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The Unbearable Whiteness of Suicide-by-Mass-Murder

12/23/2012 11:20 am ET | Updated Feb 22, 2013

If your only sources were Facebook and Fox, tabloids and TV, you'd likely think that guns, mental illness, and violent media were the only things worth talking about to explain the horrific massacre at Sandy Creek Elementary School. Of course, any rational approach to this problem would indicate that these three factors are important.

Surely, guns played some role in this. Although guns, by themselves, are not the cause of the rampage, they can help explain its horrific scale, its terrible scope. Consider two of our closest allies. In 1996, in Dunblane, Scotland, a single gunman killed 16 children and one adult in an affluent suburb before taking his own life. That same year, a gunman killed 35 people and wounded 23 more in a Tazmanian resort town; it was Australia's worst mass shooting ever. Both countries immediately passed tough gun controls, making it effectively illegal to own a handgun in the U.K. And there hasn't been another school shooting since in Britain; in Australia, homicides by firearms have declined by about 60% over the past 15 years.

And yes, I believe Adam Lanza was mentally ill. Perhaps he was on the autism spectrum, he was perhaps manic depressive. Pop psychologists will never have the opportunity to properly diagnose him (but that won't stop them from trying). We do not know enough and he left few clues, but it is safe to say that he was developmentally disabled in some way. And just as surely, the overwhelming majority of mentally ill people do not hurt other people (and the majority of violence is performed by people who would test as fully rational).

And yes, of course, our violent media culture, of apocalyptic action movies and glorified graphic violence, and first person shooter video games has to have some cognitive impact. Even though the overwhelming majority of game players and media consumers will never commit a violent act in our lives, most research indicates that media images have some effect on our behavior. (Had they no effect, the entire advertising industry would collapse!)

But these three factors are simply not enough. We need to broaden the conversation. Other elements must be considered. There are at least two more elements of this equation of what can only be described as "suicide by mass murder" that have to be weighed judiciously alongside guns, mental illness and violence in media. These often unspoken elements are gender and race.

The biggest surprise in the deluge of punditry about Sandy Hook is the sudden visibility of gender. The utter male-ness of these mass murders is no longer being ignored (61 of the 62 perpetrators of mass murders in the United States in the last 30 years have been men). We are finally questioning how using violence to retaliate against nearly any perceived slight is accepted, and even encouraged, for men in our society. Righteous retaliation is a deeply held, almost sacred, tenant of masculinity: if you are aggrieved, you are entitled to retribution. American men don't just get mad, we get even.

Both of us have been writing and researching this lethal equation of masculinity and righteous resort to violence for years, so we weren't surprised that it plays a role in these events. But we were surprised to see a gender analysis becoming one of the central framing themes in the media coverage. It is long overdue.

But a deeper, and perhaps more controversial issue is race -- or, rather the combination of race and class and gender. (We academics call it "intersectionality" -- the way that race or class or gender are not separate categories but rather "intersect" with one another in constantly shifting patterns). Even as gender is finally making headlines in relation to this horrible violence, race and its intersection with class and gender has been left behind.

Newtown is a white, upper and upper-middle-class suburb. Think of the way we are describing those beautiful children -- "angels" and "innocent" -- which they surely were. Now imagine if the shooting had taken place in an inner city school in Philadelphia, Newark, Compton, or Harlem. Would we be using words like "angels"? We don't know the answer, but it's worth asking the question. It is telling though that we do not see a national outcry over the far too frequent deaths of black and brown skinned angels in our nation's inner cities.

Now let's talk about the race and class of the shooter. In the last 30 years 90% of shootings at elementary and high schools in the U.S. have been perpetrated by young white men. And, 80% of the 13 mass murders perpetrated by individuals aged 20 or under in the last 30 years have also been committed by white men. There is clearly something happening here that is not only tied to gender, but also to race.

This new phenomenon of suicide-by-mass-murder has emerged as a corollary to the earlier suicide-by-cop as a phenomenon of those whose real goal is, at least in part, to kill themselves -- and to take out as many of "them" as possible on the way. And this seems to be an entirely white male thing.

In urban settings, when young men of color experience that same sense of aggrieved entitlement - that perception of victimhood despite everything men expect for themselves - they may react violently, and even with lethal violence. But the victims of their violence are usually those whom the shooter believes have wronged him, and the unintended and accidental victims caught in the line of fire. And it rarely ends with his suicide.

White men, on the other hand, have a somewhat more grandiose purpose: they want to destroy the entire world in some cataclysmic, video-game, and action movie-inspired apocalypse. If I'm going to die, then so is everybody else, they seem to say. Yes, of course, this is mental illness speaking: but it is mental illness speaking with a voice that has a race and a gender.

One must feel a sense of aggrieved entitlement to pick up a gun and go on a rampage, yes. But that sense of aggrieved entitlement must also be grandiose if you are going to make them all pay.

Even as we challenge ourselves to see the racial difference in perpetration, we must not ignore the way that our response to this kind of violence is also shaped by race. When we hear of a rampage shooting by a white guy, we immediately claim it is a result of individual pathology - mental illness. The problem is "him," not "us." When we hear of a rampage or gang murders in the inner city, we assume it is the result of a "social pathology" -- something about the culture of poverty, the legacy of racism or some intrinsic characteristics of "them" or "those people." This difference in treatment allows us to avoid talking about what whiteness might have to do with the violence while always talking about what blackness or brownness has to do with it.

In both cases, though -- individual mental illness or social pathology -- it is not "our" story, but "their" story. And thus we miss the other variables in this equation -- how the shooter is, indeed, one of us -- shaped in the same culture, fed the same diet of images and ideas about the legitimacy of righteous rage, and given access to the same guns, subject to the same poorly diagnosed and under-treated mental illnesses, regardless of their cause.

Just as those innocent angels (no quotations marks this time, as they surely are that) are "ones of us," so, too, is Adam Lanza. We, the authors, speak inside that frame; we, too, are white and male, and have drunk from the same glass of aggrieved entitlement. Unless we address all the elements of the equation in his horrific act, including race and gender, our nation will continue to produce Adam Lanzas, Dylan Klebolds, James Holmes, Jared Loughners, arm them with a small arsenal, and then inspire them to explode.

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