Tag Archives: school shootings

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?

Expert: Youth violence is complex, media doesn’t cause violence, reporting on it is tough


A mural in Chicago’s Logan Square. Photo by Flickr user Zol87.

This morning, Poynter.org hosted a chat with Carl Bell, acting director of the Institute for Juvenile Research and a professor in the University of Illinois’ Department of Psychiatry and in the School of Public Health, on how journalists can do better when covering youth violence. The chat was prompted by recent coverage of a wave of youth-involved shootings in Chicago.

Most of the time, Backward Messages focuses on all the things that don’t cause youth violence, even though various sources have claimed they do. Things like violent video games, the occult, and heavy-metal music. I also like to look at the ways reporters get off track when reporting on youth crime — and the ways that misreporting leads us to look for the wrong causes.

So when I heard Bell was co-hosting the chat with Poynter.org managing editor Mallary Tenore today, I jumped in to listen, and to ask questions. Here are some of the highlights:

Carl Bell: I have been studying violence since 1976 and I have learned there are several types of violence – predatory violence, interpersonal altercation violence, gang related violence, etc. There is also mob violence, hate crime violence, violence by mentally ill, systemic violence, etc.

Mallary Tenore: As you’ve studied these various types of violence, what have you noticed about journalists’ coverage of them?

Carl Bell: It has been my experience that journalist regularly do not differentiate these types of violence very well and they mostly get portrayed as predatory violence.

Mallary Tenore: That’s interesting … why do you think that is?

Carl Bell: I think that people are often confused with complexity. … I think journalists have a difficult time. They have to report on complex issues, but keep them simple and they have to get past the editor.

Mallary Tenore: Yes, time can definitely a factor.

Carl Bell: Unfortunately, much that is published or reported on has to have a great hook, i.e. something that appeals to the flight, fight, or freeze response in the brain, not the thinking, discernment, wise part of the brain. So, there is a lot of distortion in the media.

Beth Winegarner: Carl, on the topic of mass murder/school shootings, why do you think reporters so often make reference to a youth’s music tastes or video-game habits when describing youth perpetrators of mass violence?

Carl Bell: There are so many ideas that people have for the causes of violence. When we did the Surgeon General’s report on youth violence we learned, based on science, that many of the things we think cause violence do not cause violence at all.

Beth Winegarner: That’s an interesting response, since many people still refer to the Surgeon General’s report. What things mentioned in it don’t cause violence after all?

Carl Bell: The reality is that risk factors are not predictive factors, due to protective factors. So, a lot of kids want violent videos or play violent video games, but the homicide rates are lower than the suicide rates (both are rare), so things protect kids.

To read the full chat, see the Poynter.org and click at the bottom to read the transcript.

Popular live-action zombie game accidentally summons ghosts of school-shootings past


The idea of playing zombies is a popular one. But did a group at NCSU (not pictured) take it too far? Photo by Flickr user rodolpho.reis.

Last week, officials at North Carolina State University went on alert after two students reported seeing someone with a gun on campus.

The sightings happened during a game of Humans vs. Zombies, which took place on campus grounds. The campus did not go on lockdown. Also, nobody located the “gunman” or the item witnesses thought was a gun. Was it a toy weapon? Or did they mistake some other object for a gun? In a slideshow of HVZ games at the New York Times, some players are wearing and carrying toy weapons, so it’s possible.

According to the Humans vs. Zombies web site, the game was founded at Goucher College in 2005. It spread quickly, and is now played at more than 650 colleges and universities, high schools, military bases, summer camps, and public libraries worldwide.

The NCSU game was probably planned weeks in advance, but it had the misfortune to come off the day after nearby Wake Technical Community college went on lockdown after a man threatened a student there.

Still, the game’s leaders are sensitive to the fears surrounding school shootings. This Washington Post piece details some of HVZ’s groundrules in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings:

Weed and the other game organizers, who are known as moderators, or “mods,” turned serious. They’d called this meeting to make sure each player had signed two legal forms instituted in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, and to emphasize the most important rules of the game: Don’t shoot nonplayers [and] don’t use or carry guns visibly in academic buildings.

Of course, some will wonder why kids would want to play such a horrific game. Like any roleplaying game, HVZ lets people try on new roles and personalities — and band together to become heroes for a little while. From the HVZ web site, again:

Many players report that Humans vs. Zombies is one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. The game creates deep bonds between players, instantly removing social boundaries by forcing players to engage as equals and cooperate for their survival.

The whole situation raises some interesting questions, and I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on them:

Given the frightening gunman-involved massacres on college and high-school campuses, are students today right to be vigilant and report problems to authorities?

Should students playing games like “Humans vs. Zombies” forego using toy weapons in order to avoid frightening their peers?

Should students be able to tell the difference between a real gun and a Nerf weapon?