Friday, April 20, 2007

Virginia Tech: Is the Scene of the Crime the Cause of the Crime?

Today's AlterNet has an excellent column by Mark Ames about school shootings:

Like their rage counterparts in the adult world, school shooters could be literally any kid except perhaps those who belonged to the popular crowd, the school's version of the executive/shareholding class. That is to say, about 90 percent of each suburban school's student body is a possible suspect.

I believe this at the very least suggests that the source of these rampages must be the environment that creates them, not the killers themselves. And by environment I don't mean something as vague as society but rather the schools and the people they shoot and bomb.

It isn't the schoolyard shooters who need to be profiled -- they can't be. It is the schools that need to be profiled.

A list should be drawn up of the characteristics and warning signs of a school ripe for massacre:
  • complaints about bullying go unpunished by an administration that supports the cruel social structure;

  • antiseptic corridors and overhead fluorescent lights reminiscent of mid-sized city airport;

  • rampant moral hypocrisy that promotes the most two-faced, mean, and shallow students to the top of the pecking order; and

  • maximally stressed parents push their kids to achieve higher and higher scores.
Schoolyard shootings are too shocking and subversive to forget. They remind us that we were just as miserable as kids as we are as adult workers. In fact, the similarities between the two, the continuity of misery and entrapment from school to office, become depressingly clear when you study the two settings in the context of these murders. Even physically, they look alike and warp the mind in similar ways: the overhead fluorescent lights, the economies-of-scale industrial carpeting and linoleum floors, the stench of cleaning chemicals in the restrooms, the same stalls with the same latches and the same metal toilet paper holders ... Then, after work or school, you go home to your suburb, where no one talks to each other and no one looks at each other, and where everyone, even the whitest-bread cul-de-sac neighbor is a suspected pedophile, making child leashes a requirement and high-tech security systems a given.

If you consider it this way, it means our entire lives, except perhaps college -- and Cho Seung-Hui reminds us that college can be hell for some people as well -- and that one summer backpacking around Europe are unbearably awful. As if our entire wretched script was designed for someone else's benefit. This is too much to handle. So the inescapable suspicion that suburban schools cause murder rampages is rejected with unrestrained hysteria -- and so it will be with college campuses in the public discussion about how to prevent more "Virginia Techs."
There's more. Go read.


T said...

Wow--that's an amazing article. It's nice to see *some* kind of thinking about this that doesn't frame it all in terms of "good" and "evil" (in the same way that "All-American" comes to stand for innocent, pure, and good, when in practice it's anything but). And I like the writer's move of explicitly linking the popular kids with shareholders--true in many cases, but certainly in the microeconomy of secondary school (I know I'm misusing "microeconomy," but what the hell!)

I was pondering this sort of thing last night, during very interrupted sleep--thinking about masculinity, and how, at root, shootings like the one this week are the ultimate form of "proof" of power--and powerful masculinity--for a kid who's been picked on as powerless, Other, and probably teased as being "gay," which translates simple difference into sexual difference.

Rob said...

Although the article does point out that girls have shot their schools up as well. I'd like to find out more about this. It's no wonder -- girls can be nightmarishly horrible to each other.

But you're right. The most primal form of personal power is sexual power. If one boy calls another one a faggot, he's trying to diminish that kid's power by taking away his maleness. Enough of that kind of thing, and the kid might just go get a gun -- a great big dick that kills people -- and reassert his power in the most overt, devastating way possible.

(Why yes, as a matter of fact I have just been to see my therapist, how did you know?)

Honestly, when I look at Cho Seung-Hui's videos, I see myself at 13. I really shudder to think what might have happened if I hadn't had the few friends I did have, if I didn't have a couple of really excellent and sympathetic teachers, if I hadn't started playing music and writing. That poor twisted kid.

t said...

Yes--I used to walk around middle school wishing I had the Evil Eye (and, at times, pretending I did). I wonder if the reason we don't hear about the girls with guns (that article was the first mention I'd read) is that the very idea goes against the way girls are socialized--that on some level, it's unthinkable to the extent that it's erased. Further, I wonder if any reporting of girls in school shootings frame the girls as not-girls in some way--taking away femininity in the same way male gunmen are theoretically gaining it. Because "real women" don't do things like that....

t (posting isn't working for me so I'm going to try the 'Anonymous' option)

Rob said...

That was an aspect of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal that really freaked a lot of people out. Lynndie England was stepping way outside the traditional mythology of acceptable female behavior, mythology that even most mainstream feminists bought into. Viz., women aren't supposed to torture; they aren't violent or sadistic; feminine energy is positive and healing and nurturing. As opposed to masculine energy, which is exploitative and destructive, right?

IMHO it's no coincidence that the MSM seemed to find the frumpiest, most mannish-looking photos of LE to run. Take away her femininity. Make her unattractive. It's easier to think of her that way.

T said...

Yes. I didn't follow that bit of news (must not have been procrastinating nearly as much when that was going on!)--but I'm sure that's what was going on. Make 'em into monsters, and then they're not like you, or more important, *you're* not like *them*. It's just that the monster-making is differently gendered...or rather, monster-making seems to involve inappropriate "masculinity"--which is a bad but all-too common choice of words. I just dipped into Carol Gilligan's The Birth of Pleasure (since I have a fellowship interview with her on Monday), and I think she's going to take this sort of equation to task--that of "masculine" = violent, etc.

In any case, it's a gendering that's no good for anyone, male, female, both, or neither.

Rob said...

Inappropriate masculinity, yeah, that's about right. Interesting since most of the photos of Lynndie England showed her abusing the prisoners sexually -- pointing at their genitals in one pic, dragging a naked prisoner around on a leash in another. So we're talking about not just female power, but specifically female sexual power as a destructive force. Which mainstream vanilla America doubtless found really unsettling to have splashed across its morning paper. No wonder they tried to make her look like such a warthog.

T said...

...because what self-respecting, God-fearing, normal (and most likely straight) woman might want to humiliate a man? ;-)

Rob said...

Not the kind we want out there hunting terrists for God and Dubya, that's for sure. :-)

T said...

Definitely not!

And there's also something to be said about the stereotype of the emasculated Asian here....

Rob said...

Hm, yeah, that's a whole other bag of halibut. Considering Cho's classmates would laugh at his accent and tell him to "go back to China." Nice, eh? Sometimes it's hard to remember it's 2007.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys. It's an interesting discussion, but I'm afraid I can't get with an apologia for mass murder that implicates vague cliches about popular kids and pushy parents and institutional design (what is this thing with flourescent lights?).

Social isolation is certainly a factor as is childhood trauma, but this kid had people try and reach out, at least at Tech it sounds like. He denied treatment and rejected his peers attempts at contact. Poor twisted kid, yes, but also grown man with untreated mental illness. A truth is that untold millions of kids with unhappy lives go on to be, if not well adjusted people, people who do NOT commit mass murder.

Children and teenagers can be very cruel to one another. It should be the job of the institutions they are in and even more so their parents to teach the cruel ones kindness, and the victims self-confidence and fortitude, not to replace flourescent light fixtures and make prettier bathroom stalls. And hopefully the upshot of this whole tragic thing will be a raising of everyone's consciousness of mental illness so someone like this does not go untreated.

I'm sure there was more in the article... I just barely have time to read what's there and write this, it just really got me thinking with kids of my own, what if I had seen those signs. "Quiet and reserved" is convenient for people to ignore, but noisy and demanding is a lot healthier.

sara said...

Just a wee note (this is Sara by the way. That last one was me too) on female sexual power... we do seem to be fascinated by it in fictional form. How many variations on Basic Instinct can you think of? The sexy monster is alive and well in our cultural pantheon.

Rob said...

Fluorescent lights don't make you crazy? They make me crazy.

Your points are well taken, and we are kind of over-rationalizing Cho's actions, of course. I was a desperately unhappy, probably clinically depressed teenager, but (like most unhappy teenagers), I didn't do anything too horrible to myself or others, and by the time I was Cho's age I'd pretty much grown out of it. What it comes down to is that he was mentally ill and it was way too easy for him to arm himself. Multiple system failures.

I've just realized that in one post I'm talking about the tragedy of Cho Seung-hui, and in the next I'm making fun of Morrissey fans. My god, I'm part of the problem.

Rob said...

Oh, hi, Sara! I thought that might be you.

Re the sexy monster, sure, we men all know how easy we are to manipulate sexually, how much we all crave love and commitment and affection, and a woman who understands that too has the ability to completely strip away our power. Which is real horror movie potential!

Have you seen "The Last Seduction?" I don't see myself getting ensnared by Sharon Stone's character in "BI," but (even with my awareness of the archetype) I'd be putty in Linda Fiorantino's hands.