Of course it’s happened again.
How could it not? After every one of these school massacres, the latest always seeming more horrific and unthinkable than the last, we vow: Never again.
Yet we do nothing.
Gun control is necessary, of course — the idea that someone not old enough to vote can legally purchase assault rifles is insane — but lawmakers, public health officials and Americans ourselves have a greater, more complicated crisis to address.
We are continuing to create, more than twenty years after Columbine, young male mass shooters who target schoolchildren.
Only in America. No other country suffers this sickness but us. America, land of milk and honey. Born here and you’re born on third base. Yet we are cultivating a cohort — young men hellbent on killing our children.
There is a malignancy in our culture, and like every untreated cancer, it continues to metastasize. Mass shootings aren’t just commonplace. They’re frequent. They’re no longer a bug in our country but a feature. Less than two weeks ago a mass shooter killed 10 people in a Buffalo supermarket. Who even remembers that now, after this one?
And we all know it’s probably only another week before another random mass shooting, another round of national outrage and sadness, another collective shrug of hopelessness.
This one feels different, of course. Fourth graders all in the same classroom. Nineteen children under the age of 11 killed. A 10-year-old girl shot to death while calling 911, her best friend covered in her blood.
Sandy Hook felt different too. That was supposed to be a “never again” moment.
So much for that.
Who among us took one look at those small faces last night and just couldn’t bear to read the details? Couldn’t bear to know what happened in the last minutes of those short lives, children in the one place that, aside from their own homes, should be the safest?
We are the greatest nation in the world, and we are failing our children like no other. To read the description of America’s latest school shooter is to recognize an all-too-familiar profile: Young, male, angry. Notably disturbed, witnesses piecing together the clues — including online threats made openly, not on the dark web — only after the fact. An obsession with guns, violence and first-person shooter video games. An estrangement from at least one parent. Refusal to attend school. Anger towards girls and women. Antisocial. Has no sense of belonging to family, to school, to community, and thus retreats online, where rage and veiled threats are unleashed to a like-minded community, reinforcing a sense of victimization and validating the thirst for what these shooters see as vengeance.
The Lone Wolf is no more, not since the Internet. Now any disaffected young man can become, with anonymous encouragement and advice, a killing machine.
Among the most recent violent subcultures to coalesce online are the so-called incels, the portmanteau for “involuntary celibates,” deemed a specific threat by the U.S. Secret Service in a study published last March.
Misoygny is too tame a word for what this group espouses, blaming as they do women for denying them sex and love. They advocate rape, the elimination of women’s rights, and mass shootings.
It’s all too easy for a boy or young man, the frontal cortex not mature until 25, to plug into a self-selecting group online and share gruesome fantasies, hear or issue encouragements to rape, kill or commit mass shootings — ideations that some may consider meaningless and others imperative. The Buffalo shooter, age 18, certainly engaged seriously with his violent and racist online community, one he said provided solace during lockdown.
“It’s time to stop s—tposting and time to make a real life effort s—tpost,” the Buffalo shooter posted in December. “I will carry out an attack.”
The membrane between the virtual world and the physical one has all but collapsed. Online threats and perseverating over violent actions, especially by young men — these need to be treated as real.
After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security began tracking online chatter to disrupt planned terror attacks, as did the FBI, which began proactively working up profiles of future terrorists.
Why can’t the same be done here?
We know this suspect. This is America’s true enemy within, as dangerous to our national security — physical, psychological, existential — as any war or pandemic.
A pandemic, by the way, not yet over, one that has caused post-traumatic stressors we are only beginning to see. All of us have now experienced isolation and its traumas. Magnify those in a disturbed young mind thousand-fold and we have successive generations of future mass shooters. Count on it.
You, or someone you know, will be next. When we have more mass shootings than days in the year, and still no action other than political theatrics on both sides, it’s a grim eventuality. The Angry Young American Male is our greatest public health crisis. He should be treated apolitically. He is an emergency we’ve tolerated as a chronic malady rather than what he is: a cancer to be cut out and cured.
When will we irradiate? “I want people to be afraid that this could happen to them.” This was Peter Lanza, father of the Sandy Hook shooter, talking to The New Yorker in 2014, two years after that avoidable tragedy.
Yes, avoidable. That shooter was waving every red flag an imminent school shooter possibly could — holing up in his locked bedroom three months prior, windows blacked-out with garbage bags, enthusiastically writing to a pro-mass murder online community, a history of openly fantasizing about killing children — yet was never properly treated.
Parents, educators, students themselves need to learn the warning signs. These should be as commonplace in schools as hearing the same safety drill every single time you board an airplane. Gun control, yes. But that alone won’t be enough.
Peter Lanza’s statement could be read two ways: We are all at risk of losing our own children in such a brutal, senseless and preventable way, no matter how insulated we think we are. But we should also be afraid of our refusal to see these young men, far too many of them, in crisis — in our schools, our workplaces, our own homes.
Lanza had no answers as to why his son killed 20 small children.
“It doesn’t have to be understood,” he said, “to be real.”
But it does have to be understood. We have to conquer this. America needs a concerted effort, a multi-pronged task force of specialists whose only job is to study this sickness, unique as a novel virus, and find a way, if not to eradicate it, to contain and prevent it.
After all, we found a vaccine for a global pandemic in less than a year. Why shouldn’t we treat this with the same urgency? Why are we allowing our children to suffer such carnage?
What will it take for America to fight for them?