"While gun reform will make it harder for damaged people to attain guns, that doesn't address the wounds that make people want to pick up a gun in the first place. We need a holistic response that illuminates our own power to address these problems. We can no longer afford to act as if national policy is the only solution and we are otherwise helpless to do anything."
We can add one more name to the growing list of young people seduced by the cult of violence - one more child of our culture to become a mass killer. For Nikolas Cruz, the end result of his 19-year year journey through life in America was the death of 17 of his former classmates at a Florida high school. The question we're all asking now is: why? What happened during those 19 years that would lead a young person to do this?
A brief excerpt from his Wikipedia bio:
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel described Cruz's online profiles and accounts as "very, very disturbing". They contained pictures and posts of him with a variety of weapons, including long knives, a shotgun, a pistol, and a BB gun. Police said Cruz held "extremist" views and social media accounts believed to be linked to him contain anti-black and anti-Muslim slurs. Cruz's YouTube videos included comments stating "I wanna die Fighting killing shit ton of people", threats against police officers and Antifa, and that he intended to mimic the University of Texas tower shooting.
CNN reported that Cruz advocated for the killing of Mexicans, blacks, and gay people in a private Instagram group chat. He said his hate for black people was "simply because they were black", referred to white women in interracial relationships as traitors, and expressed anti-immigrant and antisemitic views.
A former classmate said Cruz had anger management problems and often joked about guns and gun violence, including "shooting up establishments". A 2016 graduate's brother described him as "super stressed out all the time and talked about guns a lot and tried to hide his face". A student enrolled at the school at the time of the shooting said, "I think everyone had in their minds if anybody was going to do it, it was going to be him." A classmate assigned to work with him in sophomore year said, "He told me how he got kicked out of two private schools. He was held back twice. He had aspirations to join the military. He enjoyed hunting." He also bragged about killing animals. A neighbor said his mother would call the police over to the house to try to "talk some sense" into him.
All of this represents a troubling sign of the times.
Cruz was oppressed by his exposure to anti-Islamic, racist, xenophobic and antisemitic ideology, twisted notions of patriotism and masculinity, and many other toxic beliefs rampant in our culture, and no one was able to help him before it was too late. Many people did try - its even reported that Cruz called the police himself after his mother died - but we still did not have enough social support structures in place to get him the help that he needed.
This is true for every young teenager or adult who is exposed to the most troubling values and environmental circumstances of our culture. The problem is not mental illness. Like pinning the problem on "evil," that is just a convenient scapegoat that allows us to dodge the deeper roots of this crisis.
The root of the problem is our culture and the social environment we have designed for our children, in particular, the socialization of our boys. It is an environment where our boys are socialized in fundamentally different ways than girls, and the differences create an alarming truth: 97 percent of school shooters are male and 79 percent are white.
What can we learn from these statistics? First, we should dispense with any notions that violence has any correlation to the inherent biology of these identities. As modern science informs us, biological determinism is bunk, whether it's applied to gender or the fictitious concept of race. Behavioral problems and mental illness, likewise, can be more often traced to a person's environmental history than any genetic disposition. White males are not inherently more violent than any other identity.
The difference is socialization. It's the difference that makes all the difference.
What we are learning from developmental psychology has huge ramifications for how we should be designing the environments that our children grow up in. As Jacob Devaney writes,
Harsh, punitive, and cold environments along with chronic stress cause the brain to release a neurotoxin known as cortisol. Cortisol literally destroys brain cells in the area of the brain connected to emotional regulation and impulse control causing the prefrontal lobes to atrophy. Whereas, loving supportive connection in a safe environment causes the brain to secrete oxytocin which develops these centers and cultivates the capacity for empathy, which is the neurological foundation for peace.
Robin Grille goes into more detail in the video below:
From this knowledge of how the human brain is adversely shaped by stress, lack of care, and other negative social influences, and likewise develops in healthy ways when security, emotional support, unconditional love and other prosocial factors are present, we can begin to imagine how we might actually solve this crisis.
Because of the highly gendered ways that we view girls and boys (sweetness for girls, toughness for boys), it makes sense that, until recently, we haven't paid as much attention to the suffering of boys and how our culture harms them. The gendered stereotype that sees women as more vulnerable and sensitive has perhaps made it easier for us to see girls and women as victims when they're being harmed, and we are more readily trained to offer empathy and support for their suffering. For boys and men, when they suffer, we're taught to tell them to "toughen up," to "stop crying" and "be a man." We teach boys and men that being a victim of abuse or any other kind of hurt is deeply shameful in our culture. Having vulnerable emotions is considered a sign of weakness, and weakness is associated with the feminine, hence why so many of the insults hurled at boys are gendered insults (which sends a terrible message to boys and girls alike). Somehow our culture is so toxic that even the kids learn to participate in this degradation of each other - shaming their classmates with insults, sexist put-downs and other labels intended to challenge their basic worth as a human being.
The underlying problem is all forms of bullying, as well as the numerous ways we have failed to teach our children how to love both themselves and others. What it adds up to is an environment where suicide is the 2nd highest cause of death for kids age 10-24.
Suicide deaths for boys and girls
"A breakdown from the CDC on the suicide rates of males and females ages 15 to 19 between 1975 and 2015."
This is an example of what I call "inherited suffering" - it's the kind of suffering that our children experience because we have yet to recover and heal from the wounds we received from the generation before us. I don't want anyone to feel bad about this. It's just what's happened. But the outcome is that we don't offer emotional support to boys in many ways that we aren't even conscious of because that's how we were socialized to respond. It's a legacy that leaves countless boys' emotional development severely lacking.
Meanwhile, we have a culture that is saturated by the worship of guns and the use of violence as an expression of male power - from movie icons like John Wayne and James Bond to the example set by our own military - projecting dominance, agency and power through violence is deeply embedded in our cultural subconscious. For boys experiencing alienation, an inability to process difficult emotions, stunted empathy growth in the brain due to chronic stress and a crippling lack of self-worth - often mixed in with the hate-based ideologies of many adults - the seduction of finding the ultimate (perceived) catharsis through the act of killing becomes tragically predictable.
For everyone that wants to go beyond gun reform, which is merely one branch on a sprawling tree, this is the fundamental design problem we have to address:
We have created a society where our children grow up in fundamentally unequal circumstances, creating unequal outcomes: some of our children are nourished by healthy, pro-social influences and grow up to be loving and healthy, and some of our children inherit so much suffering that they eventually spill that suffering onto others in the most horrific of ways.
What can we do to change this?
While gun reform will make it harder for damaged people to attain guns, that doesn't address the wounds that make people want to pick up a gun in the first place. We need a holistic response that illuminates our own power to address these problems. We can no longer afford to act as if national policy is the only solution and we are otherwise helpless to do anything.
Rather than witness the growing social ills of our culture with cynicism, despair or powerlessness, we need to reclaim our agency. We need to attack this problem at its cultural root and address those roots in our local communities.
This is the deep truth that we all must feel down to our bones:
A mountain of guns is of no use to a culture that has taught its children how to love.
Elders, healers, lovers of this world, rise up!
It is time to ask ourselves: what can we do to create a culture where none of our children grow up to become killers or kill themselves?
When I asked this question, an ethical and philosophical principle arose from the depths of my heart:
Excluding anyone from society must no longer be considered tolerable, wise or civilized. Even the really disturbed and wounded kids like Cruz, whose suffering had already been spilling onto others for several years before he finally broke.
We need to recognize that the roots of all violence is oppression - that people who commit violence, who hate, who cause others to suffer are also victims of this toxic culture.
We need to have a new cultural protocol for disturbed, outcast, hateful and wounded people... We need a culture that is taught how to bring hateful, wounded and victimized children and adults back into the "beloved community," back into the "community of us."
We need to create a culture that does not discard or forget any human being. We need to be the elders, mentors and guides for this new generation growing up. We need to start talking openly about how much the children growing up in this culture are oppressed by the toxic values which we have yet to heal ourselves.
All children in this culture are being oppressed in some form or another, as the recipients of all of our inherited suffering, which we received from our parent's generation and which we continue to pass on to the next.
We need to become the models of who we wish others to be - we need to model it as activists, as citizens, and as role models for those growing up.
It's time to reject the thing which both large portions of the left and right of our society both believe in: the belief in selective care and conditional compassion - the notion that it's bad to show compassion for the "other." Segments of both the left and the right believe in the existence of "garbage humans" that aren't worth caring about.
Lock'em up. Punish them. Ignore them. Shame them. Those are the solutions we pretend to have in our so-called civilized society.
Things like restorative justice, reconciliation, compassionate activism, pro-active, preventative activism, mainstreaming nonviolent communication training, prosocial educational campaigns, expanding school counselor resources so that every student has access to free therapy for an hour every week - none of these ideas have yet to hit our mainstream discourse. It's barely discussed within activist circles.
But I think this is the role to play for anyone that is aware of the need to alter the direction of our national discourse.
We need more people who believe in the dignity of every human being and are actively putting this belief into deep, explorative, experimental practice. What would our lives, our speech, our actions look like if we fully embraced this principle?
Fortunately, we do not need to explore all these questions from scratch. Pioneering thinkers, healers, visionaries, writers and activists have been developing beautiful answers to these questions for decades. Some of this wisdom is thousands of years old but was marginalized over centuries of empire and conquest. It's simply time that we help amplify these voices from the margins and take them into the mainstream.
The wisdom of nonviolent communication, Kingian nonviolent activism, the Maori's philosophy about humanity and our relationship to all life, the work of prison abolitionists practicing restorative justice, moving us beyond the paradigm of punishment and into an era where everyone wounded by the barbs of this culture have been made whole - this is the wisdom that we need to lift up.
May it be so!
Tim Hjersted is the director and co-founder of Films For Action, a Lawrence, KS-based organization dedicated to changing the world through film and media.