resonate with other audience members. I think it did little good seeing as most of my friends –save my male companion and Nicole-found the move to be radical and accused me of over-analyzing everything. My point is that I agree with historiann that there continues to be a strange lack of anger and weird disconnect when it comes to school shootings and the media’s portrayal of masculinity.
    Obviously, I think that that the media is not solely responsible for this issue. Knitting Clio makes some excellent points about the problems with profiling shooters and rightly suggests that this problem extends far beyond age, gender, and race. And Historiann points out the lack of mental health care- especially among young people. Having graduated three and a half years ago from high school, I feel qualified to say that mental health issues among young people continue to be a major issue-at least half a dozen of my friends from high school attempted or seriously considered suicide most of whom were also cutting, while most of my female friends had engaged in extremely unhealthy eating habits-and most of these individuals were AP/Honors students with otherwise bright futures ahead of them. Ultimately, I think these are important issues that go unreported until tragedy happens. I wish I had some better solutions or insight into these problems-I think strengthening gun control laws is at least a start.

  6. David on 16 Feb 2008 at 8:55 am #

    This was a major topic of conversation at school yesterday. (My school had an incident several years ago in which an outcome like this was narrowly averted by one undergraduate student tackling the shooter–and being seriously injured in the process.)

    My personal view is that this is very much, in terms of gender, a “masculinity” issue–although not in exactly the same way as the high school shootings of the 1990s. I think it is more about trying to project some sense of your own power onto your surroundings, when you feel helpless, weak, and marginalized. Of course, the issue of mental illness is just as acute here.

    My personal take is that the masculinity and mental illness issues won’t go away anytime soon. I know it has somehow become unpopular to say this, but I think private ownership of guns should be banned, period. Get rid of the waiting periods, the background checks, etc. and just make ownership of guns illegal. Redirect all the resources being used to fight the “drug war” to fight the “gun war” by going after the black market in firearms that will undoubtedly strengthen after guns are banned.

    But, of course, touching that political issue has become anathema, so there’s really nothing we can do but wait for the next shooting to hit, and hope it doesn’t happen in one of our classrooms.

  7. ej on 16 Feb 2008 at 9:53 am #

    I have to say, as jaded as I’ve become over the last 7 1/2 years, I am still disturbed by the complete lack of discussion regarding the gun issue regarding this man’s actions. Weather he was obviously disturbed, or “revered on campus”, if he hadn’t had access to those guns, he wouldn’t have been able to kill 5 people. Its as simple as that.

    But once again, in the aftermath of a horrible incident, which seems to be becoming almost commonplace these days, its not even a topic of discussion among the media.

    God forbid one of the people he shot would have been carrying a fetus-though actually then we might get some conservatives in this conversation!

  8. Historiann on 16 Feb 2008 at 10:37 am #

    David–I agree, it’s a problem with masculinity. Even if the guy was off his meds, it’s clearly a gendered thing to pick up guns and as you say, try to “project some sense of your own power,” when feeling so angry and powerless. I agree with both you and ej that we need to make this a political issue again, but I think a lot of sane people are just so demoralized by the perceived power of the gun lobby that they don’t even try. I just might get one of those Kevlar vests–it would certainly make a strong statement about the safety of my work environment if I showed up every day to lecture in a bulletproof vest.

    One of the commonalities between the V-Tech and NIU shootings is that the guns and ammo were purchased in fairly short order before the attacks. Perhaps states or the Feds could require that people buying guns have to go through a mental health check/interview before they’re allowed to arm up like that, rather than just prevent people with documented mental health problems from buying guns (like the new law in Virginia does, I believe.) I think a counselor or psychologist would have detected Cho’s antisocial vibe, and perhaps would also have picked up Kazmierczak’s being off his meds.

    But, I don’t think this country will ever permit citizens to be disarmed. The interesting thing about living in the West is that a LOT of people have guns here–not just right-wing 2nd Amendment fundamentalists, but liberal college professors, women’s studies people, etc. It’s not that way in the East, or at least it wasn’t when I lived there. But, living out in the West, it’s best to assume people have guns for recreational use and ask ahead of time if they’re locked up before your child goes over to someone’s house to play…

  9. Nicole on 16 Feb 2008 at 10:50 am #

    We had an interesting event in the Loveland school district this week wherein a bunch of middle school wrestlers decided it would be fun to touch their own genitals and anuses and then wipe their hands on a few other boys’ faces. The six offenders were suspended much to the discontent of quite a few Coloradoans who ranted “boys will be boys” etc. A mother of one of the lucky recipients of such treatment withdrew her son from the school district (and then received a great deal of criticism for enabling weakness in her son). This situation, along with the other school shootings that occurred this week, highlight the fact that we have ONE acceptable form of masculinity in our society and further any boy who doesn’t conform to that is then a target in our society. The targeted ones that are healthy and have solid support systems tend to grow up fine (unless they happen to get beat up or killed for whatever makes them less masculine- like being homosexual). There are a few however that aren’t healthy and because of their lack of masculinity are socially stigmatized and never make connections in society thus becoming the most dangerous type of people out there. In some of these paraiahs’ final moments they seem to take their masculinity back by doing the most masculine thing they can- using a gun (Historiann, your research on colonial attitudes towards guns and masculinity can probably shed light for us here). I believe we need to stop the “boys will be boys” b.s. and start treating hyper masculinity like we do eating disorders for women- start introducing conferences for young men to go to on self esteem building and allowing men to discuss the pressures they feel to be masculine. Women are granted the space to do these things but men are not. (Note: I am not arguing that these pro-girl conferences etc are solving women’s problems re: body image but rather noting that we see eating disorders as a crisis in young women and spend a lot of money trying to solve them).
    I think sexism is often seen as only hurting women (I would argue we are materially marginalized to a far greater extent however psychologically I believe the marginalization is profound for both sexes).
    How do we begin to deconstruct masculinity in our culture? As a school teacher I’d like to know ASAP!

  10. Baudrillard's Bastard on 16 Feb 2008 at 11:07 am #

    the mystery of the violence

    These scenes are the illustration of a power which, reaching its extreme point, no longer knows what to do with itself

  11. Historiann on 16 Feb 2008 at 11:09 am #

    Ugh. That’s disgusting. Here’s a link to the story:

    http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_8249247

    I think what this story also suggests is the enabling and encouragement that boys and young men in high school and college sports get from their parents and elders. Who the heck could seriously argue that this was appropriate behavior? Only those who subscribe to the “boys will be boys/win at all costs” mentality, which as you say Nicole is a very narrow vision of masculinity.

    I guess all any of us can do as teachers is encourage your students to talk about these issues in class, perhaps gender issues especially, because I’m under the impression that most parents reinforce rather than question cultural norms and expectations. If you make a connection to some troubled students, you might save their lives and that of their classmates, because it strikes me that the men who have committed mass-murder recently have been cut off (or cut themselves off) from sympathetic mentors and peers. You might also get them to re-think some of the bullying students engage in, and force them to talk to one another as fellow human beings rather than as “types” of people they can disparage for fun in order to bond with their friends.

  12. Nicole on 16 Feb 2008 at 11:28 am #

    For the really interesting reader comments on this story I refer you to:
    http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/feb/13/nasty-incident-suspends-wrestlers/

  13. Historiann on 16 Feb 2008 at 11:30 am #

    Oh no–not the Rocky Mountain News Comments! No one needs to see that up close, Nicole!

  14. ortho stice on 19 Feb 2008 at 8:26 am #

    In addition to gender, I wonder if we can use class as a category to analyze school shootings?

    Discussions of college shootings must address the enormous amount of stress that affects all people (students, professors, contingent faculty, grad students, support staff) who labor within the corporate university. The corporate university creates a culture of stress and anxiety that contributes to many mental health problems such as depression. A critique of the corporate university should be at the center of any analysis of recent campus shootings.

  15. Link Love - A Historian :) « Like a Whisper on 27 Jan 2009 at 2:53 am #

    [...] is not insular disciplinary amusement, but rather two posts that I think my readers should read: Heartbreaking. Now Where is Our Outrage and Jacking the Internet for the Forces of [...]

  16. Maj. Nidal Hasan, MD: just an all-American guy : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 12 Nov 2009 at 10:29 am #

    [...] clear to me that he’s just another mass-murderer in our all-American tradition in which socially maladjusted men, who in spite of also being religiously insane and/or suffering from acute misogyny, are permitted [...]

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