To the editor:
In the wake of the most recent school massacre, we should stop to consider the brief history of this kind of mass murder. Not long ago, a man with an assault rifle shot dozens of young children before killing himself with a pistol. It provoked heated debate about civilian ownership of semi-automatic guns designed to resemble weapons used by the military.
His name was Patrick Purdy. He shot 30 people on Jan. 17, 1989 at Cleveland Elementary in San Diego.
Spree killers were nothing new, but they rarely targeted schools. The infamous tower sniper incident at the University of Texas aside, there was very little in the way of large school shootings until the last two decades. The trope did not exist yet, and without a template, they did not happen. There was a sudden surge of mass shootings in the late '90s, when national television provoked a moral panic that peaked with Columbine.
The essence of these crimes is reckless media spectacle. "Senseless violence" is a blank slate. It resonates with irrational fear. We wield the shock of murdered children for whatever we want to believe about gun control, immoral media, the culture, and whatever else, using our bigotry against the mentally ill as a flak jacket. By making "psychotic killers" the dominant narrative for youth violence, we created a feedback loop with long memory.
It is the news that distorts reality, not violent video games. The odds of dying in a school shooting are the same as being struck by lightning, just like the kidnapping murderer fantasy behind "stranger danger." Schools are far safer than the rest of society. Break violence down by "number of victims inflicted" on the scale of ones, 10s, 100s, 1000s. Is the natural born killers model the most severe form of school massacre? Is it valid as a reference point at all?
The vast majority of school violence is at the bottom end of the 1s category. In terms of the severity of single incidents, shootings are very rare, highly planned, and only a few reach two digits. They are so rare, there is no way to profile for them. The worst you will find is a few dozen inflicted, and any mitigation will be swamped by more incidents down the road trying to "outdo" the previous crimes.
It is situations involving explosives that inflict the most damage. The school bombings in Michigan and Wyoming, the Norway youth camp massacre, and the Beslan hostage crisis fit the stereotype of "going postal" even worse. The Columbine massacre itself was really domestic terrorism.
But the very highest scales are not even horrors. We will dismiss the relevance of every school in Hiroshima being simultaneously destroyed by the atomic bomb, and shrug off the fact that 20,000 children starve to death every day. When the worst travesties are "unspeakable," we actually stop talking. If sensitivity to violence is so important, why are we so selective with silence and indignation?