School Shootings as Theater
Is the audience as critical as the actors?
Posted Mar 02, 2018
The intersection between public acts of grisly violence and entertainment was apparent from the beginning of the school shootings phenomenon. The Parkland, Florida, nightmare is no different. How does that help with prevention?
Rampage shooters may vary in their level of impulsiveness but most show evidence of long-term planning. They follow scripts, are swayed by common passions such as fear of failure, and the need for social approval, brood over the setting, and the props, and relish their impact on the public.
Not all of these elements of school shootings are predictable but they do shed light on the crime as an audience-focused performance.
Martyrs and Models
The radicalization of Islamic youths in secular countries, like the United Kingdom, offers an intriguing example of how extremist groups use the Internet to recruit lone-wolf operatives. Their propaganda features materials that glorify perpetrators of terrorist acts and how-to manuals for staging attacks.
Just as terrorists follow a script, school shooters may have an astonishingly clear picture of what they are doing to the extent that the accused Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, could refer to school shooting as his “profession” as casually as a terrorist might self-identify as a jihadi, or martyr. The main sources of such scripts are mass media, entertainment, and social media.
What motivates a school shooter may be highly individual, as in most other crimes of violence. Yet, there are common elements.
Perpetrators are young men suggesting that their target audience is primarily other young men, consistent with what is known about much risky and violent behavior (1). They also tend to be socially isolated and to have low social status among peers so that they are rejected by prospective romantic partners. Hence, perhaps, the desire to be noticed by others.
Whatever the motive, mass shootings cannot happen without the equipment – automatic or semi-automatic weapons, and handguns – as the Parkland students sensibly articulate in calls for gun restrictions.
Contrary to rather silly claims that gun laws do not stop school shootings, countries that restrict weapons sales do prevent violence. After the Dunblane school shooting in Scotland in 1996, handgun sales were banned in the UK and there was no subsequent mass shooting on this scale (18 deaths including the shooter).
Similarly, after a single mass shooting in Australia, automatic weapon sales were banned and existing weapons were bought back. There was no recurrence.
So the argument about cities like Chicago that have restrictive gun laws, but continued shootings, are frivolous given the ease with which violent criminals can buy guns in surrounding municipalities.
Scholars have long suspected that mass media depictions of violence affect real-world behavior.
Early evidence suggested that highly publicized stories of violence were often followed by increases in similar acts of aggression, whether suicides, murders, or racially motivated attacks (2).
Many rampage killings have copycat features whether they follow the script of a real event, or a fictional depiction (3). This suggests that the desire for media attention, and notoriety is a strong motivating factor.
The notoriety following a mass shooting has to be seen as a major motive so that the continuous coverage they inspire looks distinctly unethical.
Excessive media attention not only specifies the conventions of an attack but also encourages perpetrators to shoot as many people as possible so as to maximize their notoriety.
Considering mass shootings as a theatrical exercise may seem callous but that is how they are envisaged by many perpetrators. Rendered particularly unstable by the recent death of his adoptive mother, Nikolas Cruz, who had experienced a painful split with his girlfriend selected Valentine's Day for the attack.
How does knowing the macabre theatrical mindset of shooters help us to prevent future attacks?
Perhaps the most obvious implication of the theatrical perspective is that shooters are seeking publicity and often tip their hands in social media posts, and in direct interactions with peers, that may involve implicit, or explicit, threats. Such warnings are not always given, of course. When they are, they may be ignored, as was tragically true of the Parkland shooting.
Threat assessment of such warnings is notoriously difficult but needs to be taken seriously if there are concrete signs of a plan, whether this involves buying guns and ammunition, clear statement of intent in social media, or specific threats against individuals (4). Of course, this is particularly true of troubled teens, such as Cruz who was seemingly depressed, suffered from attention deficit, had impulse control problems, mutilated animals, and had repeatedly come to the attention of police for threats and violence. Allowing him access to guns was equivalent to giving toddlers matches to play with.
Identifying such isolated, or troubled, individuals ought to be a priority of school councilors and teachers. Providing a receptive audience for grievances can diffuse threats of gun violence, in addition to identifying prospective violent actors.
2. Phillips, D. P. (1983). The impact of mass media violence on US homicides. American Sociological Review, 48, 560-568.
3 Leo. J. (1999, 3 May). When life imitates video. U.S. News and World Report, p 14.
4. McCann, J. T. (2014). Threats in schools: A practical guide for managing violence. New York: Routledge.