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Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong About School Shooters

Shootings are nothing like a riot.

Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

In a new essay, Malcolm Gladwell offers an explanation of how school shootings “catch on.” School shootings, as we know them, took off in the late ’90s. Between 1996 and 1999 there were eight major attacks, culminating in the Columbine slaughter in Littleton, Colorado in April 1999. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was less than three years ago—December 2012—but in that short span, we’ve already seen more than 140 attacks. School shootings are perhaps the most bizarre, inexplicable phenomenon of modern American life. After the Oregon shooting earlier this month, President Obama remarked, “Somehow this has become routine.”

Gladwell tries to make sense of the epidemic by consulting a study of riots by Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter. Granovetter sought to understand “why people do things that are at odds with who they are or what they think is right”—for instance, why typically non-violent, law-abiding people join a riot. He concluded that people’s likelihood of joining is determined by the number of people already involved. The ones who start a riot don’t need anyone else to model this behavior for them; they have a “threshold” of zero. But others will riot only if someone else has initiated it; they have a threshold of one. Some need to see two people to be convinced; others need to see three or five or, at the farthest end of the spectrum, the entire society.

Gladwell suggests—somewhat implausibly—that we think of school shootings as a single “slow-motion, ever-evolving riot.” Psychopaths like Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, have a threshold of zero. They are predisposed to violence; they torture animals and fantasize about murder of their own accord. But many of the shooters actually model their behavior on their shooter “heroes.” They consult the videos and manifestos that Eric Harris and his accomplice, Dylan Klebold, made before the shooting. They take inspiration from these riot-starters, dressing and posing like the Columbine shooters: Sociologist Ralph Larkin found that eight of twelve shootings after Columbine explicitly referenced Harris and Klebold. Eleven other attacks in the same period were thwarted but nonetheless modeled on the Columbine script. Aaron Ybarra, who shot three people at Seattle Pacific University, told police he couldn’t have done it without “the guidance of Eric Harris and Seung-Hui Cho in my head… Especially Eric Harris, he was, a, oh, man he was a master of all shooters.”

 Gladwell concludes from this that the riot has caught on because boys who wouldn’t have thought to shoot up their school now have a group to join, a model to follow:

The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

Indeed, the vast majority of gun violence is committed by people who aren’t mentally unstable. According to the American Journal of Public Health, fewer than 5% of shooters in the 120,000 gun-related attacks between 2001 and 2010 had mental illnesses. The rest are boys who, as Gladwell puts it, would once have been content to play with their chemistry sets in the basement.

Gladwell’s theory about the copycat nature of the behavior is compelling, but “riot” is an odd way to describe the shooting phenomenon. If school shootings form an extended riot, what are the shooters rioting against? What do they want? Riots are fueled by chaos and they involve unplanned, impulsive violence: the terror of unaccountable, collective action. Shooters, by contrast, tend to contemplate their attacks months in advance. Many plan meticulously, keeping journals, studying weapons and techniques, plotting the perfect mass murder. They repeat a set of shooter images and poses: shooter spreads his arms wide with a gun in each hand, shooter points gun at camera, shooter points gun at his own temple, shooter waves goodbye, and so forth. Shooters partake of a ritual. This is in part what Obama was getting at when he termed shootings “routine”: There’s a blueprint not just for our response to shootings, but also for the shooters.  In this regard, they are about as far from riots as you can get. 

And what kind of riot spans this stretch of time and space, cropping up all across the country over nearly two decades, with no end in sight? Eric Harris said he wanted to “kick-start a revolution,” a bit of delusional grandeur, but in a sense, he did start one. The shooting phenomenon forms something like a social movement or community; it’s more enduring, more deeply entrenched in our culture than “rioting” suggests. But if this is a kind of social movement, it’s the most mystifying movement imaginable because it accomplishes nothing except destruction. The shooters play once and they can never play again; they’re not actually rioting for or against anything. Even other death cults, ISIS for instance, have some creative agenda in mind; they annihilate in order to build a new order. But the shooters’ nihilism is completely pure. This is what unites school shooters despite their vast differences in psychological make-up.

Thinking about shootings in terms of riots helps explain their contagious spread, but it also risks dismissing the phenomenon too easily as just an instance of copycat killing. If, as the evidence suggests, most shooters aren’t profoundly deviant but fairly normal Americans gone bad, then we have to ask why they turned. It’s not enough to say they were simply mimicking the true psychopaths. Indeed, why mimic them in the first place? What is it about life in 21st century America that has made nihilism such a compelling program? We overlook the root of the problem at our own peril. After all, as Gladwell is at pains to show, the shooters aren’t “them”; they’re us.

Perhaps the best way to think about this is to invert the question: What would turn a potential copycat shooter away from killing? Gun restrictions would obviously go a long way in stemming the bloodshed. But it’s also worth looking at the structures of our society. Psychologists have argued that shooters across the spectrum are driven by a desire for recognition and respect. Eric Harris wanted, in typical psychopath fashion, to prove his superiority: “Ich bin Gott,” he wrote in his school planner. (German for, “I am God.”) But others seek acknowledgement too: Alvaro Castillo, who revered Harris, explained in his video, “All I wanted was respect… No one respected me.” Elliott Rodger wanted to punish women for not giving him the attention he thought he deserved. John LaDue, who was prevented from carrying out his attack when police discovered his cache of weapons last year, admitted that he had never been bullied. But he liked the idea of making people look at him and say, “I never knew he would do something like that.”

This recurring desire for recognition has led psychologists to conclude that communities need to do a better job of “help[ing] disillusioned youths find a place for themselves in society, something many of them feel they lack.” They suggest guiding would-be shooters to find jobs or activities at which they excel and encouraging them to discover ways to use their talents that will earn them positive attention. Building stronger relationships with others in their community is part of this: “When a youth establishes ties to people he cares about, he is apt to feel that he has too much at stake to act out his brutal dreams.”

These proposed remedies indicate, if inadvertently, that something is awry in our culture: Young people feel increasingly isolated, lacking a sense of purpose and belonging. Religious and civic organizations that, in a previous age, formed the backbone of American community have fallen to the wayside, and we haven’t developed something to replace them. In Bowling Alone, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam famously noted the tremendous decline in membership in community groups and associations: The number of people who bowl has increased, but the number of people who bowl in leagues has dropped precipitously. The metaphor is apt—Americans are alone, a dangerous state of affairs for young men above all.