If school shootings have accomplished nothing else, at least they have provided an occasion to discuss the dangerous role that violence plays in our society. Nonetheless, the rare and random instances of school shootings hardly constitute our most significant social violence. Our culture's tendency to vilify those whose only failings lie in lifestyles that differ from the mainstream occasions far more serious violence.
At Santana High School in Santee, California, school bullies--consisting of the popular and mainstream athletes, cheerleaders, and even staff--harassed the fifteen-year-old freshman who turned shooter on March 5, 2001. Yet not only the peers of the bullies but also the mainstream media excused their behavior while blaming the shooter's "offbeat" friends for failure to report his comments about his plan to take a gun to school. It is time for us to ask if this culture's obsessive commitment to and enforcement of its own core values may itself evoke a cycle of guilt, scapegoating, and violence.
Most commentaries on guns in schools share a common feature. They pinpoint individuals or discrete groups to blame not only for individual instances of violence but also for what is perceived as large-scale social breakdown. Violent and out-of-control minority youth--labeled superpredators during the early war on crime days--have been the villains in much mainstream commentary.
Yet in my home state of Maine, a white fifth grader recently brought a loaded gun to his rural elementary school. Local media were shocked. The horror Maine leaders registered reflects the cultural blinders of middle-class whites. Some weeks before the Maine incident, AlterNet columnist Tim Wise argued that the Columbine and Santee rampages reveal a deepening drug and violence pathology--among white youth. White adults, however, too easily associate school violence with urban black youth.
Wise performed a service by pointing to the obvious racism implicit in discussions of "superpredators." Nonetheless, he too engages in his own dubious blame game--this one generational, despite much contrary evidence. Mike Males, a distinguished sociologist, worries that even Wise's perspective obscures a greater problem: the violence of white middle-class adult male culture. Males comments: "As mass shootings go, boys are very unlikely perpetrators. The true gun-killers are mostly middle-aged men."
Rates of violent crime have decreased dramatically among children all across the...