A few days ago there was a large-scale school shooting in Brazil, after which I was interviewed by several Brazilian journalists. As I read stories about the incident and responded to questions from the reporters, I was struck by two dynamics that are often seen in the wake of school shootings.
First, there was the shock that such an attack could happen in Brazil. This is the kind of violence that people associate with the United States or other industrialized nations. Not that Brazil doesn't have violent crime, but somehow school shootings are a different kind of crime, a kind that is not supposed to occur in Brazil.
This dynamic is seen repeatedly in the United States, too. No matter how many school shootings occur in middle class suburbs or small towns, people continue to think "it can't happen here." Each time a school shooting occurs in what is considered a safe, stable community, there are statements made about the shock that such a thing could happen in small-town America. Gun violence is associated with urban centers, not quiet little towns. This conception continues to be strong despite the fact that rampage school shootings have occurred in towns such as West Paducah, Kentucky and Jonesboro, Arkansas, and not in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
Why is it so hard to recognize that violence can happen anywhere? Perhaps we are misled by statistics about violent crime and where it tends to occur. Perhaps because such attacks strike at the heart of what we believe about ourselves, our communities, and sometimes, our countries. Perhaps we simply need to convince ourselves that we are safe because we cannot live our lives believing otherwise. Maybe we need to locate evil elsewhere, to think that it happens "there" and not "here."
The recognition that no place can be assumed to be safe was driven home to me in 2006 when a man entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and gunned down ten little girls, killing five of them. This hit me hard for several reasons. First, it came in the wake of several other school attacks, so it did not seem like an isolated incident but one more in a cluster of murderous assaults at schools. Second, Lancaster county is only an hour from where I live, and the geographical proximity probably made the impact greater. But most of all, it struck me that if young children in an Amish school house can be gunned down, then anything can happen anywhere.
This is a hard thought to live with, however. It is easier to believe that our children will be safe when we send them off to school. And in most cases, they will be. But there is no guarantee.
The second dynamic that struck me in the reporters' questions was the need to interpret--to make sense of--the school shooting. The need to place it in a historical context. Now that Brazil has experienced a school shooting, what does this mean? What is the significance of this fact? What does this indicate about young people, about Brazil, about where the culture is headed?
Again, this response is not unique to Brazil. School shootings in the United States have resulted in years of attempts to make sense of this phenomenon and what it implies about our country. Is our parenting too liberal or are our gun laws too loose? Are young people exposed to too much violence--real or otherwise? Are we failing our children? Are adolescents simply uncaring and lacking in empathy? Has there been a loss of meaning in our culture?
I believe it is important to keep in mind that school shooters are extremely aberrant individuals. In the United States there are approximately 60 million school students, and millions more in colleges and universities. School shooters do not represent a trend; they are the furthest out of the outliers. Brazil is a nation of approximately 190 million people. It is hard to interpret the act of one man as signifying something about the culture.
Eric Harris of Columbine no more represents American youth than Timothy McVeigh represents American adults. The Brazilian shooter, Wellington Menezes de Oliveira, reportedly had a long history of social difficulties and psychological problems. Whatever the forces that drove him to murder, he was one lone individual. There is no reason to think that he represents a cultural phenomenon, a shift in Brazilian society, or the breakdown of morality. But a boundary has been violated, a threshold has been crossed, and the search for meaning has begun.