Political clarity demands a certain simplification. We can talk about the cases of Roof, Rodgers, Cruz and many others, and point to the agonised, panic-ridden, toxic mess of thwarted masculinity and crisis-addled 'whiteness'. We can talk about the rise of proto-fascist currents, and their affective ramifications. We can talk about capitalist crisis, neoliberal meltdown, and the collapse of welfare, and mental healthcare. We can situate them in the tradition of the Breiviks and other right-wing killers whom the media preferred to call 'mad'. And we can certainly hold co-responsible those who contribute to the political climate enabling such actions.
But the one thing we can not afford to forget or let go of, amid many many premature rationalisations and explanations that will come -- especially from assorted experts in human suffering, therapists and psychologists and the like -- is that, as yet, no one knows what is causing this phenomenon of mass killing. All of these factors matter, it is helpful to think about them, but they don't explain this particular mass derangement.
This is important, because, the first explanation that Trump, his ideological allies, and most of the media, will go for, is that he had reportedly evinced abusive, obsessive and dangerous tendencies over a long period of time. Even the BBC headline says: "Depressed loner 'crazy about guns'". And Trump has taken to Twitter to say, "So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior ... Neighbours and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!” Meaning, if you know someone who you think has mental illness, or demonstrates weird behaviour, shop them to the authorities so that they can be disciplined.
This is dangerous. Every known 'psychological profile' of the mass shooter is vacuous, and for a good reason. For example, here psychologists claim to have developed a "profile" of mass shooters, replete with red flags to look out for. In the same article, they state that "it is maddeningly difficult to separate the next school shooter from the millions of other disaffected students who may never go on to kill". So, your profile of the mass school shooter just happens to be like any other disaffected student? And look at the list of red flags. A history of abuse "or ineffective parenting". What, pray, is ineffective parenting? Unless, circularly, that parenting which leads to a child growing up to be a mass killer?
There is no profile. There are mentally ill people, there are dangerous people, and there are disaffected people, and they are not all the same. And the people with 'red flags' are just like millions of others. There is already enough of a problem with people being penalised and disciplined in US schools for ludicrous reasons. There is already a huge cage of security guards, cops, scanners, body searches and so on descending on US schools. More panic-driven surveillance of people deemed odd or unwell isn't going to help.
To repeat and underline, no one knows what is causing this. Certainly, we can aver that many of the same risk factors contributing to the relatively high rate of gun crime and interpersonal violence in the US are at work here. I've gone through some of that background here. However, the problem is that overall violence, including sexual violence and gun violence, has been on the decline for almost a quarter of a century, while the mass killings rise. They are now literally happening almost daily, at such a rate that most such events do not receive national, let alone international, coverage.
When these sorts of detached, nihilistic mass killings began to assume prominence in the Nineties, there was a sense, perhaps, that it was part of a rising tide of violence. The steep generational decline in violence had not yet happened. But that has clearly not been the case for a long time. This stands out as one of the forms of violence that is increasing in regularity, as if it's 'gone viral'.
Looking back at the Nineties mass killings, which now seem to have been of a different type, Mark Ames's book, Going Postal, convincingly linked them to dog-eat-dog social competition, and particularly to contexts of officially sanctioned bullying and sadism, underpinned by moral hypocrisy. University administrations, or management, might vapidly preach 'values' while turning a blind eye to bullying because they support a cruel social structure. In this context, he argued that mass killings were the post-industrial equivalent of the futile slave rebellion.
Some of that is consistent with recent research. And some of it even makes sense, but only to a degree. The thing about the Amesian 'slave revolt' heuristic is that it had in mind scenarios where killers in some, confused, displaced way, sought to butcher their social superiors, their bosses, their hated teachers, their bullies, the jocks, and others above them in the hierarchy. Even in that format, the thesis was tendentious; but that is manifestly not always what is happening today, when many of the killers select and prey on those who are socially easiest to kill. This doesn't preclude the general atmosphere of social sadism and official detachment, callousness and nihilism ("now watch this drive") contributing to what is taking place. It doesn't preclude these individuals having miserable lives, and indeed being victims in some sense. It just means that something else is going on.
The truth is that, you can stack up all the explanatory factors, all the various contexts and reasons why hundreds of these massacres happen every year, and you'd still be asking yourself: but why? Why this specific thing? Why this pattern? Why should this go viral? And the answer, let us remember, is that no one knows.