I previously had categorized school shootings in a certain way in my mind. I saw them as reflecting the society's promotion of aggression as the essence of manliness, combined with the rage of young people, especially young men, who find themselves in a world of shifting sands and uncertain identity. All that was connected to a militarized, warmaking society both in the official government policies and in the self-centered nihilism of corporate boardrooms and street gangs.
Always vaguely tied to that framing of the issue was the degradation of women in popular culture and media. I also knew that the violence against women and children in homes was one aspect of what I heard Ched Myers call "a nation addicted to violence." But this gendered aspect of the problem had remained somewhat in the background for me until recently.
A few weeks ago I read Martha Mendoza's study of the prevalence of sexual assault on young women and men by military recruiters who have legally mandated access to public schools. The schools are forced to allow these outsiders, many of whom have been protected by the continued lack of concern in the military ranks about mistreatment of women. This angers me no end and has raised my level of anxiety about my daughter's safety.
Now these killings in Colorado and Pennsylvania have shaken me up again. In Colorado, a man walked into a school armed, and freely made his way into a classroom where he selected six girls as his victims, sending out the boys, some other girls, and the teacher. The news stories quote one girl as saying he seemed to be preferring primarily smaller girls with blonde hair, although a girl with brown hair was also in the group. Objectifying these girls by their age, body type, and hair color, he proceded to molest them.
What does this man's story tell us about the malformation of men in our society? What drove this man to act? Was it some sort of hatred of young women? Fear or resentment of the power of women? Desire for power over the weak? Sexual desire distorted and perverted toward violence? The news stories report that he designed and ran "haunted houses" for Halloween, another artifact of a society addicted to violence. He reportedly encouraged workers to make their scenes and acts as disturbingly scary as possible. Maybe his actions at the school were his way of taking one last overdose on an addiction to causing people to be terrified. When a human being becomes habituated to horror for thrills, then the whole complex of emotion, reason, and brain chemistry becomes intertwined in it.
Under pressure from the SWAT team's attack, he shot and killed one of the girls. Why he shot only one, we don't know. Maybe he felt the horror of what he had done, and therefore turned the gun on himself. Or more likely, he ran out of time and wanted to control his own death.
The Pennsylvania story is equally horrifying and even harder to interpret from the news accounts. At the heart of it is a similar story. The man entered the school with guns. He sent out the boys, the adult women, and the very young girls. Eleven girls between first grade and eighth grade, perhaps including an older teen who served as a teacher's aide, were bound hand and foot and lined up by the chalkboard. When the police showed up, the man decided to finish his plan, shooting all of the girls execution style before killing himself. Three girls died on the site. Seven more went to the hospital, and stories indicate that most if not all were shot in the head. Already at this writing, two more have died. All five others remain in critical condition. Very little information is available, but two who died were as young as seven years old.
The names of the five who have died are as follows: Naomi Rose Edersole, 7; Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12; Marian Fisher, 13; Mary Liz Miller, 8; Lina Miller, 7. The last two are sisters. How terribly tragic that he stole away their young lives and their families' joy in them.
Why kill only girls? Why kill children? Neighbors described the man as a caring father and husband, so obviously something beneath the surface was horribly wrong. News accounts only talk about his expressed need to avenge something from his childhood, twenty years ago. It has something to do with his molesting of young children when he was 12 years old. No one seems to think that the particular neighbors or the particular children were anything but a "target of opportunity," easy to get to and use for his purposes. People also speculate that the death of a child in his family may also be related, but if so, why? He is said to have stated he was angry with life and God. Does this act somehow pay God back?
Did his past create in him a deep-seated hatred for young girls? It is widely observed that some people become sexually fixated on teens or even preteens. Psychoanalytic theorists might offer some explanations that would make sense. Theories of moral and spiritual formation and development can also give some insight. Addiction and recovery models shed some light, but these are not fully explanatory.
Something has gone terribly wrong in the formation of these men and boys who become murderers, and the fact of the prevalence of similar cases means that more than an individual explanation is needed. What conditions produce this kind of explosion of hatred and desperation? The Pennsylvania attack was the 100th school shooting since the Columbine High School tragedy of 1999. One hundred school shootings in seven years can't be called a series of isolated events. The formation of men in this culture has been undermined and overwhelmed by corrupted convictions and practices about manhood, identity, and strength, and over and over young girls and women are paying the price as recipients of violence. Nothing could be more clear after the past week.
God, please protect my precious daughters, and the daughters of all others who must live in a world where evil can rise up and strike in the unlikeliest of places, when we least expect it, against your will for which we pray to be done on earth. And please shield my beloved son, and the sons of all others from a world where being a man seems to necessitate aggression and violence, both of which are against our true nature revealed in the Incarnate One. May my children and the children of others live in peace, with the joy of family and community, in the midst of your love, and may they grow old in gratitude for your provision, among friends and loved ones until that time that they may be raised in a new body to your presence forevermore. Amen