The New Yorker and Mother Jones both have longform pieces out this week on “the Columbine Effect” — that is, the tendency of would-be school shooters to draw inspiration and practical lessons from previous high-profile killings (of which there are, obviously, a growing number). And I think it’s worth comparing the two theses.
The Mother Jones piece focuses on a very straightforward news item: the rise of Threat Assessment Professionals. The author, Mark Follman, travels to Disneyland where a gathering of 700-plus law enforcement agents, psychologists and private security experts are holding forth on all manner of mass shootings. The location of this conference, the author writes, is no coincidence:
As gun rampages have increased, so have security efforts at public venues of all kinds, and threat assessment teams can now be found everywhere from school districts and college campuses to corporate headquarters and theme parks. Behind the scenes the federal government has ramped up its threat assessment efforts: Behavioral Analysis Unit 2, a little-known FBI team based in Quantico, VA, now marshals more than a dozen specialists in security and psychology from across five federal agencies to assist local authorities who seek help in heading off would be killers. Those calls have been flooding in: Since 2012, the FBI unit has taken on more than 400 cases.
The point of the FBI unit (and of other units like it across the country) is to ferret out young men who are tip-toeing towards horrific violence, and to divert them before it’s too late. It’s tricky work, not least because you have to figure out how to identify and contain someone who may not have actually committed any crimes just yet. But threat assessment experts are aided by the fact that, more often than not, mass shooters fit a certain profile:
A growing body of research has shed light on this “pathway to violence.” It often begins with an unshakable sense of grievance, which stirs thoughts about harming people and leads to the planning and preparation for an attack… A confluence of behaviors can indicate that someone is poised to walk into a school or a shopping mall and open fire. These include an obsession with weapons, a fixation on images of violence, and a history of aggressive acts that aren’t directly related to the planned attack – possibly a way for the perpetrator to test his resolve.
That these crimes are not impulsive, but actually “methodically planned and executed,” should give us hope. The longer it takes someone to execute their plans, the more time we have to find and divert them. In case after case after case, we see that there have been warning signs. All we have to do is figure out how to identify those warning signs, and then respond to them.
The New Yorker piece, a classic Malcolm Gladwell, takes a completely different lens to the same material. It’s not at all that mass-killers-in-waiting fit a distinct or easily identifiable profile. In fact, they might actually be a “profoundly heterogeneous” group. It’s that the more high-profile mass killings there are, the lower the threshold of action is for committing such acts. Because, basically, you have to be less and less disturbed to see such things as normal or acceptable.
Gladwell compares the growing incidence of mass shootings to a spreading riot:
… a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds – which [the researcher] defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. … riots were started by people with a threshold of zero – instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two… and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who none-the-less could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of electronics store if everyone around him were grabbing cameras from the electronics store….
What if the way to explain the school shooting epidemic is to … think of it as a slow motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?
I think, both pieces serve their purpose well. It’s helpful to know what communities and private entities are up to in terms of prevention and to sort of see how that works on the ground. Because we have to at least try, right? Even if the premise — that there is a profile and there are signs and symptoms one can identify — is flawed, it’s as good a starting point for prevention as I can think of. In any case, it’s far better than the alternative, which is to do nothing.
But Gladwell’s piece gets at something that’s already sort of tugging at the subconscious. Why does the problem of mass shootings seem to get worse and worse and worse? Sure, social media and access to guns. But there’s something else to it, too, no? Gladwell anchors those anxieties — amorphous and pervasive as they are — in a theory that makes intuitive sense once you consider it.
Both pieces end on a grim note. Follman’s through narrative is of a kid who had been caught on the local Threat Assessment Team’s radar during high school, and had been successfully diverted. He went on to shoot up a dance club, killing two girls, wounding several more, a few years after he had moved away from his home town and out of reach of the team that had supported and monitored him.
Gladwell’s through narrative is of a kid who wouldn’t necessarily fit the profile outlined in Follman’s piece at all — a kid who was simply a bit “off.” His conclusion is, I think, the grimmer of the two:
In the day of Eric Harris, we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restriction on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.
There’s this piece, too, in Esquire by Tom Junod on the same topic. I haven’t read it yet, but wanted to give a nod because his story was first, published back in 2014.