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.]
(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.