What happened in Connecticut is the 62nd mass murder in the US since 1982. Each time we experience an unexpected devastating trauma such as this, we are gripped by the real-time visuals of the “event” as it unfolds – and our nation suffers from PTSD. As we collectively hug each other, weep together and feel intense sorrow, something niggles at the back of our mind - in our homeland there exists a radical faction of society. And as we ponder the reasons why they exist, the puzzle pieces start to form a picture that is difficult to conceive – that we may have inadvertently helped create them. This splinter group is known by many names – serial or copycat killers, mass murderers, suicide shooters. They are American homegrown terrorists, every bit as terrible and terrifying as Middle Eastern suicide bombers. Although the motives behind mass murderers may differ, the goal is always the same…and in our country, we use guns instead of explosive vests.
In every such shooting, two themes emerge: 1) this could never happen in our town, and 2) disbelief that the shooter would do such a thing. After scores of mass shootings, we see that these horrific incidences do indeed happen anywhere in America where guns are freely available and that the suicide shooters have for some reason chosen to isolate themselves - or a part of themselves from society. They live in every town across the country. Frequently they are loners - quiet, reserved, shy kids and adults who may have been socially excluded by peers.
What’s Happening To Our Boys and Young Men
Across the US, many boys and young men have become lonely social isolates who do not know how to relate to others in informal, personal ways as described in “The Demise of Guys”, Zimbardo and Duncan, TED Books, eBook, 2012. They lack male mentors, have too many absentee fathers and few older males to look up to and show them how to live on the right path. Having no one to turn to, they turn inward and to their computers and play stations.
The Making of Homegrown Terrorists
Realistic visuals are provided in countless ways by the media, Hollywood and the gaming world. Programs recycle terrifying information 24/7 under the guise of “news” and then ignore its social effect - shock - which plays on our fears and hooks us into watching. “Cool” television shows and movies idolize killers. Many of the most popular video games reward a chain of unspeakable violent acts one after the other in rapid succession. These games can anesthetize and confuse the player’s reality to the point that the line between the digital world and the real world can become intertwined and even seamless.
Copycat killers and mass murderers are a sign of modeling. They watch these programs, movies and shows, play these games and think “I can totally do that!” The fabric of their reality tears and they become emboldened as they fall through the fabric of their own very separate reality. To them, suicide is not a deterrent - it’s a dramatic end to a desperate life.
In our search for answers, we try to wrap our minds around something that doesn’t make sense. We feel intense sadness and hopelessness. We wonder why and how something so horrific can happen…
Many of us experience present fatalism – we’ve been injured so badly by negative past events that our lives are meaningless or futile and the future looks hopeless. Thankfully, the vast majority of us who feel this way wouldn’t think to kill ourselves, much less others. We know deep down inside that tomorrow is another day – and that life will carry on and may eventually even get better.
But copycat killers and mass murderers are so badly damaged and feel so deeply that they have no future - or their future will get worse - that they have nothing to lose. Perhaps they’ve been bullied to the extreme, or ignored, or suffered atrocious traumatic events or brain injuries. Whatever the reason, they become sociopaths and feel justified in their actions. They seek the extreme negative present hedonism of a last fire fight and if they don’t take themselves out before they get caught - they commit “suicide by cop”. They have a final plan and they follow through with self-destruction as their goal.
The loss of innocent lives in Connecticut is the ultimate wakeup call to parents, teachers, religious leaders and our politicians as well as therapeutic communities to develop programs that engage our youth more fully as vital human beings who feel accepted, respected and even loved by others. This is the social psychological component that can be dealt with by creating more positive, caring, compassionate communities in our schools, neighborhoods, work places and nation.
It’s a tall order, but it is at the heart of the new everyday heroism being developed by our Heroic Imagination Project in San Francisco.
What You Can You Do Right Now
Don’t let what happened in Connecticut shake your world. Focus on the heroic teachers and the innocent young victims – watch shows and read about their heroism and their precious, tender lives. Memorize their names instead of that of the terrorist. Let’s move forward as a united people into a brighter future by honoring those who have passed on and do what we can for the families recovering from their tragic loss.
As President Obama stated in his speech to the nation on December 14, “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies…Our hearts are broken…As a country we have been through this too many times…These children are our children…We must come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this regardless of the politics…”
These traumas upset our sense of safety and security in the world. Let’s call upon the hero in each of us and focus on being brave by not allowing people to control us by fear. Let’s conceive of ways to stay safe in a rapidly changing world. Let’s make our decisions based on where we want to go as a nation rather than on past negative traumas – and move toward the light of a brighter future.
For more information on the effects of PTSD, see The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing) and visit our TPT website.