Malcolm Gladwell has a theory for why school shootings spread, which he proposes in his latest piece in The New Yorker, “Thresholds of Violence.”
Instead of seeing school shootings as isolated incidents, Gladwell offers an analogy.
“What if the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic is … to think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?”
With the October 1 shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, there have now been 142 school shootings since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.
When people talk about how these school shootings spread, they tend to bring up the fact school shooters are young white males. They have mental disturbances. They are socially isolated, and they use the prospect of fame as fuel for their rampage.
Gladwell argues these traits are not inherent to the shootings. There is nothing about the experience of being young, white, and male in today’s American culture that predisposes those kids to shoot up their school. What’s really taking place looks more like a riot, even if the exact goal of the riot isn’t always clear.
In the piece, Gladwell couches his claims in the research of S
tanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, conducted in the late 1970s. Granovetter said that riots happen because people’s motivations to smash windows fall on a spectrum.
Some people smash windows on their own — they have a “threshold” of zero. Some need that first instigator to join in, however, and Granovetter says these people have a threshold of one. This proceeds until even the meekest of demonstrators, who are otherwise non-violent, are suddenly compelled to act because everyone else is already smashing windows.
In that way, school shootings are just like riots, Gladwell says.
Otherwise non-violent boys unwittingly enter into the mob of the riot once they reach their teen years.
“The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts,” he writes. “It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”
Ostensibly, the “riot” in this case begins with two teenagers who had a threshold of zero: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
They were the disturbed ones. Their act came after sporadic shootings over the previous couple decades that weren’t at all related. They wrote manifestos and wanted their images passed around, so people knew they were behind it.
Since then, shooters have tended to honour Harris and Klebold for what they did. Shooters often revere them, even if their actual plan of attack differs from Columbine. And that’s what is problematic for Gladwell.
Young white males don’t fit a profile, aside from their age, sex, and race. They don’t come with a built-in set of dispositions or political beliefs, even if some may act out of genuine psychopathic compulsions.
By this point, it could just as easily be the seemingly kind, sensitive boy whose finger is pulling the trigger.
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