[complicated issue. I will post a variety of pieces…do not write me to bitch about this or that article not being what you believe…if you disagree, then merely dismiss what gets said]
In the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the resulting renewed debate on gun control in the United States, The Stone will publish a series of essays this week that examine the ethical, social and humanitarian implications of the use, possession and regulation of weapons.
Adam Lanza was a young man. Jacob Roberts was a young man. James Holmes is a young man. Seung-Hui Cho was a young man. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were young men.
We can all name a dozen or so hypotheses about why they kill: their parents’ unlocked gun cabinet, easy access to weapons on the Internet, over- or under-medication, violent video games and TV programs, undiagnosed or misdiagnosed mental disorders, abusive or indifferent parents, no stable social network, bullying. However, young women are equally exposed to many of the same conditions yet rarely turn a weapon on others. This leaves us wondering about the young men.
There is something about life in the United States, it seems, that is conducive to young men planning and executing large-scale massacres. But the reasons elude us.
The first reaction to the horror and bloodshed of a mass killing like the one in Newtown, Conn., is a rekindling of the gun control debate. I happen to believe, along with many others, that the repeated mandate we give to the National Rifle Association and its lobby, and the complacency with which we allow our politicians to be subject to the will of gun manufacturers is odious.
In the United States, the angry white man has usurped the angry black man.
Limiting access to weapons is certainly a pragmatic albeit incomplete solution to the United States’ propensity for murder.
However, were the guns to vanish instantaneously, the specter that haunts our young men would still hover in silence, darkly.
What is it that touches them?
I come from a small town near Fort Worth, Texas. In this region, like many others across the United States, young men are having a very hard time of it. When I consider how all of the people I knew there are faring, including my own family members, the women have come out considerably better than the men. While many of the women were pregnant in high school and have struggled with abusive relationships, financial hardships and addictions, they’ve often found ways to make their lives work, at least provisionally, and to live with their children if not provide for them in more substantial ways.
The same cannot be said for many young men in the region, who are often absent fathers of multiple children by multiple women, unemployed or underemployed, sullen and full of rage. While every woman in my family has done O.K. in the end, every man on one side of my family except for my grandfather has spent time in jail, abused drugs or alcohol, suffered from acute depression, or all of the above. Furthermore, pervasive methamphetamine use, alcoholism, physical and psychological abuse and severe depression have swept not only my hometown and my region but large segments of the United States. If this pattern is not familiar to you personally, I am certain it is the lived experience of someone you know.
This is merely anecdotal evidence, not social science, but I believe that it is indicative of a sort of infection spreading in our collective brain, one that whispers to the American subconscious: “The young men are in decline.” They were once our heroes, our young and shining fathers, our sweet brothers, our tireless athletes, our fearless warriors, the brains of our institutions, the makers of our wares, the movers of our world. In the Western imagination, the valiance of symbolically charged figures like Homer’s Ulysses or the Knights of the Round Table remained unquestioned since their conception. However, as centuries progressed and stable categories faltered, the hero figure faces increasing precarity. Even if we consider the 20th century alone, we see this shift from World War II, when the categories of good and evil were firm, to later conflicts like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, involving a disparity between what the government believed to be right and what much of the civilian population did.
Does the heroic young man still make sense today, or has his value already been depleted?
Certainly, there are young men who are paragons of success: the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, the sharply dressed bankers, the swarms of brilliant graduates who receive their diplomas each year. And there are heroes who fight our fires, soldiers who fight our wars and the first-responders who are the first to set eyes on the dead children’s bodies at the scenes of mass shootings. But more young men these days are avatars of soldiers rather than soldiers themselves.
If the soldier has largely been replaced by the video game character and the drone, if the mothers have proven that they can raise the children alone, if the corporations are less able or willing to guarantee the possibility of upward mobility and some level of respect that comes with title, if someone else can bring home the bacon, what is left for young men?
All this, and they still are not allowed to cry.
There is also the issue of race. Not all of the men I listed in the beginning of this piece are Caucasian. However, take a moment and imagine what the archetypical image of a mass murderer in the United States looks like. Is he white in your mind? This image can only be attributed to the truth of those patterns that have established themselves, from Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas, to Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, to the 1999 Columbine massacre, to Wade Michael Page’s 2012 attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The mass murderer is a type. And his race is white.
More From The Stone
Read previous contributions to this series.
Young, African-American men are often imagined to be violent on the street, killing one another in gang-related violence or murdering convenience store clerks while trying to empty the cash register. The stereotypical image, even in its wrongheaded reduction of the black man to an inherently violent being, does not leave room for that other kind of murderer, the one who plans and executes a calculated, non-spontaneous large-scale death spree.
The angry white man has usurped the angry black man.
I would argue that maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline. And while those of us who are not male or white have enjoyed some benefits from their decline, the sort of violence and murder that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary will continue to occur if we do not find a way to carry them along with us in our successes rather than leaving them behind.
For women, things are looking up. We can vote, we can make more choices about our bodies than in decades past, we’ve made significant progress regarding fair pay, and more women are involved in American politics than ever before. The same can be said for minorities. However, because resources are limited, gains for women and minorities necessarily equal losses for white males. Even if this feels intuitively fair to many, including those white males who are happy to share resources for the greater benefit of the nation as a whole, it must feel absolutely distressing for those who are uncomfortable with change and who have a difficult time adjusting to the inevitable reordering of society.
From the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and onward, young men – and young white men in particular – have increasingly been asked to yield what they’d believed was securely theirs. This underlying fact, compounded by the backdrop of violent entertainment and easy access to weapons, creates the conditions for thousands of young men to consider their future prospects and decide they would rather destroy than create.
Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? Who can find nothing stable to believe in? Who feels himself becoming unnecessary? That powerlessness and fear ties a dark knot in his stomach. As this knot thickens, a centripetal hatred moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others: his parents, his girlfriend, his boss, his classmates, society, life.
A partial solution to these toxic circumstances could be a coordinated cultivation of what might be called an empathic habit. Most people surely felt an impulsive empathy for the parents and survivors involved in the Sandy Hook massacre, as shown by the countless memorial services and candlelight vigils that took place after the murders. But empathy could help best if exercised before rather than after such tragedies.
Empathy could serve many of us: those who have not yet put themselves in the position of a person who is losing their power and those who can aim a gun at someone without imagining themselves on the other end of the barrel. For those of us who belong to a demographic that is doing increasingly better, a trained empathic reflex toward those we know to be losing for our gains could lead to a more deferential attitude on our part and could constitute an invitation for them to stay with us. To delight in their losses and aim at them the question, “How does it feel?” will only trigger a cycle of resentment and plant the seeds for vengeance. It is crucial to accommodate the pain of others.
For a start, feeling needed is undoubtedly essential to each individual. This fact must be addressed at home, at school, in the workplace, and in politics. For example, one could envision the development of a school curriculum that centers around an empathic practice, particularly in courses such as history, social studies, literature, and political science. If students have no access to an empathic model at home, they would at least be exposed to it in the classroom. In the workplace, the C.E.O. must be able to put herself in the position of the lowest ranked employee and vice versa. Victims and victors must engage in the hypothetical practice that forces each to acknowledge the others’ fortunes and misfortunes.
Empathy is difficult because it forces us to feel the suffering of others. It is destabilizing to imagine that if we are lucky or blessed, it just as easily could have gone some other way. For the young men, whose position is in some ways more difficult than that of their fathers and grandfathers, life seems at times to have stacked the cards against them. It is for everyone to realize the capricious nature of history, which never bets consistently on one group over another. We should learn to cast ourselves simultaneously in the role of winner and loser, aggressor and victim.
We have a choice whether our national refrain of “No more mass murders” will be meaningful or meaningless. We cannot neglect the young men. By becoming empathic stewards of civic and personal life, there is a chance we could make someone think twice before targeting another human being.