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Danger in overreacting to Santa Fe school shooting:
James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 4:12 p.m. ET May 18, 2018 |
Updated 6:12 p.m. ET May 20, 2018
The community of Santa Fe gathered
for a vigil to honor the victims of Friday's shooting at Santa Fe High
School. A 17-year-old armed with a shotgun and a pistol opened fire, killing
10 people, most of them students, authorities said. (May 18) AP
School shootings, however horrific, are not the new normal. Santa Fe
killings are part of a bloody contagion that will pass.
ghastly shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, claiming the lives of
at least 10 victims, has many Americans, including President Trump,
wondering when and how the carnage will cease. Coming on the heels of two
other multiple fatality school massacres earlier this year, it is no wonder
that many are seeing this type of random gun violence as the "new normal."
Amidst the national mourning for the many innocent lives lost in these
senseless shooting sprees, it is critical not to overreact and overrespond
to the menacing acts of a few. It is, of course, of little comfort to those
families and communities impacted in Santa Fe as well as Parkland, Florida,
and Benton, Kentucky, but this is not routine.
Schools are not under
siege. Rather, this more likely reflects a short-term contagion effect in
which angry dispirited youngsters are inspired by others whose violent
outbursts serve as fodder for national attention. That should subside once
we stop obsessing over the risk.
History provides an important lesson
about how crime contagions arise and eventually play themselves out. Over
the five-year time span from 1997 through 2001, America witnessed seven
multiple-fatality school rampages with a combined 32 killed and 85 others
injured, more such incidents and casualties than during the past five years.
Following the March 2001 massacre at a high school in Santee,
California, the venerable Dan Rather declared school shootings an
"epidemic." Then, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on America,
the nation turned its attention to a very different kind of threat, and the
school shooting "epidemic" disappeared.
Summertime will soon bring a
natural break to the heightened concern over school shootings. Hopefully,
come September, we can deal with the underlying issues facing alienated
adolescents who seek to follow in the bloody footsteps of their undeserving
heroes, without inadvertently fueling the contagion of bloodshed.
Many observers have expressed concern for the excessive attention given to
mass shooters of today and the deadliest of yesteryear. CNN's Anderson
Cooper has campaigned against naming names of mass shooters, and 147
criminologists, sociologists, psychologists and other human-behavior experts
recently signed on to an open letter urging the media not to identify mass
shooters or display their photos.
While I appreciate the concern for
name and visual identification of mass shooters for fear of inspiring
copycats as well as to avoid insult to the memory of those they slaughtered,
names and faces are not the problem. It is the excessive detail - too much
information - about the killers, their writings, and their backgrounds that
unnecessarily humanizes them. We come to know more about them - their
interests and their disappointments - than we do about our next door
neighbors. Too often the line is crossed between news reporting and
At the same time, we focus far too much on records.
We constantly are reminded that some shooting is the largest in a particular
state over a given number of years, as if that really matters. Would the
massacre be any less tragic if it didn't exceed the death toll of some prior
incident? Moreover, we are treated to published lists of the largest mass
shootings in modern US history. For whatever purpose we maintain records,
they are there to be broken and can challenge a bitter and suicidal
assailant to outgun his violent role models.
Although the spirited
advocacy of students around the country regarding gun control is to be
applauded, we need to keep some perspective about the risk.
like, "I want to go to my graduation, not to my grave," are powerful, yet
As often said, even one death is one too many, and we
need to take the necessary steps to protect children, including expanded
funding for school teachers and school psychologists. Still, despite the
occasional tragedy, our schools are safe, safer than they have been for
James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on