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Newtown and the “Crisis of Masculinity”

Lindsay Beyerstein

Start here. James Livingston has no idea what he’s talking about:

Start here. Adam Lanza can’t be accused or convicted of unconscionable evil,” not in the court of public opinion and not by the criteria of moral philosophy. He wasn’t making a moral choice when he shot his mother in the face with her own gun, and then killed 20 defenseless children. So individual responsibility and culpability aren’t at issue, as they have not been and cannot be since Columbine.

It follows that the NRA’s slogan, to the effect that guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” is moot at best — the killers in every case were sentient beings, but not one was a person at the law or anywhere else in the landscape of possibility most of us can take for granted. Not one was an individual who came to the scene of the crime equipped with a conscience, thus able to make moral choices. [Jacobin]

Nobody knows if Adam Lanza was morally responsible because we have no reliable evidence about his state of mind. None. We don’t know if he was mentally ill. Even if he had a diagnosis, we don’t know if his illness made him do it. Lots of people have mental illnesses, and most never hurt anyone.

If Lanza was so far gone that he no longer knew the difference between right and wrong, he wasn’t responsible. If he was having visions and hearing voices that told him to shoot at what he thought were demons, it wasn’t his fault.

However, if Lanza chose to shoot a bunch of strangers, then he probably was legally and morally responsible. Trivially, anyone would do such a thing is abnormal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t responsible. A serial killer who stalks hitchhikers and dismembers their bodies is no doubt a terribly damaged person, but that doesn’t mean he’s not responsible for his crimes. We don’t say that if a murderer racks up a minimum body count, he’s therefore not guilty by reason of insanity.

Livingston says we haven’t been able to assign blame since Columbine. Has he read Dave Cullen’s classic book by the same title? Cullen reconstructed the shooters’ state of mind based on their own extensive written and filmed records and countless interviews with friends, family, and law enforcement. He concluded that Eric Harris was a psychopath, a young man without empathy or conscience, who coldly manipulated the deeply depressed Dylan Klebold into joining his scheme.

It was clear from the boys’ meticulously documented plans that Columbine was an act of non-ideological domestic terrorism. Their goal was not merely to shoot bullies. They sought to first responders and parents with a mass shooting and then blow everyone up with huge bombs. Harris hoped this spectacular televised violence would touch of some sort of revolution. The bombs failed to detonate but the intent was clear.

You can’t read Columbine and come away with the idea that the shooters are beyond moral judgement. They knew exactly what they were doing. Cullen sees degrees of responsibility. Harris was the leader and Klebold was the follower. Harris was a malevolent young man who was bent on violence for its own sake. Klebold was a disturbed young man who might have chosen a better path if he’d gotten help for his depression. Reading Columbine, you feel sad that Klebold made such a terrible choice, but there’s no doubt that it was a choice, however badly depression may have clouded his judgement.

Livingston is trying to answer the perennial question: What are so many mass shooters young white men?

Livingston argues that mass shootings are a symptom of what he calls the crisis of American masculinity.” He thinks that young men are turning to hypermasculine, militarized displays of violence because they can no longer aspire to the traditional macho role of breadwinner in an industrial economy.

Livingston doesn’t provide any evidence to support the creeping emasculation theory. He notes that William James might have predicted this particular malaise, but that doesn’t count as evidence. William James said a lot of things.

What little we know about Lanza seems at odds with Livingston’s model. Lanza wasn’t an unemployed blue collar worker, he was a computer wiz from a comfortable family. He had skills that are richly rewarded in this economy. James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, was a graduate student in neuroscience. Dylan Klebold was a middle class kid who was filling out college applications as he planned the Columbine massacre.

Of the recent mass shooters, Wade Michael Page, the Sikh temple shooter comes the closest to fitting Livingston’s model. He was chronically down on his luck after his dishonorable discharge from the military. Then again, he was a neo-Nazi on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s radar and he targeted a religious minority at prayer, so he may not be best example of plain old thwarted masculinity leading to spree killing.

If spree killing is a function of thwarted masculinity in a post-industrial society, why are so many of the shooters white? Men of other races are even more likely to be shut out of well-paid industrial jobs. 

Clearly, mass shootings have something to do with toxic machismo, but Livingston’s model doesn’t help explain what it is.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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