Protesting signs, NYC, March
Photo credit: Image taken and composed by Marilena Stavrakidis

Opinion: 2018 has been, by some counts, a record year for American mass shootings. If guns are the hardware driving the violence, what is the software and how can we start to address changing it?

Each time there is a mass shooting in America the police and media pose the same question: What was the killer’s motive? The simple answer for me, despite individual variations and details, is pretty much the same: The shooters could no longer cope with their reality and wanted out, which is why so many of them choose to die or commit suicide after the act of murder.

Over the past half century or so, an increasingly widespread idea is that life has sped up and history is moving faster. We have far more experiences now — traveling broadly and interacting with many different types of people — so we’re constantly confronted with more change both within ourselves and our social environment. As human animals, we’re challenged to adapt more quickly to ever-changing conditions. Most people make this adaption fairly quickly and smoothly, but some don’t. As of December 16, 2018, there had been 333 mass shootings so far this year, or almost one a day, according to the Gun Violence Archive (which defines a mass shooting as having four or more victims, killed or injured). You have to wonder why so many young men (almost always) see this as the best option for their lives. What are their actions telling us? Why do they want out?

After the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999, about 15 miles from my Denver home, local authorities brought in Dr. Frank Ochberg, a Michigan psychiatrist who specialized in post-traumatic stress, to help those suffering from nightmares and flashbacks. Referring to one of the Columbine killers, Eric Harris, Dr. Ochberg called him the “Mozart of psychopaths, the kind of person who comes along only every two or three hundred years.”

In 2001, I wrote about Columbine in my book, The Uncivil War: The Rise of Hate, Violence, and Terrorism in America. In 2015, along with my wife and co-author, Joyce Singular, I continued this exploration of mass violence in The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth. The Aurora massacre occurred about seven miles from our home, inside a theater where our family had watched many movies together; the violence was edging closer. This time it was carried out by James Holmes, a 24-year-old PhD neuroscience candidate at the University of Colorado, who murdered 12 people and wounded 70 others — at that moment, the largest mass shooting in our nation’s history in its total number of victims.

We were assisted with The Spiral Notebook by our son, Eric, 19 at the time, who provided insight into the young males carrying out most of these crimes. He pointed us toward the over-prescription of drugs for depression and anxiety; the influence of violent video games on his generation; and “masculinity in crisis” — men being unable to manage their emotional lives or meaningfully connect with women, and ultimately descending into bloodshed.   

Both of the above books documented how, contrary to Dr. Ochberg’s assessment, the “Mozart of psychopaths” kept showing up in the US not every 200-300 years, but every week or so. Each time a major mass shooting erupted, the nation spent a few days focused on gun control, but that quickly passed. Nothing much was done to make America a less-well-armed nation.

The most haunting part of these events was that everything happened too late. It was too late to try to help or stop the killers (although James Holmes, to his credit, sought out a therapist in the months leading up to his rampage and then told her that he wanted to kill “a lot of people”; she prescribed meds for his anxiety and depression and when that didn’t work she doubled and then tripled the dosage; by then, he was playing violent video games eight hours a day, while amassing multiple weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition). In many of the most visible cases, it’s too late for the police to conduct a thorough interview with the perpetrator and determine possible motives after the fact because the shooter is dead.   

Murder rates are generally down in America, but mass shootings are up. The latter crimes, unlike most others, are not about personal gain or revenge against an individual. They’re not done by serial killers, who often take lives for sport. They’re not crimes of passion, where the attacker knows the victim. They’re social crimes, intended to harm the entire culture, carried out by those who feel powerless and an extreme sense of victimization, yet many of the shooters come from reasonably good economic circumstances. They’re about indiscriminate rage and the desire to inflict extreme pain on as many people as possible, while sacrificing their own life in the process. The best analogy is combat.  

In a videotape made in Eric Harris’s well-furnished, suburban bedroom about a month before he and Dylan Klebold unleashed their carnage at Columbine, the boys passed back and forth a bottle of whiskey, expressing their hatred toward many different groups and individuals at their school and talking in detail about their upcoming day of infamy. Several aspects of the tape were startling. One was the boys’ calmness and lucidity. Another was their apology to their parents for what they were about to do.

“It f—— sucks to do this to them,” Harris said of his mother and father. “They’re going to be put through hell once we do this. There’s nothing you guys could’ve done to prevent this.”

Klebold told his own mom and dad that they’d been “great parents” who taught him “self-awareness, self-reliance… I always appreciated that.”

Then he paused and said, “I’m sorry I have so much rage.”

“My parents are the best f—— parents I have ever known,” Harris echoed. “My dad is great. I wish I was a f—— sociopath so I didn’t have any remorse, but I do.”

He spoke just as lovingly of his mother: “I really am sorry about all this. But war’s war.”

Those last two words still ring in my head. What kind of war? And against whom?  

The core problem, Klebold said, was very widespread. It was all of “humanity. Look at what you made. You’re f—— s—, you humans, and you need to die.”

“We need to die too,” Harris said.

After writing about violence for several decades, and during a time of accelerated change, I began thinking about the problem from a different angle. Then something occurred that brought this more into focus. What I offer now isn’t an answer or explanation that everyone will agree with or take comfort in. Many will likely dismiss it as too flimsy or soft or vague for such a serious problem. Realizing that, I approach this modestly.

At 7:00 PM in Denver on October 1, 2017, a youngish black man in Los Angeles phoned me to talk about a documentary we’d been working on together. Call him Ray. He asked me a number of questions and brought me up to date on the project, which took about half an hour. For no particular reason, or maybe because by now in our relationship he was feeling more relaxed and open with me, he switched direction and told me about one of his core disciplines: For the past five years, he’d meditated twice a day, every day, no matter what. He conveyed this to me with shyness and a touch of uncertainty, as if I might find the practice strange or silly and respond in a way that would discourage him from going on.

I did the opposite.  

“In those five years,” Ray continued, “I’ve only missed a day or two.”

“Meditating allows me to get quiet, regardless of what’s going on around me,” he told me. “It clears my mind and calms me down when things are bothering me. If I don’t do it, they start to bother me a lot more. I get agitated or angry. I have troubling impulses. But after I’ve finished meditation, I can focus much better and get more work done.”

As Ray and I were talking that evening, Stephen Paddock was completing his final preparations at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. Three days earlier, he’d checked into a large, two-room suite on the 32nd floor, bringing with him more than ten full suitcases. Paddock, 64, had a home in Mesquite, Nevada, and another in Reno. In Mesquite, he lived by himself and moved among people who often saw him out shopping or taking a walk, a good neighbor who never caused trouble and rarely called attention to himself. His hobby was playing high-stakes video poker at Las Vegas casinos, dropping or winning tens of thousands of dollars at a sitting. Paddock had no criminal record, although in the 1960s his father, Benjamin, had been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for bank robbery.

By 2017, Paddock owned 49 guns. He’d carried 23 of them into the Mandalay Bay, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition. He’d brought semi-automatic assault-style rifles with scopes and other weapons converted into machine guns. At his Mesquite home, he’d stockpiled ammonium nitrate — the fertilizer compound used in the 1995 truck bombing that had killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. Chris Sullivan, the owner of Guns & Guitars in Mesquite, had recently sold merchandise to Paddock after he’d cleared all the necessary background checks and procedures.  

“He never gave any indication or reason to believe he was unstable or unfit at any time,” Sullivan later told the media.

No one in Paddock’s family knew of his plans for the upcoming “Route 91 Harvest” country music festival, held just across the street from the Mandalay Bay. The October 1 concert featured big-name performers like Jason Aldean and drew an audience of 22,000.

From his 32nd floor suite, Paddock shot into the festival from about a thousand feet away, for approximately ten minutes. By then, law enforcement officials were receiving 911 calls from concertgoers and had calculated that the gunfire was originating between the 29th and 32nd floor.

With a SWAT team closing in, Paddock reportedly committed suicide, but not before killing 58 people and injuring 527 more — the largest mass shooting in American history.

When we were researching The Spiral Notebook, our son insisted that we watch Fight Club, a touchstone movie for the millennial generation and those somewhat older. In the film, Brad Pitt plays Tyler Durden, the super-masculine alter ego of the more timid Edward Norton. They put together an underground club, a secret realm where men can act out their aggression and violence in private, away from women and the rest of society. More and more men are drawn to the club and it becomes a national movement.  

“When the fight was over,” the Ed Norton character says, “nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved.”  

student protest for gun control

Around 4,000 high school students walked out of school and marched to the Minnesota capitol to demand that legislators make changes to gun control laws. Photo credit: fibonacci Blue / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

His generation of men, the Tyler Durden character says, has no Great War or social cause to commit to and sacrifice themselves for; they’re fighting a spiritual war instead.

“Our Great Depression,” he tells the fighters, “is our lives… We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

They must discover a cause they find worthy of that anger, one that makes them feel “special.” They find it in coming together and beating themselves to a pulp.

In the fall of 2014, Esquire published an article about a young man named “Trunk.” About a decade earlier, he’d been arrested while dressed all in black and armed with a .22 caliber-pistol, a machete, a military-grade rifle slung across his back, and 2,000 rounds of ammunition. He and two accomplices, similarly clad and armed, were about to commit mass murder. At 3:00 AM, they were stopped and arrested because of their suspicious attire. The police saw their arsenal and Trunk eventually pled guilty to carjacking and was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Behind bars, he began to learn basic social skills, such as how to cope around other people, to talk to them, and to get along when your health or life depended on it. Following his release from prison, he went to college, applied himself to his studies, and no longer wanted to harm society.  

In the Esquire article he attempted to articulate his long process of becoming a near-killer, which may have started when he was 10 years of age and his mother died or when he had to repeat seventh grade or when he began having a series of troubling thoughts: What was he doing wrong? Why were his peers against him? He felt ineffectual and wanted power, personal power, and to have an effect that the larger culture could not ignore. He too wanted to feel “special.” He didn’t want to become infamous by creating a massacre — the motive that many people ascribe to young killers — but to be known and accepted for who he was before a mass shooting.

Eventually, Trunk gravitated toward someone like himself, another young man who shared his feelings (a la Harris and Klebold); they played a lot of video games together — games about “people who are special rising over everyone else to save the world.” His father kept 14 guns in the house (a la Sandy Hook Elementary school shooter Adam Lanza): military-grade weapons in a locked closet, plus lots of ammunition. He acknowledged that if he’d had to go out in the world and illegally buy his own firearms, he’d had been too frightened to do so. Only a few feet away, the guns became irresistible. Take someone with very low self-esteem, he said, and put a firearm in his hands and he feels “like a movie hero…”

What did he want more than anything else?

To relieve the stress and pressure building inside of him in some constructive way, rather than through mass violence.

“I wanted release,” he explained in Esquire. “It’s not a desire for death. It’s a desire for escape … Maybe if this happened, I’d feel calm. I’d feel the way they do. I’d feel peace.”

Like many others, he was on a profound search for connection and meaning. The night before the planned attack he told himself that someone had to do this, to make a statement and “shoulder the burden,” so it might as well be him. Yet if just one person had noticed his torment and made an effort to say to him, “You don’t have to have this strange strength, we accept you,” he’d have “broken down and given up.”

James Holmes was also a seeker, but locked inside of a scientific discipline that didn’t address philosophical or spiritual longings. In the spiral notebook that he mailed to his therapist on the afternoon of his crime, he sketched out mathematical equations to try to answer his fundamental questions:

“What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of death? … Any and all actions have no import on anything … When mankind can’t find truth, untruth is converted to truth via violence … I have spent my entire life seeking this alternative [to violence] so that the question of how to live and what to live for may be addressed … What kind of GOD commands his people yet cowers behind free will?”

Seven pages of the notebook hold a single word written on them from top to bottom: “Why?” Toward the end were drawings of the inside of the theater and his plans for gunning down as many moviegoers as he could.  

More recently, California’s Thousand Oaks shooter, Ian David Long, who killed a dozen people on November 7, 2018, made a point of saying that he wasn’t insane, but “bored.”

He couldn’t find one thing to live for.

Working on The Spiral Notebook and chronicling mass violence in America for two full years, my wife and I became keenly aware of the difficulty of writing about this subject. How do you offer readers something other than a grim tale, repeated countless times and amplified in endless ways by the media? After struggling with that question for many months, we uncovered an answer, inserting a section on “Mindfulness.” This is defined in the Google dictionary as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”  

“Many kids who are chronically stressed out are not ready to learn in school,” Bidyut Bose of San Francisco told us during an interview. “I’m just blown away by how much anger they hold in their little bodies. We’re rushing to teach them to learn before we help them to heal, and that isn’t working.”

In 2005, Bose and a business partner, Judy Dunlap, launched an urban training center in the Bay Area called “Niroga.” “Roga” means disease and “ni” means the absence of something. Together the two words mean “well-being in the broadest possible sense.” Niroga’s purpose was to use what Bose had gleaned from the past five years of researching chronic stress to help the at-risk population of young people in Oakland.

Each week, the Niroga Institute taught yoga to more than 2,000 children in local schools, juvenile halls, alternative schools, and jails. Its main focus was on minority youth at high risk for school failure and delinquency, but it also conducted Transformative Life/Leadership Skills (TLS) trainings for parents, mental health professionals, community partners, social workers, educators, and criminal justice and violence-prevention officials. The training sessions offered yoga postures, breathing techniques, and meditation to help adults care for at-risk youth.

In Alameda County, the education, health care, and probation departments all supported Niroga’s Juvenile Hall yoga program, while local school districts began funding it as well. It was a fully-coordinated community project and students in the program demonstrated lower levels of stress and greater levels of self-control, more involvement at school, and more emotional awareness. After a family court judge brought Niroga in to conduct a TLS training at a Delaware school district, the judge told Bose that this program could “help dismantle” the school-to-prison pipeline, and he hoped to see it installed in schools nationwide.

“If even a fraction of the resources that we spend on incarceration,” he wrote, “could be spent on transforming our internal environments (stress management and healing from trauma), the social return would be substantial.”  

When a Bay Area police chief became aware of the success of the program, his response was unqualified: “This kind of change is a matter of life and death on my streets.”

Mainstream science has begun supporting Bose’s findings. In the spring of 2014, John Denninger, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, led a government-funded, five-year study on how yoga and meditation affect genes and brain activity in the chronically stressed. The year before, he’d published a work documenting how “mind-body techniques” switch on and off certain genes linked to stress and immune function. Denninger used neuro-imaging and genomics to measure the body’s physiological changes in great detail and his results established, as he puts it, “a true biological effect.”  

The significance of this effect is hard to exaggerate. According to the Benson-Henry Institute, stress affects everything from infertility to aging — and accounts for 60–90 percent of doctors’ visits in the US. In a 2013 study, UCLA scientists and Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn documented that just twelve minutes of daily yoga/meditation for eight weeks increased telomerase activity by 43 percent. Telomerase is known as the “immortality enzyme,” because it slows the cellular aging process. A Tulane University School of Medicine study, published online in a 2014 spring issue of Pediatrics, found that the more children were affected by domestic violence or trauma, the more likely their DNA would be altered by the experience. Emotional wounds went just that deep.  

Am I suggesting that mindfulness is the solution to mass violence or violence in general? No, but it might be a starting point for a conversation we haven’t yet had.

At 8:00 PM in Denver on October 1, 2017, the LA documentary filmmaker was telling me about taking responsibility for the most basic parts of his being: his daily encounter with his feelings. At the same time another man in Las Vegas was planning to kill as many people as possible.

The next overwhelming mass shooting erupted exactly five weeks later, on November 5, in a church in rural Texas, leaving dozens dead. Then came the Parkland high school shooting in Florida on Valentine’s Day 2018, the perfect moment for another devastating crime of the heart. At what point do we offer children and adults a third choice beyond fight or flight — the organized opportunity to become still, look inside, and recognize this as a conscious act of humanity, one that can help us all? When do we make this part of our educational curriculum?      

After Stephen Paddock killed 58 people in Las Vegas and wounded 527 more, I awoke the next morning, heard the news, and looked for something to fall back on. I recalled speaking with Ray a few hours earlier, which gave me a shred of hope that human beings can change and grow away from the need to kill other people. I wanted to write something about Ray and put my attention on a solution instead of a problem.

Maybe it starts with the awareness that many of us are now under a variety of real pressures — emotional, financial, and societal — leaving us capable of violence if we don’t make a point of managing ourselves. That’s something each of us can do something about, right now.

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