A 15-year-old gamer who makes threats on the Internet. A 38-year-old schizophrenic with a pistol. These two are among several people arrested in the wake of two mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, thanks to heightened scrutiny by citizens who want to prevent the next tragedy. But is it also a product of the prior shootings and the media coverage they receive?
CBS News reports on the former, but not so much on the latter:
It’s tough not to sympathize with both sides of the arrest shown in this clip. The mother protests that her 15-year-old is “just a little boy,” but police in Florida have become much more attuned to the need to document threats from “little boys” like her son. Their question in response, “How do we know he’s not going to be like the kid from Parkland?”, is a fair one. Repeated failures of law enforcement to enforce the law with that shooter allowed him to purchase weapons and commit his crimes.
And maybe her “little boy” needed more supervision in his online activities. At 15, that kind of threat has to be taken seriously, even if it might have just been RPG-related bravado.
If people truly are abiding by “see something say something” in regard to the threat of potential mass shootings, that’s great. Is that really what’s going on, or is it that there has been an explosion of potential copycats enthralled by all the attention these shootings produce? CBS law-enforcement analyst John Miller calls it a “contagion,” although the report doesn’t follow up on its implications:
“Someone who is already thinking about it will accelerate those plans when they see the one before that,” said John Miller, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism. “That’s why this appears to be a contagion.”
In most cases, Miller added, suspects will signal they might be planning something.
“The patterns are fairly clear,” he said. “If people learn what they are… and have the ability to step forward and say, ‘I’m going to report this,’ then we’re going to have fewer of these.”
Miller said it usually takes three or four stressors in someone’s life, like a breakup, losing a job, trouble at school or losing a home, for someone to start sending warning signals in person or online.
That’s good to know, but what about the implications of “contagion”? This is not a new idea; Malcolm Gladwell wrote about academic suspicions of a media-driven contagion in mass shootings in 2015. Using the model of riots, researchers began to suspect that high-profile events like Columbine lowered thresholds for irrational behavior in already marginal people:
That’s what Paton and Larkin mean: the effect of Harris and Klebold’s example was to make it possible for people with far higher thresholds—boys who would ordinarily never think of firing a weapon at their classmates—to join in the riot. Aguilar dressed up like Eric Harris. He used the same weapons as Harris. He wore a backpack like Harris’s. He hid in the changing room of the store until 11:14 a.m.—the precise time when the Columbine incident began—and then came out shooting. A few months later, Aaron Ybarra walked onto the campus of Seattle Pacific University and shot three people, one fatally. Afterward, he told police that he could never have done it without “the guidance of, of Eric Harris and Seung-Hui Cho in my head. . . .Especially, Eric Harris, he was a, oh, man he was a master of all shooters.”
Between Columbine and Aaron Ybarra, the riot changed: it became more and more self-referential, more ritualized, more and more about identification with the school-shooting tradition. Eric Harris wanted to start a revolution. Aguilar and Ybarra wanted to join one. Harris saw himself as a hero. Aguilar and Ybarra were hero-worshippers.
Now imagine that the riot takes a big step further along the progression—to someone with an even higher threshold, for whom the group identification and immersion in the culture of school shooting are even more dominant considerations. That’s John LaDue. “There is one that you probably never heard of like back in 1927 and his name was Andrew Kehoe,” LaDue tells Schroeder. “He killed like forty-five with, like, dynamite and stuff.” Ybarra was a student of Virginia Tech and Columbine. LaDue is a scholar of the genre, who speaks of his influences the way a budding filmmaker might talk about Fellini or Bergman. “The other one was Charles Whitman. I don’t know if you knew who that was. He was who they called the sniper at the Austin Texas University. He was an ex-marine. He got like sixteen, quite impressive.”
In the same year, Arizona State University codified the data to make a more scientific case for contagion, as The Atlantic reported in 2017. Note well their theory on the medium through which this contagion spreads, emphasis mine:
But according to a 2015 paper out of Arizona State University, “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings,” there are some data that mass shootings often occur in bunches, which indicates that they “infect” new potential murderers, not unlike a disease. “We find significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past,” the authors wrote. Suicide and terrorism, too, have been found to be likewise contagious. (Interestingly, the authors found “no significant association” between the rate of school and mass shootings and the state’s prevalence of mental illness.)
Diseases spread among individuals, but the contagion of mass shootings seems to spread through broadcast media. In an interview with The Atlantic in 2015, Sherry Towers, the ASU paper’s lead author, hypothesized that television, radio, and other media exposure might be the vectors through which one mass shooting infects the next perpetrator. Like a commercial, each event’s extraordinary coverage offers accidental advertising for depravity. One reason why mass-media coverage of shootings might inspire more shootings is that public glorification inspires some mass murderers. Eric Harris, the central planner of the Columbine murders, wrote Ich bin Gott—German for “I am God”—in his school planner.
If it is a media-driven contagion, then that raises difficult questions as to the mass media’s responsibility in containing it. As The Atlantic points out, mass shootings are legit news stories, even legit breaking news stories. However, perhaps the impulse to tie them to electoral politics — and the ways in which people exploit them to promote their own agendas — provides more incentives for contagion as borderline people see shootings as a way to vent their social-agenda frustrations and get (in)famous while doing so.
If that’s the case, news outlets and politicians would have to make serious changes in their approach to these events. It’s easier for them to ignore the contagion issue instead, which is what CBS does here even with Miller’s opening. Understandable, but too bad nonetheless.