Revenge on the Institution: The Example of Erfurt

Continuing with the global theme discussed in the last blog, this post provides an insight into the 2002 school shooting at Gutenberg High School in Erfurt, Germany. This attack resulted in the murders of seventeen victims, as well as the suicide of the shooter. In this blog, I will advance the argument that this incident was an exercise in ‘revenge’ against the institution.

 

Outside of the family system, school is the social institution which adolescents have the most interaction with. (1) Prior to the attack, the perpetrator, Robert Steinhäuser, was said to be struggling at school, having failed a required entrance exam for university admission. This was coupled with a series of absences from classes. When it was discovered that he had forged medical notes to exonerate him missing classes, he was subsequently expelled from school — something he kept secret from his family members. Having found himself in this predicament (and not sharing this with those closest to him), Steinhäuser’s next course of action was to carry out an attack on the school.

 

It has previously been argued that school shootings in the United States perpetrated by adolescents have been attacks on the institution itself. (2) The Erfurt massacre was another example of this, evident in the fact that Steinhäuser purposefully targetted his former teachers during his shooting attack. In the end, fourteen of the seventeen murdered were staff members at the school; the remaining three victims included students and a police officer responding to the incident. Before killing himself, Steinhäuser stated “That’s enough for today” as though his intended target had been met.

 

Given the fact that Steinhäuser had been expelled from the school, it is clear that this massacre was part of a ‘revenge’ attack against the institution. As a concept, revenge differs from ‘punishment’ and ‘retaliation’ in its proportionality, motivations and consequences. Revenge is said to be more ‘emotionally complex’ in that it involves a perceived wrongdoing on behalf of the enactor. The intention of revenge, therefore, is to ‘diminish one’s opponent’ by taking direct action to harm them. (3) Since institutions are said to be “reflections of the people in them” (4), the Guternberg High School seemed to Steinhäuser to represent the source of his problems. Notably his purposeful gunning down of teachers and others who got in his way, such as the police officer responding to the incident, is indicative of this. Overall, it could be said that the Erfurt school shooting was a vengeful mission predicated on the assumption by the perpetrator that the school, as an institution, had ‘wronged’ him.

 

[The next blog post will continue the global theme by discussing the Jokela school shooting in Finland.]

 References

(1) Cullingford, C. (2000) Prejudice: from individual identity to nationalism in young people. London: Kogan Page, 99-100.

(2) Harding, D. J., Fox, C. and Mehta, J. D. (2002) ‘Studying rare events through qualitative case studies: lessons from a study of rampage school shootings.’ Sociological Methods Research 31(174), 189.

(3) Govier, T. (2002) Forgiveness and Revenge. New York and London: Routledge, 20, 36.

(4) Cullingford, C. (2000) Prejudice: from individual identity to nationalism in young people. London: Kogan Page, 203.

 

An exercise in misogyny: The EcolePolytechnique Shooting

Before the attack, the perpetrator, Marc Lepine, wrote a suicide note expressing strong contempt for feminists, stating that “they had always ruined his life.” Within the note, he listed nineteen women in Quebec that he wanted to kill. In particular, his rage appeared to be directed at women in three occupational groups: soldiers, police officers and engineers. Since these have traditionally been defined as ‘masculine’ roles, he perhaps extrapolated from this that females pursuing these jobs were ‘feminists’ trying to transgress gender expectations. Moreover, Lepine also had a personal connection to the military and engineering, both of which had rejected him. These rejections likely contributed to the fragility of his male identity (1).

 

During the attack, he ordered males and females to separate sides of the classroom and thereafter ordered the men to leave. Once alone with the females, he said to them “You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.” After he had shot these students, he walked through the building and killed another seven females. In total, he killed fourteen females in the university. Notably, the site of the attack being EcolePolytechnique University and its target of female students were significant, given this institution had turned down his application to an engineering course and instead accepted female students. Following the shooting, a number of surviving students, suffering from the events that they had witnessed, committed suicide with some of them citing the attack as the reason why they were doing so.

 

It could, therefore, be said that this school shooting was an exercise in misogyny intended to make a political statement about the role of women in society, particularly in what were traditionally ‘male roles.’ Despite this, news coverage after the shooting only focused on his mental health problems, portraying him as a ‘madman.’ Moreover, the attention paid to this incident in scholarly literature and the news media has been far less than other incidents. (2) It may be surmised that had the situation been reversed — a female school shooter expressing hatred against men and their role in society — the incident would have received greater coverage and public commentary. That does not mean, however, that the massacre has not had an impact. It could be argued that Lepine has become a ‘hero’ to some. For instance, a threat to execute the ‘deadliest school shooting ever’ was sent to Utah State University in 2014, because it planned to host a talk from a feminist vlogger. Within the threat letter, Marc Lepine was described as “a hero to men everywhere for standing up to the toxic influence of feminism on Western masculinity.” (3) There are also dedication pages to Lepine on the internet, for disenfranchised voices. Considering the fact that this massacre was almost thirty years ago, it gives credence to claims from gender theorists that masculinity is in ‘crisis.’ This would be even more the case in contemporary society with the advent of third wave feminism, focusing on complete equality with men for all women. (4)

 

The commonality throughout all school shootings is the fact that almost all perpetrators are male and the motivations of perpetrators are entrenched within understandings of what it means to be a ‘man.’ To that extent, the EcolePolytechnique University massacre exemplifies the ‘failed man crisis,’ entrenched within the perpetrator’s diminished prospects, a lack of success with females and other personal issues.

 

[This blog post was the beginning of a new theme on school shootings taking place outside the United States. The next post will examine an attack that occurred in Germany in 2002, where the perpetrator targeted staff members at his former school.]

 

References

  1. Larkin, R. W. (2010) “Masculinity, School Shooters and the Control of Violence.” In W. Heitmeyer, H. G. Haupt, S. Malthauner and A. Kirschner (eds.). Control of Violence. New York: Springer: 315-344.
  2. Danner, M. J. E. and D. C. Carmody. (2001) “Missing gender in cases of infamous school violence: investigating research and media explanations.” Justice Quarterly 18(1), 87-114; Tonso, K. L. (2009) “Violent Masculinities as Tropes for School Shooters: The Montreal Massacre, the Columbine Attacks and Rethinking Schools.” American Behavioral Scientist 52(9), 1266-1285.
  3. Ashley Csanady. (2014) ‘The bizarre love for Marc Lepine among men’s rights groups.’ com News, 15 October. Retrieved from: http://o.canada.com/news/the-bizarre-love-for-marc-lepine-among-mens-rights-groups
  4. See, for example, the following sources: Carrigan, T, B. Connell and J. Lee.(1987) “Towards a New Sociology of Masculinity.” In H. Brod (ed.) The Making of Masculinities: The New Men’s Studies. Winchester: Allen and Unwin, 63-100; Jefferson, T. (2002) “Subordinating hegemonic masculinity.” Theoretical Criminology 6(1), 63-88.

United States Election Special: Why Clinton is Best for Gun Control

This blog is a United States Election special, documenting the reasons why I favour Hillary Clinton over the other presidential candidates. The release of this post is timed to coincide with the ongoing Republican and the upcoming Democratic conventions. The argument will be made that Clinton is the preferred candidate: this will be solely based on her record and stance on gun control, rather than any other policies. Also discussed will be the support she has shown to relatives of gun violence victims, particularly those who have been killed in school shootings.

 

Throughout Clinton’s career, gun violence prevention has always been at the forefront. When she was first lady at the time of the Clinton administration (1992-2000), she advocated the Brady Bill and was also active in post-Columbine discussions, co-convening a White House summit on school safety. As a Senator, she voted for legislation to close loopholes in existing gun legislation and to renew the assault weapons ban. Hillary’s campaign page for her 2016 presidential run states: “About 33, 000 Americans are killed by guns each year. That is unacceptable.” It further maintains she will take the following ‘sensible action’ on gun laws: strengthen background checks, by closing current loopholes (e.g. gun shows and internet sales not requiring background checks) in the system; hold gun dealers and manufactures to account; prevent certain groups of people (e.g. terrorists, those with severe mental illness) from procuring guns; reinstating the ‘assault weapons ban’; making ‘straw buying’ a federal crime. (1) Previous blog posts have documented that the gun violence prevention measures that would have the greatest chance at reducing school shootings:

  • Renewing the ‘assault weapons ban,’ restricting the use of weapons that allow for more rounds to be fired. School shooters commonly use such weapons to have a greater chance of injuring or killing people in a short period of time.
  • Strengthening background checks, particularly in the case of mental illness. This was an issue with the Virginia Tech school shooter, who had previously been ‘temporarily detained’ at a mental institution and was ineligible to purchase firearms under federal law. Virginia state law, however, at that time prescribed that one had to have bene ‘committed’ to an institution; hence, allowing for him to circumvent restrictions and buy firearms.
  • The criminalisation of straw-buying, where one purchases guns on behalf of other people, would also be a positive move. Notably, the Columbine shooters used a ‘straw-buyer’ to procure their weapons at a gun-show, where no paperwork was required to be filled out. Since one of the shooters was legally old enough to purchase firearms, it may be postulated from this that ‘straw-buying’ was perhaps a strategy to prevent alerting anyone to their plans.

With this in mind, it seems that Clinton’s plan for gun violence prevention measures would have the greatest chance at reducing or preventing school shootings.

 

It is perhaps unsurprisingly then that Clinton has received the greatest levels of support from families of gun violence victims. In a recent campaign video, for instance, a young girl whose mother was the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School and died in the school shooting made the following claim: “No one is fighting harder to reform our gun laws than Hillary.” (2) Additionally, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head during a mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona in 2011 — and her husband Mark Kelly haveendorsed Hillary, arguing she is the candidate with the “toughness and determination to stand up to the corporate gun lobby.” (3) By contrast, the former Democratic contender, Bernie Sanders, has received criticism from Sandy Hook families for comments that gun manufacturers should not be sued when the weapons produced are subsequently used in crimes. The sister of Victoria Soto, a teacher who was killed during the Sandy Hook shooting, called the comments from Sanders ‘offensive, insensitive and disrespectful.’ (4) The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has strongly criticised Hillary for her gun control plan, claiming it would leave citizens defenceless. By contrast, his intention is to loosen existing gun restrictions, purporting that more guns would increase protection. (5)

 

Overall, considering Clinton’s gun control plan, endorsements and record in this area, it certainly seems that she is the strongest presidential candidate in order to tackle gun violence.

 

[This blog was put together by reading related news stories and campaign pages. It was a one-off election special. The next blog post will return to the topic of school shootings, moving onto the global theme of incidents occurring outside the United States.]

 

  1. Hillary for America. (2016) ‘Gun violence prevention: it is past time we act on gun violence.’ https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/gun-violence-prevention/
  2. Michele Gorman. (2016) ‘Hillary Clinton meets with Sandy Hook Families, Vows to Push for Gun Control within Second Amendment.’ Newsweek, 21sthttp://europe.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-meets-sandy-hook-families-vows-push-gun-control-within-second-450976
  3. Gabby Giffords. (2016) ‘Why Mark and I are Supporting Hillary Clinton for president.’ Hillary for America 2016, 11th https://www.hillaryclinton.com/feed/why-mark-i-are-supporting-hillary-clinton-president/
  4. Michele Gorman. (2016) ‘Hillary Clinton meets with Sandy Hook Families, Vows to Push for Gun Control within Second Amendment.’ Newsweek, 21st April.  http://europe.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-meets-sandy-hook-families-vows-push-gun-control-within-second-450976
  5. George Zornick. (2016) ‘This Will Be a Historic (and Terrifying) Election for Gun Control.’ The Nation, 24 May. https://www.thenation.com/article/this-will-be-a-historic-and-terrifying-election-for-gun-control/

Thwarted attacks: the phenomenon of near-misses

This blog post will examine the phenomenon of thwarted school shooting attacks, bringing a conclusion to the theme of copycat attacks. As mentioned in the blog posted on the 26th May 2016, there tends to be a spike in threats following a high-profile school shooting. Sometimes these threats are fabrications intended to attract attention; other times, they are real and concrete, requiring intervention to prevent them becoming deadly attacks. The difficulty of trying to conduct research into thwarted school shootings is it will involve studying attacks that did not actually transpire. Probably the most effective approach is to only study incidents where there is some degree of proof that the incident would have taken place. (1) This post will look at some of the instances where copycat threats became thwarted school shootings.

 

Following the Columbine school shooting, there was a spike in copycat threats across the United States. Those which could actually be considered ‘thwarted,’ however, are the ones with some degree of planning involved. An example of this occurred less than a month after the Columbine school shooting, where a 15 year old boy at Kennedy High School was alleged to have plotted an incident: the plan was to handcuff a target list of people to desks and shoot off their hands or shoot them in the head and then go into the hallway and shoot other students. This planned massacre was thwarted because the boy told two students (which a third one overheard) at the school, threatening to kill them if they reported it; the three students thereafter came forward with the information. The preparation of the target list and the boy’s access to a rifle in his home showed that the likelihood of this attack taking place was higher than other copycat threats. Around this time, a copycat Columbine-style massacre plotted by four current and former students at Adams City High School was also impeded. The seriousness of the purported threat was documented in a written plan, drawings and a map of the school given to the authorities by an unnamed informant.

 

What can be taken from these examples is that following a high-profile school shooting like Columbine, staff members, law enforcement officers and students at the school have heightened awareness about the possibility of copycat attacks. This is positive in the sense that they are perhaps more likely to come forward with information pertaining to threats, no matter whether these are hoaxes or serious copycat attacks. Such a sense of attentiveness to threats will not be permanent, however, with it likely to fade when the high-profile school shooting begins to receive less media coverage and public and political attention. This highlights the need for permanent vigilance when hearing about potential school shooting threats, particularly those with detailed plans and other concrete actions (such as procuring a firearm).

  1. Daniels, J. A., A. Volungis, E. Pshenishny, P. Gandhi, A. Winkler, D. P. Cramer et al., (2010). ‘A qualitative investigation of averted school shooting rampages.’ The Counseling Psychologist 38 (1), 69–95; Daniels, J. A. and J. W. Page. (2013) ‘Averted School Shootings.’ In N. Bockler et al. (eds.) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. Springer Science-Business Media: New York, 421-439.

 

[This blog post was put together using school shooting literature and media reports about copycat threats. It concludes the thread on copycat attacks for the moment.]

Female School Shootings: A New Phenomenon?

The last few blogs have discussing the phenomenon of ‘copycatting’ in relation to school shootings. This post will look at the recent trend of females threatening to become school shooters — something rather unprecedented, considering almost all previous perpetrators have been male. As discussed in the blog posted on the 11th of June 2014, masculinity is one of the socio-cultural factors contributing to school shootings. This blog will explicate the details of female school shooting copycatters and critique whether this could be considered a new and worrying phenomenon.

In November 2014, a 17 year old girl at Radnor High School, Pennsylvania, had expressed a desire in her journal to become the ‘first female school shooter.’ When examining previous incidents, it becomes evident why she would have thought her massacre would be noteworthy. In 1979, a girl, Brenda Spencer, shot children walking to Cleveland Elementary School; there was also Laurie Dann who shot children in Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Illinois. It is questionable, however, whether these qualify as ‘school shootings’: the rationale for Spencer seemed to be the convenience of the victims, given she shot them from her bedroom window across the street; whilst Dann appeared to be attacking the school she believed her former sister-in-law’s children attended. For an event to be defined as a ‘school shooting,’ the attack should be against the institution itself, with victims targeted for their symbolic value. The closest to ‘female school shooters’ could be construed as Latina Williams, who killed two peers at Louisiana Technical College, and Professor Amy Bishop, who carried out an attack at the University of Alabama. Despite this, Professor Bishop targeted her colleagues because she had recently been denied tenure and Latina Williams did not leave any notes or other evidence explaining her motives; this suggests that perhaps they were not aspiring to become ‘school shooters.’

The planned attack at Radnor High School was thankfully thwarted. The girl in question had showed a fascination with the Columbine school shooting, writing to the parents of one of the perpetrators, Dylan Klebold, to describe her ‘emotional connection’ with him. Almost a year after this case, another story emerged about two teenage girls alleged to have planned a shooting at Mountain Vista High School, which is fewer than ten miles away from Columbine High School geographically. One of the girls involved wrote in her journal that she wished she could have participated in the Columbine school shooting and referenced the film Natural Born Killers, cited by the perpetrators of this massacre in their own writings. The fascination with the Columbine shooters has appeared in other school shootings, such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. The appeal of these perpetrators to females, however, is an emerging and worrying trend. Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan, said she has received mail in the past from girls who claim they love him and want to have his baby. Although these fan letters are not really anything new — some women have married death row prisoners in the past — the worry is that females fascinated by the Columbine or other school shooters, then take the next step of trying to ‘become them’ via a similar attack.

The implication of this for assessing threats is that those coming from females should be taken just as seriously as those from boys and men. The planned attack at Mountain Vista High School had involved the drawing up of a map of the school, denoting the locations of law enforcement — this exemplifies the seriousness of that threat. Gender is, therefore, something which must not be overlooked when assessing school shooting threats.

 

[This blog post was put together with research and pre-existing knowledge about actual and planned school shooting incidents. The next post will continue with the copycatting theme, by looking at thwarted attacks.]

Copycat Threats: Real or Fake?

As documented in the last blog post, the highly publicised nature of school shootings means that they are prone to creating ‘copycats.’ The amount of threats made tends to increase exponentially following a previous attack. Copycatters may try to ‘out-do’ the previous school shooting with the intention of gaining more media attention. (1) The purpose of this blog post is to explore the distinction between the threats that are empty in nature, with the sole intention of gaining attention or causing trouble; compared to those that do actually pose serious danger.

In the book The Copycat Effect, the author attributes copycatting to “thoughtless, sensational media,” claiming coverage of high-profile incidents like school shootings triggers a series of copycat attacks. Further to this, it is argued that the news media insidiously deflects any culpability for this, by instead discussing other ‘blame factors,’ such as violent video games or school culture. (2) The last blog post debated the extent to which the news media are to blame and questioned how credible this explanation really was when taken in isolation.

An important point to remember about the ‘copycat’ explanation is that the recognition to be ‘gained’ from media attention is not a sufficient enough reason for someone to carry out a school shooting. Notably, it is likely that carrying out an attack following a previous high-profile school shooting would keep the issue salient in the news for a while longer; yet, it would not guarantee particular notoriety for that particular incident. In fact, it would likely mean a discussion about school shootings in general or comparing and contrasting the two incidents that had occurred within a short period of time. Extrapolating from this means there must be additional motivating factors for copycatters whose massacres actually transpire; herein lies the basis for testing the credibility of threats made.

Every threat should be examined — even when claimed to be said in ‘humour’ or a moment of anger — because school shootings and other attacks do occur. When a copycat threat is made following a high profile incident, the threat itself, the context in which it was made and the threatener must all be critically assessed. Examining the content within the threat and its context gives some indication of its risk level: Does the threat give specific details, such as a location, methods (e.g. bombing or shooting), date and time? To who was the threat made and is this someone the threatener is likely to confide in? Was the threat said in a moment of emotional distress? Was the threat made repeatedly? Coupling this with information about the person(s) making the threat should provide a fuller picture: Does the threatener have the ability to carry out the threat? Is the threatener suffering from any personal problems and/or mental health issues that have been altering their recent behaviour? Do they have a motive and desire to follow through with the threat? Have those closest to the threatener noticed any changes in behaviour and/or similar threats being made? Is there any evidence of plans being plan to carry out the attack (e.g. purchasing firearms)?

Taking all that into consideration should go some way to fundamentally distinguishing between genuine and fake threats. A disingenuous copycat threat is likely to be said for a variety of reasons: gaining attention, attempting to be ‘humorous’ or controversial or perhaps intimidation of the school and people within it. A copycat threat where the threatener intends to follow through could be seen as a pre-warning to an attack.

[This blog was put together using relevant literature and threat assessment knowledge. The next post will continue this theme by looking at a recent case involving female copycatters.]

(1) Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Harding, D. J., Mehta, J. and Roth, W. (2004) Rampage: the social roots of school shootings. Basic Books: New York, 154, 250.
(2) Coleman, L. (2004) The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines. London, New York: Paraview Pocket Books.