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No definitive answers for school shootings

On the heels of the tragic school shooting in Ohio that left three students dead and two others injured in its wake, the fruitless “dance” will once again begin. Well-intentioned people, misguided as always, will clamber over one another to get to the underlying reasons for the tragedy. They’ll search for concrete “answers” in order to “understand” precisely what motivated T.J. Lane, 17, to walk into Chardon High School on Feb. 27 and allegedly mow down his peers with a .22-caliber Ruger semiautomatic pistol.
And as always the news outlets will feed on the story like blackbirds on a carcass. In a ratings scramble, the networks will trot out their top “guns” (no pun intended) who will lean forward in their chairs and talk softly – for added drama and effect – to show genuine (manufactured) concern as they probe the “senselessness” of the killings.

Then, almost on cue, school officials and posturing politicos from far and wide will chime in. They’ll talk about “getting tougher” on school violence, and will, for the umpteenth time, reassert their “zero tolerance” policies when dealing with firearms. This will prompt another countrywide order of metal detectors; the posting of even more security guards; appeals to parents to “look for the warning signs” in their children – blah, blah, blah, ad nauseum.

The trouble is we’ve been down this road many times before. Despite all of these maneuverings, plans, tactics and policy changes, not too much has changed. Most importantly, we’re no closer to deciphering the reason that such violent acts occur in the first place. Why is this, you ask? Because there simply isn’t one definitive answer.

Irish rock ’n’ roll star Bob Geldof and his Boomtown Rats underscored this sad fact with the hit song, “I Don’t Like Mondays.” For it was on Monday, Jan. 29, 1979, that 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire on children happily playing in a playground at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, Calif. Spencer killed two adults and injured eight children and a police officer that day. When asked why she did it, the unrepentant girl could only offer the flippant comment, “I don’t like Mondays – this livens up the day.” Geldof, taken by the utter senselessness of the act, became even more intrigued when journalists kept asking the young shooter why she was driven to kill.  “It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it,” said Geldof. “So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it.”

Our need as human-beings to wrap everything up in tidy packages, to get to the underlying whys and wherefores of such tragedies is understandable. In our naiveté, however, we believe that if can just identify the reason for a violent act, isolate and examine it, then we can pinpoint the warning signs in the future and prevent it from occurring again.

Yet deadly school violence continues to occur despite such research, and this unproductive dance continues. Were the killings drug-related? Was bullying involved? Was the child mentally stable? Did he/she have a score to settle? Was the act the result of desensitization from watching too much violence in movies and on television? Did the child have identity issues; questions and/or shame about his/her sexuality? Did the youth have an inferiority complex?  Did alcohol play a role?  Were violent video games responsible in some way? Could the teenage infatuation with vampires have driven the youth to go on a blood-spilling mission? Enough already!

As always, this pursuit for answers, noble though it is, will amount to nothing more than an exercise in futility. People’s motives for committing unthinkable acts aren’t interchangeable and are often mired in mystery. And we as watchdogs before the fact are not clairvoyant. There is no pat set of warning signs that can be relied upon to tell us if or when someone might suddenly go off the deep end and open fire.  Geldof got it exactly right.

As harsh as it sounds, people of all ages sometimes kill simply because they kill. After the murders are committed, some murderers can’t even tell you why they committed the heinous act in the first place, which suggests that there are underlying causes for this that may never be known to any of us. End of story. Fade to black. Take it away Boomtown Rats:

And daddy doesn’t understand it/ He always said she was good as gold/ And he can see no reasons, ‘cause there are no reasons/What reason do you need to be shown?/ Tell me why! I don’t like Mondays. /Tell me why! I don’t like Mondays. /Tell me why! I don’t like Mondays./ I wanna shoot the whole day down!

– Jeff Bahr
jeffbahr@theobserver.com

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