Hard News by Russell Brown


Cultures and violence

In the past 24 hours, my Twitter timeline has swelled with links to this blog post by the loving, desperate American mother of a troubled, violent boy, in which she declares "I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother ..."

She is, in other words, the mother of an incipient rampage killer named Michael.

I found her post esecially heart-rending because I'm the father of a boy who was diagnosed, like hers, with an autism spectrum disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He had violent rages and talked about blowing up his school. His behaviour at school scared people. We repeatedly had to hold the line when one person in the system (who I never wish to see or hear of again) told us he should be on  anti-psychotic drugs, and that was a reasonable price for keeping him at school. It was really, really hard, for years -- and not keeping him in school was part of the solution.

I won't mention him any more, because he is due his privacy and -- largely through his own courage and self-awareness -- he's not that kid any more. He and his older brother are my heroes. And he was never "Michael". But I was compelled by this comment under the post, amid the well-meaning offers of crank cures. Its author is blunt in addressing the mother:

Your son is becoming the psychopathic criminal that you are imagining him as. Your son is reacting to you EXACTLY the way you want him to. You obviously already have a mental image in your mind where your son is a murderer the likes of the infamous school shooters you mentioned.

That's too harsh. If your child pulls a knife even once, you need to think about the safety of his siblings. It's not about one mum either. But I do wonder if there are so many rampages in American schools, workplaces, retail premises and other places because those things have become a cultural template; one for which even those who loath and fear such incidents reach.

New Zealand had a spate of mass murders in the 1990s. Graeme Edgeler suggested during the weekend on Twitter that per-capita we had more rampage killings over 60 years than the US, but I think that only works if you take the the arbitrary Wikipedia benchmark for a rampage (six or more deaths) and ignore those where the killer has failed to take out six or more victims -- or any.

Just hours before Adam Lanza shot 20 small children, police in Oklahoma arrested an 18 year-old who seemed to be on a path to a school massacre. Shortly after, a 22 year-old man walked into a shopping mall in Portland and shot three people, two fatally. He had fully-loaded magazines and it seems the only reason there weren't more victims is that he then killed himself. Thus, his spree became an also-ran.

By contrast, New Zealand has never endured a mass murder in a mall, school or workplace. [NB: We have a school shooting, though: in October 1923, two children killed and one wounded.] We have one incident of the mass shooting of strangers in public; that by David Gray in Aramoana (also our only toll of more than seven victims in a single murder). This doesn't mean we are particularly virtuous -- it does reflect our problems with family violence.

We appear three times on Wikipedia's list of familicides that took place outside the US and Europe (Stephen Anderson is absent presumably because although his spree was triggered by a family dispute, some of his victims were not friends or family, and the Bain family murders because the toll fell one short of the Wikipedia benchmark). The US appears three times on a separately defined international list of the 15 worst  "domestic violence" familicides -- China appears four times -- and has its own list of 110 familicides with six or more victims.

But according to the Wikipedia definition, the US accounts for four of the worst five school massacres, and six of the top 10. Three of the worst five workplace massacres ("disgruntled workers") have taken place in the US -- and a breathtaking 18 of the worst 30. It's hard to escape the conclusion that there is a cultural predisposition to such crimes, relative to the rest of the world.

The worst rampage killing in our region of the world remains that carried out by Martin Bryant, who murdered 35 people and injured 21 others in a shooting spree in Tasmania in 1992. That crime has a particular resonance for me because Bryant was sentenced in November 1996. In truth, Bryant had many problems, including low IQ, and a throroughly bizarre life -- but he was the only person with an autism spectrum disorder in the news at the time our older son was diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome. Fortunately, the internet and Barb Kirby's groundbreaking O.A.S.I.S. website gave us access to a broader perspective.

But the year of Bryant's sentencing was also the year in which Australia enacted tough new controls on guns, including the banning of semi-automatic weapons from civilian possession. In the 18 years before that reform there had been 13 mass shootings. In the 10 years that followed, there were none.

It is being reported today that Adam Lanza's mother -- and first victim -- collected the guns used to kill her and 26 others because she wanted to be safe when society collapsed. She was a member of a group called the Doomsday Preppers. The apocalypse she expected never came.

The other mother in this story -- Michael's mom -- is clearly a very different person, taking a very different approach to her troubled son. She is right to say that American needs to think about mental illness. I think it's also pretty clear that America needs to contemplate not only gun control, but the cultural role that gun violence plays in its society.

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