Tag Archives: Sandy Hook

On Free Speech, Silence, And Backward Messages

Blasphemy

Sometime over the holidays, I dreamed that I started blogging here regularly again, but focusing only on music. In a way, it makes a kind of sense; I’m not a gamer or an occultist, but I do love, listen to and write about music in a dedicated way. When I woke up, I remembered that of all the topics this blog has covered, music has been among the least controversial, at least here in North America.

In the wake of the horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about places in the world where blasphemy — or “offending religious sentiment” — trumps freedom of speech. I’ve written about such places in the past for Backward Messages, particularly Poland, where Behemoth singer Nergal was put on trial for tearing up a Bible onstage, and maybe also a teensy weensy bit for being an outspoken Satanist celebrity. In the end, free speech won out in Nergal’s case, as it did in 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that barring minors from purchasing violent video games was a violation of the First Amendment rights of the video-game makers. Free speech often wins in the west, which is, I think, part of the reason that moral panics over art and entertainment eventually blow over.

In the fall of 2012, when I was at the end of a long and difficult road shopping The Columbine Effect to agents and publishers, I met with an editor in New York who loved the book, but felt like she would be more likely to be able to convince her colleagues to publish it if there were some current event that it could be tied to. There had been a kind of lull in school shootings. Two months later, after she turned me down, Sandy Hook happened, and the press exploded with coverage arguing that media influences largely don’t influence such killings. In the years that followed, it’s become clear that Adam Lanza was a deeply troubled and disturbed young man whose mother protected him from getting the help he needed (and also taught him to use firearms). As the reporting turned away from gaming and other supposed influences, it turned toward mental-health issues in the most dedicated way I’ve seen regarding any of these incidents.

That’s not to say we’ve solved the problem of school shootings. We haven’t by any means. But we are less inclined to scapegoat important and necessary sources of media. And while haven’t eradicated poor reporting on gaming, the occult, heavy metal or other pastimes — that reporting still ranges from the goofball to the dangerous — there have been bright spots. Satanists managed to demonstrate the actual meaning of religious tolerance last year, and the press covered the situation deftly; that was heartening to see.

While the tenor of the writing has shifted, that’s not to say there isn’t still plenty I could write about here. Personally, though, I’ve run out of things to say — at least for now. That’s why this blog has been quiet for more than six months and it’s why it will remain quiet, at least until the next moral panic comes along and I have something new to write about. It’s happened at regular intervals since at least the 1950s, and it’s likely to happen again. Until then, I feel like my message has mostly gotten through.

Interview With Adam Lanza’s Father Makes Clear: We Need a New Approach to School Shootings

I’ve been thinking a lot about this interview with Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza’s father, Peter Lanza, since it ran in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. I read about it before I read it, in various articles attempting to summarize its more shocking elements: Peter describing Adam’s crime as “you can’t get any more evil,” or saying he sometimes wishes his son had never been born. But if you read the whole piece, you come away with a much more complex and nuanced picture of what happened in this family, and in a situation which has no easy answers or living scapegoats.

We can speculate — at length — about whether Adam’s parents should have paid more attention or done more. Much has been made of the fact that Adam was prescribed different therapies and even antidepressants, and the fact that both Adam and his mother, Nancy, appeared to be uncomfortable with these options and failed to stick with them. Plenty could also be made of the fact that Nancy kept Peter at a distance after their divorce — a distance he didn’t appear to fight.

But the more I write about these topics, the more I think it’s impossible to determine which one of 100,000 troubled adolescent boys (to pick a random number) — autistic or no, depressed or no, schizophrenic or no, angry or no — is going to plan and commit a mass shooting in a school or elsewhere. Obviously, there are the rare instances where one of them posts or emails a warning, or divulges his plans in a fit of confidence or attention-seeking. But in most cases, even in hindsight, the “warning signs” aren’t clear — or aren’t common only to other fellow perpetrators. They’re qualities other people have, too.

We’re coming up on the 15th anniversary of the Columbine High School killings, and the narrative surrounding that incident is still very similar to the one surrounding Sandy Hook: wayward, perhaps emotionally disturbed teens. Angry music and violent video games. Access to guns. A lack of comprehensive mental-health options. Parents who didn’t recognize the signs that their child might be turning violent, either because the signs were well hidden or because it was difficult to tell those were the ones that would obviously lead to murder. The narrative hasn’t changed because we still don’t have answers, and we may never have the answers we’d need to actually identify potential perpetrators and prevent more school shootings.

Given that, what COULD we do to minimize the number of these incidents, or protect students and school staff if they happen? Much better mental health services, sure. De-stigmatization of mental health issues. Massive amounts of education and outreach for parents of troubled kids. None of this would be aimed at singling out potential perpetrators, but to make sure any kids in this category have a broad and comforting safety net, which is something pretty much all teens need, but particularly those who might otherwise be prone to extreme acts of violence.

What about the guns? Whether or not guns are allowed to minors is almost irrelevant; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had an over-18 friend purchase guns for them. Adam Lanza learned his way around firearms from his mother, but he was also 19, a legal adult able to purchase his own weapons, when he committed his crimes. There are Constitutional issues associated with limiting access to guns, and there are varying opinions on gun control, but I think someone who is willing to go into a school and open fire is going to find a way around whatever gun laws we have. We could turn schools into gun-free zones, but there’s likely ways around that.

At the end of the day, the New Yorker article suggests we — Americans, parents, educators, and journalists all included — need to think and write differently about school shootings, the ones that have happened and the ones that have yet to happen.

So. Where do you think we should start?

What Happened to That CDC Study on Violent Video Games? Gamasutra Answers That — And More

Last year, after the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, President Barack Obama ordered the CDC to devote $10 million to studying the links between violent video games and real-life violence among teens. Except now it’s looking like the money wasn’t allocated and the studies haven’t started.

Gamasutra’s Mike Rose takes a long, deep look at what happened to that proposed research — as well as the findings of Connecticut State Investigators, who revealed that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza wasn’t all that much of a gamer, despite the hysterical headlines that came out in the days after the attack.

Probably my favorite section is on the concept of moral panics, and the moral panic currently in effect on violent games. Rose writes:

However you look at it, the mainstream media’s obsession with painting violent video games in a bad light plays a massive role in both scaring the general public, and pushing governments to consider video games some kind of threat. Who cares that it’s all based on conjecture, and past research has failed to find any link between violence in video games and real-life — the media is very much in charge, and the White House’s response last January proves this.

“We’ll get the moral panic from them when we pry it from their cold, dead hands, to paraphrase our friends in another industry,” [International Game Developers Association]’s Daniel Greenberg notes. “They will never willingly give up this moral panic, because they don’t have a lot of moral panics left. Video games are still widely available for that, so the media isn’t going to want to give that up, because if it bleeds, it leads. Even if it’s bleeding electronic pixels.”

It’s a well-done look at the state of research, politics and video games. I wish I’d written it! Please check out the whole thing.

Will Lanza Report Help Us Understand Mass Killers?

Much reporting has been done about the report on Adam Lanza and the Sandy Hook shootings released by Connecticut state investigators a week ago. But this article from the Hartford Courant caught my eye, in part because it talks about a book Lanza made years ago, and what it might reveal about his longstanding relationship to violent ideas.

The book, called “The Big Book of Granny,” includes a number of violent scenes. It’s being studied by a team at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, one which focuses on patterns and behaviors common in mass shooters — exactly the kind of research we need. Although those researchers and others agree that the book on its own doesn’t automatically indicate that Lanza would eventually do what he did, but it’s potentially a piece of the puzzle.

One expert, former FBI agent and profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, said:

Anyone conducting a 360-degree assessment of Lanza as a child or teenager — and there is no evidence there was any occasion to do such a study — would have had to have considered many other factors beyond the “Granny” story, O’Toole said.

“His mental health issues, coupled with the guns in the house would have been very concerning,” O’Toole said. “You would also want to know, were his family and social relationships strained or deteriorating? Was he becoming more adversarial? Isolated? Alienated? Incommunicative?”

O’Toole said that despite the disturbing writing sample, it would have taken Lanza years more to evolve into a person capable of doing what he did.

This is especially interesting in light of a new book, The Psychopath Inside, by neuroscientist James Fallon, who discovered that his brain matched those of the psychopaths he studied, and yet he wasn’t prone to vicious acts of violence like some were. When he dug deeper to determine why his brain didn’t turn into that of a killer, he pointed to the love and support that surrounded him, particularly in childhood:

“I was loved, and that protected me,” he says. Partly as a result of a series of miscarriages that preceded his birth, he was given an especially heavy amount of attention from his parents, and he thinks that played a key role.

Many researchers have argued over the years that it takes a complex set of ingredients to set someone up to commit a mass killing like Sandy Hook or Columbine. It looks like, with Lanza, we’re getting a little closer to understanding what those ingredients are. Particularly given, in the investigators’ report, they didn’t list his love of video games as a likely motive. Unfortunately, they didn’t come up with any motive at all.

Chantel Garrett’s “Three Steps to Fix Our Mental Health System and Prevent Violence”


Brain images from people with schizophrenia. Photo by Flickr user http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca.

In the month since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary (which as far as we know, was not committed by someone with mental illness), I’ve been encouraged by how much of the conversation has been framed around mental health and the lack of services for those who need them. We saw that front-and-center with Liza Long’s powerful “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” post. We’ve seen it elsewhere, too. I want to call attention another such story today, because it makes great points about what’s missing and what society needs to do — not only to curb mass shootings, but also to help the many, many nonviolent people who struggle with mental illness daily but can’t get the help they need because it doesn’t exist or isn’t available to them.

Chantel Garrett wrote this piece about her brother, Max, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. In her article, she doesn’t just talk about how difficult it is for Max to stay afloat. She also offers concrete steps for repairing the system so that Max and others like him might hope for functional, fulfilling lives.

Mostly, I want to let Garrett do the talking here, because she does it well:

2) Change the law to more easily help an adult loved one get involuntary care when they desperately need it – before anyone gets hurt.

We must begin to fill the gaps in the mental health care system that could have potentially helped to prevent recent massacres at the hands of people in need of psychiatric intervention. Studies show that early intervention greatly improves the prospect for recovery. In my own experience with my brother, a first dose of anti-psychotics during a psychotic episode palpably reduces paranoia and hallucinations.

A few years ago, Max went off his medication, barricading himself in his apartment and warning his family to stay away. In an extremely psychotic state, he plastered the Web with terrifying words and images, predominantly aimed at the people who love him most. While punishing to read, as the time and severity of his symptoms wore on, his posts became our only proof that he was still alive – our only hope that he could still get help.

For two months, my parents and I campaigned the local police to knock down his door and get him to a hospital. My dad became a fixture at the police station. We sent the police chief Max’s blog and threatening emails. We explained his diagnosis, his years of involuntary hospital commitments and dire need for care before he did more permanent damage to his brain. His neighbors also called the police to complain. The police went to his house multiple times but said they didn’t have cause to forcefully enter. Their response was always the same. “We understand that he’s very sick, but what has he done? Call us when he’s done something and we’ll pick him up.”

Males with schizophrenia most often become symptomatic in their late teens to early 20s. From a legal standpoint, parents hands are often tied trying to get help for their sick child who is of legal age, with the current standard of “danger to oneself or others” far too hazardous.

The “dangerous” bar is too high to get someone with acute psychotic symptoms care when they need it most – and when they are the largest threat to themselves and, potentially, their family and community. Why should it not instead be a standard of gravely disabled – unable to care for oneself or for others? Surely, if the police could have somehow glimpsed at him and his apartment, they would have immediately seen that he was unable to care for himself.

We need to change the law, and create a mental health workforce working alongside officers and families to provide more proactive, onsite assessment of people who are credibly unable to care for themselves – before it gets to the point of “dangerous.”

Do you know someone who’s mentally ill and prone to violence when they’re in their darkest periods? If so, what do you think would help them the most?

Violent video games and a statistics lesson


Common sense? Maybe not.

Last week we looked at a NJ.com poll where the bulk of the respondents said they didn’t think video games had much to do with real-life violence. This week, we saw just about the opposite results, this time in a poll from Common Sense Media. For those who don’t already know about this organization, CSM presents itself as basically the polar opposite of Backward Messages: a resource for parents, but one which tells them why all these forms of media are wrong, harmful, and so on — and enables parents to remove these “dangerous” influences from their lives. CSM is headed by Jim Steyer, whom I’ve interviewed here before.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, CSM polled parents to find out how they feel about the video game/violence connection. The result?

The majority of parents (75%) feel that shielding children from violence is difficult. That same percentage of parents blame “media violence, such as content in TV, movies and video games” for adding to “America’s culture of violence.”

I’m not entirely sure what “America’s culture of violence” means; I take it to mean the fact that human beings are, in real life, sometimes violent. Unfortunately, you can’t take away everyday violence by taking away games. It isn’t that simple. Humans were violent long before video games. What causes our violence is still not well understood, and there’s new science all the time; most recently, it looks like recent spikes in violence mirrored environmental lead levels. It’s probably not any one thing. It’s also probably not video games, which describe a society (and a subconscious interpretation of it, with survival-horror games) we already live in.

When you take away video games, you take away a valid and safe way for gamers to explore their own feelings about living in a violent society.

Without seeing the questions CSM asked in its poll, it’s tough to say for sure, but I’d wager a fair amount of money that these responses were highly influenced by the questions asked (to be fair, the same could be said of the NJ.com poll). This is one of the things you learn in statistics and social-sciences classes: when you’re running a survey or a poll, the questions you ask will make all the difference in the responses you get. It’s the classic “Have you stopped beating your wife?” scenario.

There’s also the matter that, although CSM apparently polled random parents, I wonder if they were parents who have been in contact with the organization’s website at one time or another. That would tend to skew the results as well. Or they may be legitimately random respondents; there are still many who blame games for society’s problems. But the fact that a poll from group opposing violent media yielded results that also oppose violent media seems like more than a coincidence to me.

At any rate, legislative and policy efforts to link video games with real-life violence — now or ever — are pretty much moot, particularly when they’re bracketed by the efforts of politicians or “community leaders” who want to make it look like they’re taking action against something society can’t abide. To explain more fully, I turn to Atlantic writer Ian Bogost, and his recent article “How the Video-Game Industry Already Lost Out in the Gun-Control Debate.”

He writes:

Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education.

If the White House is really interested in games, they could start using them as sophisticated communication tools to help break out of politics as usual, instead of using games as convenient rhetorical levers when the need arises.

In other words, the debate about ending violence isn’t about video games at all. That’s just a convenient distraction. Don’t buy it.

Burning books and banning games: lessons we can learn from Germany’s example

What do Connecticut and Germany have in common?

Destroying media deemed “dangerous,” for one. Much like the German book-burnings, a town near Newtown is collecting and destroying violent video games on Saturday. But Germany has other lessons to offer: a decades-long ban on Doom games did nothing to prevent two major mass shootings in the country.

Read my full thoughts on Saturday’s events at the SF Weekly.