Shooting epidemics and other deadly memes


Another day, another school shooting in the US – though contrary to CNN, it wasn’t the 23rd this year, unless you count, as CNN does, events like robbery attempts outside schools or an accidental discharge of a firearm. The 17-year old perpetrator used a shotgun and a pistol, both legally owned by his father. No laws, except those consequent on the total repeal of the 2nd Amendment, would have prevented this massacre. In addition to firearms, Dimitrios Pagourtzis is also said to have prepared, though thankfully not used, various explosive devices.

What on Earth is going on in America? Writes David French at “National Review”:

Why does this keep happening? Those who advocate for gun control have an immediate answer — the prevalence of guns in the United States. Yet guns have been part of the fabric of American life for the entire history of our republic. Mass shootings — especially the most deadly mass shootings — are a far more recent phenomenon.

Writing in 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote what I think is still the best explanation for modern American mass shootings, and it’s easily the least comforting. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex argument, essentially he argues that each mass shooting lowers the threshold for the next. He argues, we are in the midst of a slow-motion “riot” of mass shootings, with the Columbine shooting in many ways the key triggering event. Relying on the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, Gladwell notes that it’s a mistake to look at each incident independently.

I think what we are seeing is an epidemic, but not just in a metaphorical sense this word is often used in the context of various types of violence and other social phenomena. Mass shootings, and school shootings in particular, are contagious. Mass shooting is now a meme, and as a meme it spreads throughout the society, inspiring imitations, mutating in transmission, generating tributes, responses and variations.

As Buzzfeed notes, shootings are a social phenomenon as much as a criminal one:

Active shootings in the US have gotten deadlier and more frequent, the product of a vicious cycle in which intense media scrutiny inspires others to also kill for their own moment in the grim spotlight, experts say…

Experts told BuzzFeed News the recent uptick is likely due to the amount of attention the attacks get and the fixation on the people behind them, spurring copycats while at the same time desensitizing the public. Inadequate and poorly enforced laws don’t help, they added.

“These shooters get great satisfaction in doing this, and the media attention they get afterwards puts them in a place of history,” said Greg Shaffer, a 20-year FBI veteran and global security expert who studies domestic terrorism and active shooters. “We are also trying to use normal rational thoughts to define an irrational act, which is why we focus on them so much. But we will never understand why people like the Las Vegas gunman do what they do.”

Jaclyn Schildkraut, an expert on mass shootings research and assistant professor of public justice at the State University of New York, warned that the copycat effect is only getting worse.

“With the amount of coverage Parkland received, you probably will see an uptick,” said Schildkraut. “Copycatters are becoming a public safety issue.”

Shootings are not unique – readers might be also familiar with “suicide clusters” (“Suicide clusters—defined as multiple deaths in close succession and proximity—feed on viral news, which feeds on social connections.”). Terrorism of the “lone wolf” variety can also be seen is a meme and a contagion spread by the media and the social media, where every previous act inspires the next imitation.

There seems to be an element of vogue about it, too, like there is with all memes. At the risk of drawing a long bow, for the first four or so decades after the Second World War, the United States was in the grip of serial killers, just as for the past few decades it has been in the grip of mass shooters. While the terror of serial killers was slow burning and could stretch over many years with no apparent resolution, mass shootings, like the more recent generations that have spawned them, are designed for short attention spans, instant and dramatic appeal, and a brief spike of notoriety. Instead of strangling ten women across five states and over four years, we have ten women (or children) in one spot gunned down in a matter of minutes. As the pace of life speeds up, the impact and the infamy are condensed into ever shorter pockets of time.

This is a pessimistic perspective, because it does not offer easy solutions. Memes are born, mutate, and many eventually weaken if not disappear altogether, but only to be replaced by new ones, whose future form it’s impossible to discern ahead of time. Deadly and traumatic, serial killings and mass shootings are among – or perhaps above – all else trends and fashions and crazes, like hula-hoops, disco music or eating Tide Pods. Memes live at the intersection of human nature, social beliefs and technology. They change and evolve as we do. And like the poor, they are always with us.