I Shrink, Therefore I Kill
The Incredible Shrinking Shooter
If we are decent, which is to say, if we feel for the murdered children and grieving families of Uvalde, Texas, then we also hunger to know what would move another human being—a being made of the same stuff as us—to cause such suffering. In the aftermath of events such as this, we all become criminal psychologists. We want to understand the etiology of the virus in some fond hope of finding a lasting cure, a Zero-Covid policy for school shootings. If only, we think, we could find “Patient 0,” we might know how, when and where the disease entered the human community. Well, “Patient 0” might just be Abel’s brother and Adam’s son, so we could be in for a very long search. They say in the press that Salvador Ramos, the 18 year-old who on May 24, 2022 walked into Robb Elementary School and killed 21 people, 19 of them children, took pleasure in torturing cats, putting them in plastic bags and hurling them at houses in his south Texas neighborhood. Though I doubt that Ramos took “pleasure” in this, I fully understand why someone might say, “If he can do that to cats, he could do it to kids.” A sociopath is a sociopath. A monster is a monster.
But labeling Ramos, or any of his homicidal forbears, as this or that gets us no closer to knowing why school and other mass shootings seem to be increasing at a rate that rivals the R0 factor in a raging pandemic. Are we breeding demons? Is some awful retrograde mutation responsible? In a way, we do seem to be devolving, and in a Lamarckian rather than Darwinian sense. The mutations occur within the space of an adolescence, the gene expression triggered by a nihilism that’s inexpressable until it explodes. I have no idea what the biology behind this might be, but it could only occur in a social laboratory in which the would-be shooter is so sealed off from any sense of belonging, not to say joy, that he might as well have been raised in a petri dish.
We, or those in the opinionating class to whom we have ceded such conjecture, identify certain common traits in the perpetrators of each of these horror shows: outcast, outsider, loner, child of divorce, belonging to nothing and no one, bullied and unloved, often suffering from some form of autism spectrum disorder and a host of learning disabilities. Then, after a brief period of consulting experts and trying to “understand” what motivated the crime, we privately conclude, like medieval peasants, that the stranger, the hermit, the hag, the one who seems to skulk more than step and hovers on the blurry edge of our vision, is a miscreant, a human mistake. In another time, we might have chased them down and lynched them, which if they were truly monsters, might have been the smart thing to do. In another world, parents might recognize the bad seed and kill it before it grows. On the question of whether there are those among us who are simply and incurably evil, I will have to hedge. As someone predisposed to gnosticism, I’m inclined to believe that, yes, evil is baked into the pie. But evil is never ‘simple,’ and in the cases of nearly all these accursed young men, it’s clear that their resident evil was aided and abetted by the culture that encircled their vanishing islands of self, a culture that values, above all else, the status that flows from positive self-regard. To my knowledge, among all the creatures who can be said to possess some level of body-self awareness, i.e., that if they see their reflection in a mirror, they will eventually figure out that they are not seeing a different creature, only human beings are inclined to think either, “I am something estimable” or “I amount to nothing.” If we conclude the latter, as it would appear most “classic” school shooters do, then we must do something to be other than nothing. In physics, there are two things that can happen when gravity causes mass to fall in on itself: it can become a black hole, vacuumed out of existence, emitting no light and therefore invisible, or it can explode. The origin of our own island universe may well have come from such a binary choice. Could it be that school shootings do, too?
Far from being true outsiders, who are generally pretty self-sufficient and don’t require a lot of social approval, young men like Salvador Ramos, Eric Harris (Columbine), Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Nikolas Cruz (Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School), and Payton Gendron (Buffalo) are the ultimate insiders. To stand inside their bubble lives is to feel yourself getting progressively smaller each day relative to events and personalities on the sprawling tapestry of social media, shrink-wrapped so tightly that one day you must either suffocate or detonate. These are the incredible shrinking man-boys of our world, and we find them everywhere on the planet, and most of all in America. Their shrinkage is not just a diminution of ‘self-esteem’ or a realization that ‘I will never be a ‘high-value mate.’ It is a shrinkage of self itself. You can’t be a respected member of your community if your community is the Internet and you’ve done nothing to merit its attention. You can’t look in the mirror and think “I am something” if the black mirror says you are nothing. Your already star-crossed life—orphaned at 7, mistreated (or at least misdiagnosed) through the tweens and adolescence, with severely truncated social skills that often manifest in acts of gratuitious cruelty—toward animals, women, and themselves (Ramos and Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter who was perhaps Ramos’s most direct ‘role model,’ were both cutters who were inured to their own pain and at the same time subject to crippling sensory overload), has set you up for this. On those shrinking islands—often a childhood bedroom—you wait for the tsunami. The fear that you will sink out of sight is intolerable, and so you begin to make plans for your supernova, your cosmic coming-out party. The world must know—but more importantly, you must know—that you exist. But since despair—probably irreparable—is the backdrop to your ambition, a terrible awareness takes hold: I will likely die, but if so, others will, too. This is the way of tragedy, and my life is tragic.
This shrinkage of self, this inability to regard oneself as having an iota of worth, engendered in the present era mostly by comparison with others perceived to have value, is not long bearable by any human being, and from most accounts, a kind of fanatical ego-inflation takes root as substitute, accompanied by gun purchases, manifestos, social media posts that forecast the coming apocalypse, and increasingly aggressive misanthropy The aforementioned Adam Lanza, who in December 2012, killed his mother before slaughtering 26 grade school students at Sandy Hook, wrote, “I incessantly have nothing other than scorn for humanity. I have been desperate to feel anything positive for someone for my entire life.” Though Adam was diagnosed, after the fact, with a whole range of disorders, inclusing ‘sensory integration disorder’ and OCD, he certainly did not lack for intelligence and a certain self-awareness. He wrote to one gamer, met online, to whom he’d taken a liking, “Most of my social contact was through players. All of them are typical detestable human beings, and it bred an aura of innumerable negative emotions for me. You were a respite from that.” I wonder if that friend could have saved him.
Adam’s respite did not last, and soon he was back on his shrinking island, watching the tide pull away more and more of his fragile ecosystem of self. I suspect there is a time for all these guys when they realize that it’s over, they can’t shrink anymore: it’s black hole or supernova. Wasn’t it Raskalnikov in Crime and Punishment, riffing on Nietsche, who decided that killing another human being was the only real liberation, in the end, the only true assertion of self.
The issue of motive is, of course, central in criminal justice—in fact, it’s more difficult to get a conviction if one can’t be found—but the closure of motive is hard to come by in cases where the shooter either kills himself or is killed in the melee, without having left behind some Instagram testament or Facebook manifesto. In place of it, we get dozens, if not hundreds, of essays and think-pieces telling us how broken we are and reciting the same sad story, now known to all, about the anti-social loner with the chip on his shoulder, churned up in the sewage of postmodern culture, who acted out a video game fantasy of carnage on the green lawns and linoleum hallways of the U.S.A.
We are not broken yet, but we are shrinking. All of us. Even those of us who believe we live balanced, more or less moral lives. Think about it. How often do you really see outside your own bubble of willful ignorance, toleration of the intolerable, fear and ultimately hatred for those who might claim your space? As we shrink away from one another, like the ever-fainter stars of the ever-expanding universe, we care less and less about each other. Why should we? We get neither heat nor light from those nearest us. The worst, or most afflicted, move toward solipsism, as clearly all of the aforementioned killers did, but the great and awful epiphany of solipsism is that not even the isolated, curated, shrink-wrapped self is worth preserving in the end. Boom.
All sorts of things are laid to blame for our social disintegration, our atomization, our alienation from one another. The left has theories and the right has theories, but they mostly serve their respective political agendas. Ranging across the spectrum from late capitalism to the collateral damage of the sexual revolution, from the patriarchy to the decadence of trans culture and videogames, from too many guns to not enough guns, no unified field theory of school shootings emerges from the dialectic. With their children dying, parents can’t agree on any step beyond triple-bolted steel doors. There is a solution, but I can only say the what, not the how. Stop the shrinkage. Identified early enough, even the Elliot Rodgers and Seung-Hui Chos and Adam Lanzas of the world have some small quality worth cultivating, if only one would notice. For sure we won’t save all of them, but for each one we do save from psychic extinction, we may also save the lives of 20+ children, and with them, our own vanishing sense of decency.
About Salvador Ramos, his eighth grade best friend (when he allowed anyone to be that close), Stephen Garcia said, “He would get bullied hard, bullied by a lot of people. Over social media, over gaming, over everything. He was the nicest kid, the most shyest kid. He just needed to break out of his shell.”
“…the most shyest kid. He just needed to break out of his shell.” Well, there it is. That’s where it starts, in an existential condition known to many of us. Does evil get seasoned into this in a way that makes that condition irredeemably toxic? Probably sometimes it does. But until then, there is a chance to say, “I see you.”