Columbine inaugurated the modern era of school massacres in our society. Nothing like it had happened before. Is it coincidental that we have had a fairly large number of massacres since April 20, 1999, but none before that date? Certainly firearms did not become more readily available to adolescent murderers-in-the-making at that point. We cannot identify any other causal factors that made their appearance at that time. You do feel that once a pair of young students at Columbine proved it could be done, others went on to imitate their deed.

With each new one, one hopes it will be the last. One hopes school staff won’t have to clean blood off the walls and floors another time. So far we do not have a lot of hope. Everyone wants the string of school killings to stop, but we are not equipped to cure the rash. The obvious first step – reduce the size of gargantuan public schools – will not happen, either as a first step or a hundredth step. We have invested far too heavily in schools the size of small cities, that disconnect students from themselves and their schoolmates. A few cannot adapt. Fewer still find an outlet for their pain in revenge.

I am not a social psychologist. Motives and psycho-social currents that appear to drive insane behavior differ from killer to killer. One can make an easy observation, however, with no expertise. No one forces young killers to select their own high school as their primary target. When a worker goes postal, he returns to the workplace where he felt mistreated, rejected, and despised. Sometimes the worker goes after the boss who dismissed him, but after that revenge needs no specific targets or victims.

Ostracism may be the most painful experience any person can suffer. Every person needs acceptance. Some will read these words and say I want to remove responsibility from the killers. That is not the case at all. Many survive worse pain, and do not become mass murderers. I do want to point out something obvious. Adolescent mass murderers make choices. They plan their single act of revenge. They select where they will go before they open fire. Why does the postal worker not go to the local high school? Why does the student not go to the McDonald’s where he works part-time? The answer is obvious.

It also ought to be obvious that not one mass murderer has been female, though many victims have been. Is that a coincidence, or a significant factor we would rather overlook? We want to put our social-psychological thinking gear on again, but, like development of smaller schools, that won’t happen. We observe that young men, beginning in 1999, go out to shoot up a high school: not any school, but the school they attend, or attended. Surely we cannot have missed that point. We want to say an insane person snapped, like a rubber band, but that is not how it works. Like suicide and many other violent acts, mass murder requires detailed plans. It is not an impulsive crime, like shoplifting. Nothing about it is coincidental.

So let’s ask a couple of what if questions. What if adolescent young men were not forced to attend large public schools? What if they could interact with other people in settings they choose? What if the pain and aggression that accompany adolescence did not evolve into a fatal ostracism, or a lethal desire for revenge? It seems to me every school massacre raises these and similar questions, yet measures designed to prevent the next one do not take these psycho-social elements into account at all.

If you want to change the way adolescents behave, especially male adolescents, you have to attend to their social environment. If you fear the effects of severe emotional distress and isolation, and worry about how these factors can produce what we blithely call anti-social behavior, how can you not think about these environmental conditions? Thinking about these questions does not displace responsibility for murderous crimes to victims, school staff, or anyone else. Just as a murderer has plenty of time to plan his act of revenge, he also has plenty of time to change his mind. Responsibility for the crime lies entirely with the perpetrator.

Nevertheless, if you want to think productively about prevention, you have think about the questions raised here, even if their nature appears to diffuse ownership of horrific acts. In the end, we do not have even partial control over an individual’s murderous thoughts or motives, and even less ability to prevent actions that proceed from dark, apparently inexplicable ideas or sentiments. Even if we would like to detain a person who plans to shoot up a high school before he carries out the plan, no one would urge a department of pre-crime empowered to arrest or confine people who show warning signs. Most of us would not feel safe in that kind of environment.

The word environment returns us to arenas where we do have partial control. If we do not want to feel helpless, we want to direct our energy toward changes that have predictable, positive effects. At this point, we do feel rather helpless about school massacres. We have not, however, given fair consideration to questions germane to the crime, or that lead to the types of environmental changes that make people feel more safe. If anything, security precautions at large public schools reduce the sense of security all individuals, especially young adults seek.

Since Columbine we have made changes in the high school environment that we hoped would prevent future massacres. No one would say they have worked. If in fact Columbine initiated an imitative cycle in our social organism, we may have to wait for the cycle to play itself out. That’s not the kind of patience we care to hold out as a virtue. If so, we want to give some thought to the way adolescent men interact with social institutions, and how social institutions interact with them. With that, we can also think about how the most seriously troubled and ostracized among them might be helped.

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