The troubling thing about the latest school shooting is that it evoked minimal emotions; no horror, no rage. The Santa Fe high school shooting on Friday claimed 10 lives, and another 10 injured including a resource officer (the armed police officer assigned to the school), who was charged with the safety of the school. It's easy to make the case against the NRA mantra: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” Although the argument came to mind, it was not the most dominant thought. I wondered why is it that no one calls the perpetrators of these atrocities terrorists?
It would be a different issue altogether if the shooter had been of Arabic origins or of Muslim persuasion. Similarly if that person had an Arabic/Islamic sounding name or was off-white on the brownish color spectrum. Inevitably, we would notice news channels move from discussing mental health issues and gun control to more sinister angles of homegrown-terrorist, lone-wolves, and Islamic Jihad.
When and if a school shooting would be carried out by a “brown kid” it would be a different national discussion. Immigration and border security would come to the fore. Perhaps assimilation and loyalty to foreign entities will become euphemisms for Islamophobic speech. I doubt most TV talking-heads will have the presence of mind to be politically correct. After all Islamophobia doesn’t appear to be a cardinal sin in this post 9-11 world.
Subconscious racism will be legitimized in the wake of such incident. We, as the “guilty” group, should not become indignant for the sweeping judgment. Instead of becoming defensive we should make sure to condemn these violent acts equating it to other school shootings. If one mass killing is a terrorists act, then all other incidents should be called terrorist acts, regardless of the ethnicity and beliefs of the perpetrator.
Islam was synonymous with terrorism post 9-11, when the Muslim world abdicated to Al-Qaeda criminals confusing the messenger for the purity of the Islamic message. It was a confusing time. The Muslim world bought into a narrative of victimhood where they were on the losing end in the perceived clash of civilizations of that period. Until the Muslim world claimed back their religion from its hijackers, Islam was the enemy of peace. Ironically when the word Islam is derived from the root word peace.
Terrorism: A judgment
Five hours into the news coverage, it dawned on Harris Faulkner, the Fox News anchor, that acts of violence in schools should be labeled by what they cause, terror. Surprisingly a couple of experts agreed with the classification.
Terror in its simplest definition is extreme fear. And in our prevailing narrative, is to instil fear in a community through anticipated random acts of mass violence. Nothing surprising there. School shootings have instilled fear in the heart and minds of American parents and students. Active shooter, lockdown, and shelter-in-place drills are common in most schools. Yet, the uncertainty of when, where, and how is frightening. The futility of these exercises deepens that sense of terror.
The average school shooting lasts 12.5 minutes, according to Homeland Security statistic. Casualties in this year's 22 school shootings were random targets of opportunity. In the last five years of school shootings, about 450 were shot of which 150 lost their lives. We don’t know much about why they do it. Some of the shooter are traumatized, psychopaths, or psychotic kids according to Peter Langman, the author of the book “Why Kids Kill.” Excluding mental disorders, I believe lack of resilience, the inability to overcome difficulties, is a big factor.
The recurrence of school shooting suggests a generation wide lack of toughness. Parents are to blame. Shielding kids from reality and babying them when they are challenged contributes to the problem. We know that these kids are capable and smart because they plot out their school shootings with meticulous detail. They overcome challenges and face uncertainty as they move into the execution phase of their sinister plan. Unfortunately, they’re unable to draw on that resiliency on daily basis under constant low-level adversity. When shooters reach the tipping point due to a slow but long build up, we get to discuss mental health and gun control around the clock on all news channels.
Kids and terrorism
The US had 15 juveniles brought to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, over the years. At the time of their arrest, some were as young as 14 (even a report of 13 year olds were arrested on the battlefields and detained in country). Couldn’t we explain their action in the same way we explain school shooters’, a result of trauma, psychopathy, or psychosis? I believe those explanations are not exclusive to school shooter. But there are other explanations, which are exclusive to battlefield youth. Some of them are recruited by virtue of their guardian’s decision to join the fight, or as an option to escape a worse reality (such as those orphaned by the violence they are embroiled in).
There is no justification for dubbing a 13 year old as a terrorist. Teenagers can be manipulated to advance a terrorist organization’s political goals, but the groups strategic goals has little bearing on what drives the kids. Long-term goal of the fight is irrelevant in an environment focused on daily tactics, survival among violent adults, and focus on avoiding death on the battlefield. A far cry from the reality of School aged killers here in the the States. In this environment, teenagers seem to be inspired by other school shootings, plot to avoid others mistakes, and one up the latest massacre.
The difference between the two youths is glaring. The duration of violent acts and frequency on the battlefield is long-term vs the very short duration of shoot-em up at schools. Once in motion, the battlefield kids are locked in risking their lives if they were to change their minds vs. school shooters who can abort their plans right up to the moment of brandish their weapons. Battlefield kids are led to believe they are committing violent acts in the name of righteousness while school shooting is selfish; a cry for help at best and sadistic pain inflecting rebelion at worst. Neither is acceptable. It is incumbent upon us, the adult, to understand the circumstances, which lead to such tragic ends. If both teenagers are terrorist. We must wonder if this classification is adequate. Describing all of these kids as terrorist is to expose this classification for what it really is, a catch all for any random violent act against a group.
Because we don't understand what motivates seemingly normal school kids to commit such atrocities, we are bound to focus on the tools used in their attacks. We keep talking about guns and the second amendment rights (It is ludicrous to discuss the second amendment, as it is not under threat on any level). As for access to guns, a student who is hell-bent on carrying out a school massacre will find a way to inflict the most damage. Let us be realistic, there is no control on pipe bombs or pressure cooker conversion to bombs and yet they are incorporated in some attacks. We can devise the most stringent controls over guns, yet school massacres will not end.
America will need to reexamine how it perceives the role of youth in society, how it treats them, how it educates them. Child protection must be redefined to protect children from self-destructive tendencies. Child rearing will need a revolutionary approach that is reflective of the technologically advanced world we live in.
There are conditions to be met; we must satisfy children basic needs of nourishment, shelter, and safety as a base from which we can build on. The second layer of this dichotomy requires cultivating a sense of purpose. Adults must assign appropriate responsibilities, to foster a sense of agency. Consequences for their actions should be an exercise in self-reflection at home and school. Society will need to devise new opportunities for children to be engaged in their communities.
Education needs to incorporate a much bigger out of the classroom component. We must reimagine the classroom. We must redesign schools to be open, not turn its walls to fortresses and the classrooms to panic rooms. Schools must become part of the community instead of exclusionary to it. Schools should no longer be daycare drop off points where parents outsource the responsibility of raising their kids to educators. If we are successful, our youth will possess a wider perspective allowing them to understand their role within society. Only then, school shootings will be part of a dark period in America’s history, and our children will become resilient and will lead us to the future we are hoping for them to embody.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj