The brutal and senseless murder of twenty-seven people—including twenty children—at Sandy Hook Elementary has left the nation once again stunned and looking for answers. Beyond the obvious element of evil, we are all wondering, “What can possibly motivate someone to commit these heinous acts of violence?” “Why are such scenes becoming more and more frequent?” And, “What is the cause?”
Some will search for indications of mental illness as the principal cause. Others will look for systemic failures, whereby measures presumably could have been taken to prevent this tragedy—such as proper security or a better response to the early indicators of emotional instability. And to be sure these are all reasonable and necessary considerations.
However, many will quickly default to the presence and availability of guns in America. It is not my intention to enter into the gun-control debate, in large part because history doesn’t support this premise nor does it take seriously the very real cultural, social, and human factors involved. Regardless of where one stands on the Second Amendment and whether or not military-style assault weapons should be available for private use, guns have been a part of Western civilization since the fifteenth century and multi-shot handguns became widely available beginning in 1835. Put simply, guns have been a part of American society since its colonization and yet it is only within the last forty years that we have begun to see these despicable acts of mass and random killing of strangers.
Therefore, we must concede that the mere presence and availability of firearms cannot adequately explain these horrific shootings. As a Christian, I would certainly point to the reality and presence of evil in these situations, but this is too general to be useful.
Nonetheless, I would like to offer one plausible explanation, which reveals a growing social, psychological, and spiritual condition, the product of a determined worldview and its resulting culture. I would add this same worldview will leave its adherents wanting as they struggle to understand the horror of last Friday’s massacre. However, if addressed, I believe this social reality could be changed and hopefully inspire “meaningful action,” to use President Obama’s words, capable of actually reversing the conditions that may be breeding this growing number of deranged killers.
To begin with, let’s consider the short history of these type killings in the US and elsewhere. Howard Barton Unruh (age 28) is regarded as the first American mass murderer (defined as killing four or more people) when he shot and killed 13 people on September 6, 1949, in Camden, New Jersey. The next infamous incident took place almost two decades later in 1966, when Charles Whitman (25) shot and killed 14 people from the Tower at the University of Texas.
If you separate attacks like those at Sandy Hook Elementary and Aurora, Colorado, from personal revenge type shootings such as the Cal State killings in 1976 and those at the Edmond, Oklahoma, post office in 1986, in which disgruntled former employees targeted coworkers, you discover the following.
There was one only such shooting in the ’60s (the University of Texas, which I mentioned earlier), another in the 1970s, two in the ’80s, three in the ’90s, another three in the first decade of the millennium, and another three just since 2010. In other words, the numbers of incidents are increasing. Totaling these there have been approximately 223 people killed by “active shooters” in the United States since 1966. There have been nine similar shootings since 1987 across Europe and Australia (all Western societies) killing 188. In Finland there have been two occurrences just within the last five years, a percentage much higher than that of the United States, given Finland’s small population, and the deadliest incident occurred in Norway in 2011 when Anders Behring Breivik (32) killed 77 people.
Another feature that stands out is the age of these shooters. In almost every instance, the perpetrators have been young, all male, usually under 30 and mostly between the ages of 15 and 28, with an average age of 25 for the thirteen incidents cited since 1966. Those shootings containing the element of revenge, such as workplace violence (again, which I have excluded), almost always involve older perpetrators in their thirties and forties.
So here’s the situation: we have a recent and growing phenomenon—despite the longtime presence and availability of guns—involving suicidal perpetrators who are supremely selfish and young. This would indicate to me that there is a condition growing among young people that is driving them to increased acts of mass violence followed by suicide.
Recent social science seems to support this assertion. In 2003, The Commission on Children at Risk was formed to “investigate empirically the social, moral and spiritual foundations of child well-being.” The Commission included 33 of the nation’s leading doctors, research scientists, mental health and youth professionals representing notoriously secularized institutions, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia.
The study was led by Dr. Kathleen Kline of Dartmouth Medical School. Among their findings, researchers reported, “at least one of every four adolescents in the U.S. is currently at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood.” Additionally, researchers reported, “about 21 percent of U.S. children ages 9 to 17 have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder associated with at least minimum impairment.” There is, according to the research, “a serious crisis among young people today.”
In summary, the researchers said, “We are witnessing high and rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit, conduct disorders, thoughts of suicide, and other serious mental, emotional, and behavioral problems among U.S. children and adolescents.” As to the cause of this crisis, the researchers wrote, “What’s causing this crisis of American childhood is a lack of connectedness.” They went on to define this lack of connectedness as a lack of “close connections to other people, and deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning.”
The unanimous recommendations of the commission were as follows: “For what may be the first time, a diverse group of scientists and other experts on children’s health is publicly recommending that our society pay considerably more attention to young people’s moral, spiritual, and religious needs” (Emphasis mine).
There are no doubt multitudes of contributing factors involved in these incomprehensible acts. However, is it reasonable to believe a society that removes all references to the transcendent, rejects the spiritual reality of man made in the image of God, and encourages a moral order based on our personal preferences is not going to experience rising rates of purposelessness, despair, and self-obsession?
If America’s public institutions continue in their determination for secularization, then every indication is that we will continue to see an increase in atrocities committed by these emotionally disconnected and narcissistic killers. Unfortunately, this is not an explanation that mainstream America is likely to consider.
© 2012 by S. Michael Craven