Mass shootings have become such a “fact of life” in the Western world, that there are now website “trackers” of these awful events. This seems to have started with the question of whether mass shootings “have always been with us,” or whether they are indeed, becoming more frequent. Writers, observers, political figures, journalists, and others have been opinionating on this question now for several years. The positions that various public pronouncements have taken, have been all over the map on this vexing question. Persons of a traditionalist point of view have not given en masse the perhaps expected response that we should worry so much publicly about this supposedly new mass phenomenon. Persons who have been publicly sanguine about this issue have been social conservatives who often react with a “don’t rock the boat,” view and can be those from the Conservative Right, or those from the often worry-wart Socially Left. Political persuasions have interestingly enough, not seemed to have shaped persons’ opinions as much stereotypical thinking might have trained one to expect.
Just days ago, August 1, was the 50th anniversary of the gruesome 1966 University of Texas at Austin Tower sniping murders in which Charles Whitman, a 25 year old student shot 16 people to death and wounded 30 others. It took three brave police who forced their way onto the walkway on the tower, to shoot him to death with their pistols to end the massacre. Since as a psychiatrist, long interested in this kind of phenomenon since early unsettling forensic contact with a few shooters, I came across through my trust ever roving “search bots,” this article from NPR news on one of their blogs, recounting this fateful incident, “Gun Violence and Mental Laws, 50 Years After Texas Tower Sniper,” by Lauren Silverman.
I was quite young then, but my father’s entire extended family was from Texas and we were riveted to the television as the “tapes” of the scene were played over and over on the evening news for a few days. I had been to the mall/quad/courtyard in front of the Tower before and since the incident, but watching the scene, especially the scene of the young man covering the body of a friend with his own in the open and being shot at, was literally unbelievable in that day and time. The entire nation stopped for a few days as the horrors of the event were absorbed and the trauma processed as best one could. I recall that it was one of those events that one who lived through it, would remember the rest of their lives, where they were when they heard the news and recalls the shattering effect of the evening television news scenes. It ranked in “trauma impact” up there with the assassination of President Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon during that night in 1969 and other such indelible events that our brains cannot expunge.
The media is now filled with various statistics quoting the factoid that in over 200 days we have had over 200 mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are variously defined as a shooting incident in which three, or now more commonly the definition requires four victims by a perpetrator. The victims may be all in one site like the James Holmes Colorado theater shooting, or in more than one location where a shooter will shoot usually first members of his (recalling that most mass shooters are male), a spouse or estranges spouse or intimate partner, and then shoot members of the public at another location.
This past week I had hoped that the week would pass without another widely publicized shooting in this country. I wanted emotionally a respite from shootings of youth by police, enraged spousal murders or murders suicides between estranged couples of shootings of or by police. Well my naive wishes were crushed this past week and weekend when we had two separate unrelated shootings of police. I watched the first funeral of the one policeman who was actually killed, with full dress uniforms, police from many surrounding areas and states and the bagpipes and police solidarity with more than sadness. It was sadness for the whole country and a wish stronger than ever that the media talking heads, 24 hours new shows, would show more respect, report on the story and stop repeating it for days on end. I thought of the bereaved family and friends who would have to turn off their televisions, and other means of influx of media to keep from being traumatized over and over again by the flagrantly disrespectful, invasive repetitiousness of the reports covering the same ground and footage over and over again, until it would start to lose it impact and true meaning and lessen our ability to stop and ponder seriously what is going overall again.
I was reminded of an article I had curated just a month ago by Robert Gebelhoff published July 6, 2015 in the Washington Post entitled “Study: Why some mass killing and school shootings seem to be contagious.” This study, from Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ, was published in the largely not so well know online scientific journal, “PLOS One,” which is a referreed journal with ethical review of articles submitted, It found that there may be a “period of contagion,” after school shootings and mass shootings that “lasts an average of 13 days.” The authors had constructed a mathematical model to measure and to some extend try to inject some predictability into this troublesome social phenomenon. It found for instance, that “for every three mass killings, an average of more more happens….” and “for every four or five school shootings-including those with no fatalities=another shooting takes place.”
It noted as a social precedent of sorts that studies have shown that “suicide can spread through social groups, with news [emphasis mine] of death provoking others to end their lives. The phenomenon is especially common among adolescents–and in the age of social media, widely publicized suicides can spread the effect much further than the rumor mill at a high school.”
Sherry Tower one of Arizona State University (ASU) professors and the study’s author stated: “It occurred to us that mass killings and school shootings that attract attention the national news media can potentially do the same things, but at a larger scale.”
The study further found that, “On average, mass killings involving firearms happen every two weeks in the United States….and school shootings happen once every months.”
I feel and fear that another factor is in play and not being considered enough in the hallways of thought and self observation of the profession of journalism, except in the always derided “Ivory Towers”, the schools of journalism where studies thought and studies such as this from ASU came with its sobering comment for consideration. The working media seems more driven by the old race for ratings, and by a philosophy that substitute almost Leninist repetitiousness for news reporting. A “breaking news story” on the news channels seems to have an hourly rebirth and presented at the top of each hour as if it were brand new and we the viewers are subjected to the same tragedy message all over again unfiltered and with little commentary or food for thought. Just the raw events over and over again. Mindless repetition, if I may coin a somewhat strong and critical phrase has its own destructive powers. It numbs us to the tragedy of such events and may even extend its power to making us more fatalistic and accepting of this relatively new and dangerous phenomenon of the quick and ready and impulsive use of firearms, mostly to give vent to idiosyncratic issues of the shooter, and lull us into a sense that there is not much we can do about all this or to prevent it. Repetition also when it is practiced constantly, our best current example being North Korea, “The Hermit State,” where the ‘truth’ has been distorted to social insanity on an almost unimaginable scale, that the nation’s population thinks it seems that what they hear in their own controlled media is the truth and the norm.
More thought and self examination needs to be given by the working media of its use of “mindless repetition,” which appears to be excessive, largely unneeded, and which may have more subtle destructive effect than we realize.
In this post I am not going to string out the answer to the above question, tease the reader, or toy around with the question in some manipulative literary device to hold the readers’ attentions.
The answer is YES, the number of mass shootings have dramatically increased in at least my lifetime and my memory since childhood stretches back to the 50’s some dimly but certainly to the sixties when i was a precocious kid in college very young and taking in what was going on in those turbulent times. I attended a wonderful university which was, to give the setting for the reader, one of the centers for student radicals in those times through the Nixon administrations.