Canaries in a Coal Mine II. “We too are asking why”



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We now  know the identity of the killer in the Sandy Hook School Massacre but are still in the dark about why he did it. Police said that they had found “very good evidence” which would answer questions about the motives of the gunman, but they haven’t yet released this evidence.

As I said yesterday, my primary interest is not psychological, but sociological; not on the individual motives of any particular perpetrator of a mass shooting, but on why such incidents are collectively on the rise. Most analyses in the media, on the other hand, ignore the social context and focus on individuals – the victims, their families, and, of course, on mass murderers themselves. Why did they do it?

As the Hartford Courant reports, the family of the gunman today released a statement that said “we too are asking why.”

I don’t know what answer will eventually crystallize in this particular instance. But the most common interpetation of past shooting rampages has been as senseless mass murder by mentally disturbed individuals who, for no apparent reason, ‘snap.’

If you want to know what’s wrong with this explanation, read the brilliant, but quirky book, Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond. The author Mark  Ames offers a very different explanation: these workplace and school massacres are really modern-day slave rebellions. And just as historical slave rebellions, uprisings of modern wage-slaves are equally gory and ultimately doomed.


While this comparison is a bit of a stretch, Ames’ book is worth reading for an alternative analysis of the motives behind these seemingly senseless mass shootings. The appearance of senseless, random violence arises because the great majority of shooting rampages do not target specific individuals. Social science research, however, suggests that such attacks are not ‘random.’ For example, in Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings a respected Harvard sociologist Katherine Newman argues that school shootings, such as the Columbine massacre, are typically aimed to destroy the entire school as an institution.

Workplace rampages similarly attack the company, rather than individual employees or bosses, or even more broadly, the corporate culture as a whole. In the interviews, which Ames relates, the survivors of workplace rampages sometimes wonder why the killer shot this or that person, while the chief tormentor escaped. But the whole point is not to target a specific individual (although that also happens); rather the killer apparently wants to murder the firm, or the school. Again Ames: “there are no ‘random’ victims – everyone in the targeted company is guilty by association, or they are collateral damage. The goal is to destroy the company itself”.

In other words, ‘random’ or ‘senseless’ appearance of this type of violence results from the application of what social scientists call the ‘principle of social substitutability.’ Suppose that a war breaks out, and you are drafted into the army. On the battlefield, you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you’ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. It could easily be any other individual, but as long as they wear the same uniform, you would be shooting at them. Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable. As they say in gangster movies, “nothing personal, just business”.

Why is this important? The principle of social substitutability draws a boundary between individual crime and collective violence. In my study of social and political violence in the United States I used this principle to define the types of violent events that I needed to include in my database. And according to this definition, mass shootings should be included. In fact, shooting rampages are a form of terrorism. Or more precisely, a kind of suicide terrorism, because in most of them the perpetrators are killed by the police, or shoot themselves. The survivors are imprisoned for life. As a result, killing rampages result in either physical or social death of the shooter.

The only difference between a rampage shooter and a terrorist bomber (such as Timothy McVeigh) is in the weapon used to kill. Both aim not at individual people but at groups, social or political institutions, or entire societies. At least one terrorist (Anders Breivik) used both bombs and guns to kill. My database also includes cases when rampagers used knives, cars, and even an airplane.

On the other hand I exclude mass murder in which family members are killed, or multiple homicides resulting from botched robbery (think Reservoir Dogs).

In this post I have tried to explain why we should take mass shootings seriously – or, using the metaphor of the previous post, why they are like dead canaries. Although shooting rampages are not slave rebellions, as Mark Ames thinks, they are still a type of political violence – suicide terrorism. And as a type of political violence, they fall under the purview of structural-demographic theory, which aims to explain the waxing and wanings of socio-political instability. Now that I have cleared the theoretical decks, so to speak, I can deal with other criticisms (in the next blog).

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Check this post, it’s rather short, based on the earlier article in Counterpunch. The author is an American living for years now in Denmark. Which is of course one of those mellow wealthy ‘socialist’ European societies

Peter Turchin

Interestingly enough, I am planning to spend several months next year as a visiting prof in Denmark, and I am looking forward to seeing how North European ‘socialism’ works at first hand.


Adam Lanza himself used the same reasoning as you did, he had posts on internet forums which talked about capitalism causing those problems (he talks about increasing knife attacks in China as that country reformed)

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