We’re always surprised when somebody goes and shoots up a school; but we shouldn’t be. School massacres — whether with guns or by some other means — are actually quite common, as a bit of Googling will reveal. (The worst ever in the United States occurred in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927, perpetrated by a disgruntled school board member who packed the basement with dynamite. That’s a picture of the aftermath, above.)
The recent horrible affair in Newtown, Connecticut, has given rise to the predictable liturgies of thumbsucking about guns, violent video games, lonerism, mental illness, divorce, the American culture of violence. Maleness has been implicated. The local coroner in Newtown apparently hopes for some insight from genetics, according to a recent report.
Curiously, nobody mentions the common element: schools.
Schools and workplaces abound in massacres, though the death toll is never as high in the workplace massacres. The two have have much in common, though the workplace, bad as it is, is generally more benign than the schools; but that’s understandable, once you get past the the latter’s humanitarian candy-coating to its real mission, which is to serve as a kind of Sorting Hat for the former. Schools pick the Hufflepuffs and the Slytherins, and in our society, a Fifth House that didn’t exist at Hogwarts: the Superflewuffs.
So it’s unsurprising that most of the people who are really going to snap, snap in school and never make it to the workplace. Think of it as one among many aptitude tests: How much bullshit can you take before you go nuts?
No doubt a lot of things contributed to Adam Lanza’s ultimate meltdown, but I for one would be very interested to hear more about his experiences in school, a topic little discussed, and certainly never discussed from his point of view.
Consider those terrible violent computer games that we hear so much about. I don’t get the appeal of them personally, but it’s not hard to imagine that a person who feels utterly powerless — whose daily existence is one of contrived competition, pointless regimentation, and intolerable authoritarian prying into his emotional and personal life, without a shred of understanding — might find some solace in the possession, actual or virtual, of a BFG?
One recent report suggests that poor Adam — and anybody who doesn’t feel sorry for this kid has a heart of stone, as far as I’m concerned — might have been upset about his mom’s plans to have him committed. Who knows whether this is true or not, but if so, it must have sounded to him like Back To School: credentialed experts, who don’t have a clue what’s going on in your head and couldn’t care less, determined to make you a better person, able to hold down a job, or drive you even crazier trying.
That Michigan massacre, in 1927 — the one that still holds the record — occurred at the dawn of the modern era in schooling. Bath Township, in accordance with the latest pedagogical theories, had recently shut down its one-room schoolhouses, scattered around the countryside, and built a shiny new consolidated school, with the inmates now separated by grade and bussed in from hither and yon. It was a more expensive project and taxes had to be raised into order to fund it. The bomber, one Andrew Kehoe, was described as a thrifty man, and in one of those ironies you couldn’t make up, was elected treasurer of the new consolidated school board, though he seems to have thought the whole project extravagant and ill-conceived.
But then, he does not appear to have Played Well With Others, in general, according to contemporary accounts. Bit of a loner. Argumentative. Money problems. On the way down, in a society where — at least for the next two years — everybody else was on the way up.