What’s the Matter Here?

by Kiko Matsing

Amish Boys That young boy without a
Anywhere I’d know his face
In this city the kid’s my favorite
I’ve seen him
I see him every day…

Answer me and take your time
What could be the awful crime
He could do at such young an
          –10,000 Maniacs

Since I have been here in the US, there have been 13 incidents of school shootings, with the latest being the Valentine’s Day massacre at Northern Illinois University, where six people were killed and 18 others injured. Previously, two school mass murders riveted the nation: the Amish school shooting in October 2006 and the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007.

It therefore made me a wee bit paranoid when the following news items appeared in the campus daily within a couple of weeks of each other:

A former UF student has been banned from campus after police caught him Monday night on Sorority Row with a stolen wallet – his 10th criminal offense on campus since May 2006. According to the University Police Department, [the student], 20, has been in trouble for stalking, stealing and fighting, and has been referred to Student Judicial Affairs multiple times… On Feb. 15, one day after six students were fatally shot at Northern Illinois University, [he] entered the Marston Science Library, shouted profanities, hit himself and screamed “I want to kill,” according to a UPD report. (Alligator, 25 Feb 2008 )

Hundreds of UF students, faculty and staff were forced outside during stormy weather Tuesday after the Florida Gym was evacuated due to a bomb threat… Jeff Holcomb, University Police Department spokesman, said a male caller told an Alachua County’s 911 dispatcher around 2 p.m. that a bomb would go off in the Florida Gym and then hung up… He said 11 officers were on the scene by 2:08 p.m. They evacuated the Florida Gym, blocked off Stadium Road and searched the building for suspicious materials. Nothing was found, he said. UPD tracked the call to an off-campus pay phone, but there was no one at the phone when investigators arrived, Holcomb said. There are no suspects. (Alligator, 5 Mar 2008 )

Were the two incidents related? An American colleague in our research group reassured me that pranks like bomb threats were not unusual during midterms. Students in dire academic straits sometimes resort to such underhanded tactics to squirm their way out of an exam, or at least get it rescheduled. It well may be, but the full-force showing of law enforcement reflect the growing unease in this society over the spate of school shootings that have become more and more shocking and spectacular. UF has recently implemented a mass text-messaging system so that university officials could issue real-time alerts in emergency situations. I get the feeling, though, that students realize that the best laid plans will not stop a lone gunman who is intent on wreaking havoc, and that these measures are really better-than-nothing palliatives rather than preventives. The prospect has become a fact of life and entered into the calculus of risks of simply going to school.

In the Amish school shooting, a gunman in a pickup truck entered a rural schoolhouse, barricaded the front door, and took the young girls hostage with intent to molest them. He brought with him “lumber, a shotgun, a stun-gun, wires, chains, nails, tools and a small bag… [containing] a change of clothes, toilet paper, candles, sexual lubricant, and flexible plastic ties” (BBC News, 3 Oct 2006 ). When police arrived and surrounded the school, the gunman zip-tied the girls, lined them up and shot them one after the other in the back of the head. The gunman then turned his weapon on himself. In the Virginia Tech massacre, the perpetrator first shot two students in a co-ed residence hall, then proceeded, 2 hours later, to the Engineering building, carrying in his backpack “several chains, locks, a hammer, a knife, two guns, nineteen 10- and 15-round magazines, and almost 400 rounds of ammunition” (Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel). He chained the main entrance shut, and then went through one classroom after another on a killing rampage, before finally committing suicide. The carnage left 32 dead, making this the worst school shooting incident in US history.

What is disquieting to us as a civilized society is not simply the heinousness of the crimes, but that most of the time the perpetrators were children themselves, and that the locus of violence is the very place where their formation is supposed to take place. We are compelled to reckon in stunned disbelief how this could happen. What’s the matter here? Even the US Secret Service, putting their heads together on 37 incidents of school shootings, were at a loss in profiling the typical child who kills (Chicago Sun Times, 15-16 Oct 2000).

  • There is no profile of a typical child who kills. The shooters come from many types of families, from all incomes, from all races, from all academic backgrounds. No easy explanations—mental illness, drugs, video games—explain their actions. No profile rules anyone in or out.
  • The shooters did not snap. These attacks were neither spontaneous nor impulsive. The shooters usually had chosen targets in advance: students, principals and teachers. This may give adults time to prevent an attack.
  • Many of these children saw the killing as a way to solve a problem, such as to stop bullying by other children.
  • The shooters told their friends of their grievances, and often told someone of the violence they planned. Those who knew in advance sometimes egged on the shooters, and rarely told any adult.
  • The students had no trouble acquiring weapons, usually bringing them in from home.
  • In between his killing spree, the Virginia Tech gunman managed to mail a package to NBC news containing writings and videos that revealed a very disturbed, homicidal young man. Subsequent investigation by the school points to his struggle with mental illness, and lapses in both the school’s counseling center and the state’s mental health laws and services (Report). Case closed. There was a similar sigh of relief in the NIU case when it was learned from the shooter’s girlfriend that his behavior had been erratic during the weeks leading to the incident, and that he had stopped taking his prescribed medications that included Prozac (antidepressant), Ambien (sleep aid), and Xanax (anti-anxiety) (CNN, 20 Feb 2008). This should certainly explain the freak violent behavior from an otherwise good kid, described as “probably the nicest, most caring person ever”.

    Something in me, however, resists the idea that mental illness spurred these kids to violence. It certainly plays an important part–the manic intensity, the grandiose staging of the killings–but it is not a sufficient cause. There is something fundamentally lacking somewhere in their moral upbringing. It takes more than mental illness to forget that there is another human being at the end of the barrel of a gun, and that by pulling the trigger they are transgressing a moral chasm that divides murderers from the rest of humanity. I prefer to give perpetrators that dignity by assigning them moral responsibility for their acts, and by not appealing to the etiology of some disease. This would mean implicating parents and teachers as well, who are charged primarily with their ethical formation. Children should be able to rely on adults to guide them in how to cope in the world, much more than therapy and medication.

    What was more shocking than the execution-style shooting of the 10 Amish schoolgirls in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, was the immediate, unconditional forgiveness the Amish extended to the perpetrator. In this case, the gunman was an adult, an outsider, a married man and father of three. The grandfather of a 13-year-old victim, standing next to the body, admonished the young boys, “We must not think evil of this man” (CNN, 5 Oct 2006). Some pundits were outraged, finding this response too easy, too cold and callous in proportion to the monstrousness of the crime (The Boston Globe, 8 Oct 2006). Later, it was learned that one girl confronted their abductor and asked to be shot first, and another asked to be the next one, in order to buy time for the other hostages. “If this be the moral strength of their children, what be the moral strength of the entire community?”, wondered another (conservative) pundit, and bemoaned the “secular inroads that have made America spiritually weak” as if the faith of the Amish and the founding fathers were one and the same (The Conservative Voice, 13 Oct 2006). In fact, the authors of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy contend that the Amish response could only be understood within the context of their specific culture, their worldview and way of life, which, rather than represent what is “best of America”, actually run counter-current to the ideals most Americans hold dear.

    Most North Americans, formed by the assumptions of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism, carry a dramatically different set of cultural habits. In fact, many North Americans might conclude that certain Amish habits are problematic, if not utterly offensive. Submitting to the discipline of fallible church leaders? Forgoing personal acclaim? Constraining intellectual exploration? Abiding by restrictive gender roles? Declining to stand up for one’s rights? Refusing to fight for one’s country? Could any set of cultural habits be more out of sync with mainstream American culture? (from Amish Grace, quoted in Christianity Today)

    The words and acts of forgiveness displayed by the Amish come from an understanding of Scriptures shaped by a 400-year-old “pacifistic martyr tradition”. “With the martyrs hovering nearby, offering admonition and encouragement, the Amish have esteemed suffering over vengeance, Uffgevva over striving, and forgiveness over resentment” (Amish Grace). To them it is not that surprising. They were simply practicing their habit of “letting go of grudges”, and at the same time showing their young how to navigate the precariousness of the world, like that grandfather reproaching the boys.

    [Forgiveness] is less a matter of “forgive and forget” than forgive and remember—remembering in ways that bring healing, as Miroslav Volf writes in Free of Charge. When we remember, we take the broken pieces of our lives—lives that have been dismembered by tragedy and injustice—and re-member them into something whole. Literally forgetting an egregious offense, personally or publicly, may not be possible, but all of us can and do make decisions about how we remember what we cannot forget.

    For the Amish, gracious remembering involves habits nurtured by memories of Jesus forgiving his tormentors while hanging on a cross and of Dirk Willems returning to pull his enemy out of the icy water. When thirteen-year-old Marian said “shoot me first” in the schoolhouse, and when adults in her community walked over to the killer’s family with words of grace a few hours after her death, they were acting on those habits. And just as surely, their actions at Nickel Mines will be recounted around Amish dinner tables for generations to come, creating and renewing memories about the power of faith to respond in the face of injustice—even violence—with grace. (from Amish Grace, quoted in Christianity Today)

    It is true: it takes a village to raise a child. It is therefore not surprising where the Amish girls got their moral fortitude. Similarly, we should look no further at where school shooters got their lack of it.