School Shootings

Friday 16 February 2018 10:52

I've been thinking about school shootings. I was a teacher once, and I remember one particular young man of 17 years who had really serious anger management problems. I can remember him shouting at me in class over some trivial thing and having to bring him outside and talk him down. He didn't hate me but he hated several of his teachers, some of them with a deep lasting hatred. He was, as we say, his own worst enemy, but he had plenty of other enemies too, including among his classmates.

So I've been imagining a situation where he could get his hands on a rifle and a pistol and trying to think what would happen, and each time I come up against a wall of near impossibility. I say 'near impossibility' because things happen - Dunblaine is a close example. The conclusion I come to is that killing children in school is unthinkable here, absolutely taboo, as is the idea of giving a non-criminal teenager a gun. Indeed there aren't even very man guns in Ireland by comparison with the USA. On the other hand, it seems to me, school shootings are granted some kind of permission there. This is undeniable since, for example, in 2018 they are happening at the rate of about 2 per week. I don't know what kind of form that permission takes, and I know that the vast majority of people repudiate it, but permission at some deep psychological level there must be because they happen so frequently. The things that states do and say translate into psychological states among their citizens. There is a good argument to be had, for example, about the social and psychological effects of neoliberal national policies in Ireland – maybe another time!

But in this case, the key may well be in the militarised nature of the USA, where the army recruits on campuses, recruitment takes place at football games, foreign wars proceed apace, the pledge of allegiance is demanded every day at school, God and country are one, the police have military equipment including tanks, the right to bear arms weapons is asserted daily, and some citizens are organised in militias.

States constantly express values that are never articulated by politicians or in constitutions, and you can't be a violent militarised state and not expect the people to see that as a high value. And the valorisation of weapons and war, of national revenge, of battlefield success, of war heroes, of the sheriff and the lone gunman affects how people think of their state, their society and themselves. 

An extraordinary example comes from a BBC4 report on the mourning vigil for this latest attack.

Four people are heard speaking - three women who all express their loss, their horror, their hurt, and one man who declares 'It's my job to protect my children'. This, in some ways laudable and natural expression of masculinity is yet another way of saying the American myth that as the world's greatest democracy it has a duty to protect lesser nations, in other words, to wage war outside its own borders, and equally that it is a nation under constant threat (from communism, from Islam, from Mexicans etc) and whose 'freedom' is in equal measure strong but fragile and therefore in constant need of 'protection' (again expressed by foreign wars and covert action. 
Thus, the grieving father's response to the anguish of the lost child internalises the national valorisation of violence.

None of this is to say that mass killings cannot or could not occur in Ireland – it's not so long since political violence came to an end here or indeed since the last father drove into the sea with his children in the back of the car, and in a comparable culture we have the example of Dunblaine – but toxic masculinity finds other outlets than mass-shootings in general, and the lack of availability of weapons makes it beyond difficult to kill so many people. On this last point, and on the unthinkability of certain kinds of murder, it is unthinkable that anyone (outside of a criminal gang or a paramilitary organisation) could lay hands on a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol with a lot of ammunition, and absolutely unthinkable that a child could do so. Why is it that one can think these things in the United States, but not in Ireland?