by Primavera Fisogni, Como, Lombardy, Italy
A school shooting is a phenomenon within the realm of interpersonal (intentional) violence. It brings to light the failure of either school and society. In any case, it would be wrong to focus only on the guns market, although the availability of weapons turns resentment, anger and other bad attitudes to life to concrete wrongdoings. The aim of my paper is to argue that a school shooting is a sub-type of the category “outgroup dehumanization”, which takes place within an intergroup context (the school) that has completely lost – from the killer’s perspective – any sense.
From this point of view, a school shooting cannot be compared to a mass shooting in a public place, as it happened – for example – in some major terrorist events (San Bernardino shooting, 2016). Both phenomena, nevertheless, can be ascribed to the loss of sensing that originates in the intimate ground of the personal identity when a sharp divide is drawn between itself and the others (as Castano, Giner-Sorolla assume).
Moving from this anthropological frame – the point of intersection of school shootings and mass murders – I’ll defend the voluntary aspect of such events. At the beginning of the discussion I invite the reader to ask about the peculiar kind of relation existing between the killer and the victims of a massacre. Beneath a school shooting it generally lies a close link between the perpetrator and the victims, grounded on a common set of values, beliefs, and activities. How does it happen that empathy turns into the absence of any respect towards other people?
The Psychology of Dehumanization
Through the lens of psychology of dehumanization, it can be said that the killer has never been really part of the group to which its anger is directed: a former student who has felt frustrated for years, during the high school, was not certainly incorporated in the school society, although he/she was considered part of it. The vicious resentment allows him/her to engage in bad actions against that primary source of frustration. In the killer’s view victims are perceived as bearing the main responsibility for his/her missed integration and realization. Through the absence of empathy, the denial of the humanity of the victims makes it easier for the perpetrator to kill a great number of them.
These shooting are voluntary and planned
When such a situation is given, the perpetrator’s lack of humanity does not depend on mental diseases: School shootings have much in common with a set of rituals that belong to the rules of massacre. The killer takes his time, stops and starts again. He reflects, he makes plans; he tries to have a conversation with the annihilated hostages or give them orders, as it happened in Columbine’s massacre (1999).
Killer feels like sole victim and a hero
Those who have been victimized are perceived as less human and the perpetrator feels himself to be the sole victim of the school system. The atrocities committed then turn into a revenge for the author of the shooting, to whom it gives back the human qualities the killer think to have been deprived. From this point of view, a school shooting is the result of an unresolved integration that gives rise to a disintegration: Victims are felt as a part of the frustrating educational environment against which nothing can be done except a war. Guns are part of this spectacular count down also for the symbolic implications they entail. The killer is involved in a final battle against the institution that was unable to guarantee equal opportunities of flourishing. There is something mythical, in the killer’s view, in making a massacre: The assassin aims to portray himself as the hero who, alone, or with a small group of peers, can defeat an organized army.
School Shootings differ from other forms of massacres
A mass shooting (the Bataclan attack made by IS militants in Paris in 2015 and the jihadist massacre at Dacca, Bangladesh, 2016), on the contrary, is a classical case-study of outgroup violence. The perpetrator looks at the victims as sub-human subjects (infidels/kuffar), if compared to the intergroup society to which he/she belongs and to the ideology (the fundamentalist doctrine of takfir). The process of dehumanization works on the presumption that victims lack of the primary qualities of humanness, so that killing one person or thousands (the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001) does not make any difference. Guns are not the main weapons of such mass assassinations, if we consider the jihadist suicide attacks and the role of death camps played in Nazi totalitarian regime in 20th Century.
A common link between the two types of mass killings
Given these profiles, in brief, it is possible to find a common link between the school shooting killer and the mass murder perpetrators. In both cases it can be seen a loss of sensing, that’s to say the incapacity to feel the other as a living subject to whom respect is due. This condition entails a dehumanization that continues to work and leads to an intentionality that always assumes human agency.
Definitely not insane
This is a very crucial point in order to argue that perpetrators are not insane (Fisogni, 2010). In the Nazi regime there was bureaucracy that produced a detachment from the world of life, as Hannah Arendt argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In school shootings and in mass murders in general, this intimate dryness originates from the deliberate closure to the world of life. As an immediate consequence, the “others” become part of the outgroup of sub-subjects deprived of the primary qualities that define humanity.
Resentment and frustration make it seem there is a sharp divide between the frustrated student(s) and the education society, unable to perceive what does not work in the intergroup relations. The jihadist ideology of takfir comes to the same consequences through a very simplified logic that brings to the excommunication of whoever does not belong to that society.
On the other hand, it may be impossible for some to be involved with others
This general intellectual framework suggests the possibility that an individual cannot flourish when his/her relation to the world of life is compromised. This is because of the inseparable link between reality as a source of positive contents (being, values, life, the opportunity to flourish) and the moral life.
Into the general perspective of this anthropological framework, it can be seen that two main chances are given to any person: the possibility to choose to sense the other or the impossibility to be involved with others because of a number of pathological matters. The interpretation of evildoing as a loss of personal being may reveal fruitful throws light on the ordinariness (instead of the superiority) of perpetrators.
Not able to orient to the Good because don’t see anything positive in reality and can happen to any of us if the taste of good is gone from our lives
Jihadists as well as student/former student killers are often cultivated people, however they can kill innocent victims without batting an eyelid. Beyond an ordinary profile, an impoverishment of intimacy is present: It gives rise to action unlimited in hate, basically because the lack of sensing does not allow them to make the experience of the positive feature of reality. Hence, they are incapable of orienting themselves to the good. Guns or bombs are the final tools of an intimacy dryness that cannot simply be reduced to a mental disease, nor to an unresolved integration: Everyone can experimence it when the taste of good is lost.
At this point in the discussion, in which, up to here, I’ve simply sketched some main traits of the phenomenon of school shootings (an outgroup dehumanization risen from an intergroup context, intentionally oriented, where perpetrators are not insane), compared to the one of mass massacres, some conclusions are needed.
What to do? Empathy is the answer. To be part of a group does not suffice for feeling part of a veritable community (a school): it is necessary to check it with a regularity, through the “vocational orienteering” (Moretti, 2016), an interpersonal relation (teacher/student) that allows school to prevent frustration.
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Moretti, M. (2016). Orientamento vocazionale, Università degli Studi di Verona. Master biennale di II livello in Consulenza Filosofica di Trasformazione (Dissertation, unpublished)
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