School Shootings as ‘Performances’: A Goffmanesque Understanding

“The majority of the audience won’t even understand my motives,” documented one of the Columbine perpetrators in his journal. Such a sentiment suggests that school shooters can view their attacks as a ‘performance.’ To explore this idea further, I wish to draw upon Erving Goffman’s theatrical metaphor about the ‘performing self’ and ‘front [visible] images.’ A key idea deriving from Goffman’s book is that “during a performance, the ‘performed self’ is seen as some kind of image.” Relating this to school shootings finds that prior to attacks, a number of perpetrators have carefully constructed materials, such as videos, photographs, writings and diaries, to display a certain ‘image’ and outline their ‘justifications’ for their forthcoming attacks. Drawing upon Erving Goffman’s theatrical metaphor, it could thus be said that they function as ‘stage props’ offering immediate displays of messages shown to audience members — in this case, the public — otherwise known as its “‘front’ [image].”

My blogs posted on the 4th and 11th June 2014 described how most school shooters tend to have narcissistic and fragile male identities. It could be said the shooters try to negate this and present themselves to others in a certain way using these constructed materials and thereafter try to maximise their potential audience by sending or intending to send their multi-media packages to news media outlets or uploading material to the internet. There are numerous examples of this occurring globally and it has just increased with the advancement of technology and growth of social media. Maps, notebooks, journals, blueprints of the school, websites, and videotapes were carefully constructed by the Columbine shooters with the intention of sending these to news media stations beforehand, although this never transpired. The Orange High School (2006) perpetrator mailed a collection of video tapes and a letter explaining his motives to local newspaper Chapel Hill News. The German school shooter of Emsdetten (2006) left a video and posted comments on the Internet. The Virginia Tech (2007) shooter sent a package consisting of twenty-seven video clips, an eight-hundred word document and forty-three captioned photos into the broadcast news station National Broadcasting Company (NBC). In Finland, both the Jokela (2007) and Kauhajoki (2009) school shooters left media packages and posted videos on YouTube. Similarly, the recent Isla Vista shooting spree (2014) of the surrounding campus area involved the attacker posting a video detailing his motives to YouTube and emailing a manifesto to people he knew, which has since been uploaded onto the internet.

This trend can be related to Goffman’s notion of presenting one’s self to gain acceptance from others and Lasch’s idea that the “narcissist depends on other’s validation.” It highlights the need for interventionary efforts before school shootings commence, with anyone aware of someone they know possibly putting together such materials bringing this to the attention of law enforcement and the educational institution they attend. School shooters do not tend to just ‘snap’; rather, attacks are usually planned well in advance, with these manifestos being part of the preparations. Incorporating these materials or the act of preparing such materials into threat assessment cements the idea that a threat is substantive and immediate action is needed to prevent the attack occurring. This requires co-operation from those closest to potential school shooters, however, and will require extra vigilance when someone is engaging in violent behaviour and/or making troubling threats.

Even after the school shooting has ended and the perpetrators are either dead or have been arrested, their ‘performance’ still continues through the viewing of YouTube videos, the promotion of their manifestos in the news media and discussions on social media. The continuation of the ‘performance’ via online discussions also emphasises the need for internet postings to be investigated. The online activities of the person in question could be interrogated for warning signs as part of threat assessment — this is something which will be developed further in a future blog.

[This blog was put together with Erving Goffman’s book and further reading about school shootings. Future blogs intend to build upon this one, by discussing the use of online comments in threat assessment.]

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