By Chris Norby | Contrary to media myth, school killings are neither a uniquely American nor a recent phenomenon. Our desire to comprehend seemingly random evil reflects our varying agendas as to what’s wrong with our times and society—and how to fix it. Each network has its own panel of professional pundits and panderers dispensing bromides to feed the 24-hour news cycle.
The Left blames guns. The Right blames fatherless families. Left blames the Right for glorifying guns and keeping them available, while Right blames Left for undermining the police and school discipline. All can be contributing factors, but sometimes randomly evil acts are simply that. It was ever thus.
It’s easy to blame killings as unique to our particular time, but it would be wrong. The single worst mass school killing in U.S history was back in 1927, when 38 students died by a bomb planted at Bath Township School in Michigan by a deranged farmer. Fifty years ago, a gunman killed 14 students at the University of Texas. Yes, they garnered national headlines for a few days, but then there was no round-the-clock media that needed to be fed with sensationalism and non-stop analysis.
It’s easy to blame American culture as uniquely prone to acts of mass killing, but it would also be wrong. “This happens in no other place but the United States of America” says Connecticut Senator Chris Murray, reflecting a sort of reverse American Exceptionalism.
According to the DC-based Crime Prevention Research Center, the U.S. actually ranks 11th in the number of per-million people killed by mass shootings, putting us just behind the Czech Republic and just ahead of Austria. From 2009-15, we had .09 dead per million population. Number One on the list is Norway with 1.9 killed per-million. With just 4 million people, the 2011 summer camp shooting killing 77 Norwegian kids puts that normally peaceful Nordic country on top.
Yes, they happen here far too frequently, but we’re also a country of 325 million. Taking into account population, you’re statistically more likely to be a victim of a mass shooting in France, Belgium or Finland.
When the killer has an apparent political or religious agenda—especially if he’s a Muslim—these are called acts of terrorism. They can be blamed on religious alienation or an international network, even when the killer may be acting totally alone. When it’s a seemingly random white guy with no particular agenda, we’re stumped and grasp at anything for an explanation or someone to blame. Things sometimes just happen, and sometimes they are bad. Very bad.
Yes, in the Parkland, Florida case, there were warning signs that authorities ignored. Under-reaction is typically followed by over-reaction. Arming teachers is a bad idea, as a gun is as likely to be stolen as their grade book or car keys, as any campus prankster will attest. More armed guards can be literally hit and miss. Some may act heroically, while others run and hide, as shown by recent events. But the constant presence of armed campus security turns school discipline issues into legal ones and too often involves the police in routine playground fights. Thoughtful new gun laws and mental health services may have merit on their own, but we shouldn’t rush into quick fixes proposed by every network pundit.
I care about my own first-grader’s safety. The Fullerton School District lately robo-calls parents when some playground dispute could be seen as a threat. Fine. But I can’t expect his teachers, principal or the police to stop every possibility of violence, no matter how remote. I’m still more likely to be killed by lightning on the golf course than he is to be killed at his school.
It’s a normal reaction to look for meaning and blame in seemingly random acts of horrible violence. It assures us that the world is understandable, knowable. But sometimes bad stuff just happens.
Chris Norby is a father of five, a retired history teacher (Brea-Olinda High School) and served in the California Legislature.