“How many more school shootings do we need before we start talking about this as a social problem, and not merely a random collection of isolated incidents?”
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”Unknown
Let’s explore the mind of the terrorist and the mind of the mass killer. We will look at the young man who killed his fellow students at Santa Fe High School in south Texas, this past week, as well as some terrorists from the past few years. They are in some ways the same, yet wholly different. The tragedy is that the outcomes are usually the same. Innocent people are left dead. The living are left devastated. Unanswered questions abound. Why does this happen? How could this happen? Where did we go wrong? What will be done to prevent this from ever happening again?
As a society, a culture and as a nation we must begin to ask hard questions. We must get to the core of the problems that cause young men to walk into their schools, filled with anger and start killing their classmates. There is more than meets the eye to this national dilemma. Remonstrations between the left and right will not provide valued solutions. The answers will only come with a willingness as a society to look at ourselves and to admit that much has happened to bring us to this place…and it is not good.
This past week in Santa Fe, Texas, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, age 17, walked into his high school and killed eight of his fellow classmates and two school staff members. Intending to commit suicide when finished, in the end could not bring himself to do it, so he surrendered to the police. His apprehension will prove to be valuable as it will allow officials to understand more clearly his motives, actions and preparation, which will provide insights that will hopefully allow schools to better prevent and/or prepare for futures situations such as these.
I would like to explore the similarities of Dimitrios’s actions with those of terrorists over the past few years. To discuss the differences that separate this boy’s actions from those of a terrorist could also be enlightening.
In 2009 Georgetown University scholar, Bruce Hoffman published a paper entitled “The Changing Nature of Combatants: Who Fights?” by Oxford University Press where he discussed the people “doing jihad,” and how the overwhelming majority are young men, even boys. According to a recent Pew Research report the statistics overwhelmingly point to young men. The median age of male terrorists gets a little younger each year.
In Hoffman’s study, as well as a study by Christopher Dickey the motivations of contemporary terrorists share some common traits with Dimitrios Pagourtzis. The first similarity has to do with testosterone, simply pointing to the maleness of the majority of suicide bombers and terrorist attackers.
The second similarity according to Hoffman’s study involves a narrative. There is a story that leads these extremists, both terrorists and mass killers to do what they do. The narrative does not have to be necessarily ideological, theological or even personal. Sometimes the common thread is that the terrorist identifies with people—or more often, a people—suffering repression by some outside force: the Irish under Britain a century ago, the Jews in Palestine before 1948, the Palestinians under Israel since then, the Tamils under the Sinhalese, Latin American peasants under oligarchs. The list was long even before Osama bin Laden identified the more generic oppression of all Muslims by “Jews and Crusaders” and before Iraqis and Afghans came under American-led occupation. In the case of our young murderer, Dimitrios, his narrative seems pretty personal. He was quoted as saying that he was only killing classmates that he did not like and sparing those whom he did like. His narrative will unfold in the coming weeks. What drove him to this extremism will be a sad, sad tale.
The third similarity is called, “theater.” In a 1974 article entitled, “International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare,” Brian Jenkins described terrorism in three simple words, “Terrorism is Theater.” “Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not the actual victims. Terrorists aim is to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm….of terror.” An atmosphere of this nature causes people to act irrationally, out of fear, often exaggerating the strength of the enemy and amplifying the meaning of the terrorists’ cause or movement. This could be a major difference concerning the Santa Fe school attacks, but Dimitrios was quoted as saying that he wanted those that he left alive to tell his story. This is awfully close to theater in my estimation.
The Santa Fe school shooter shares with terrorists the three common traits of testosterone, narrative and theater as they were certainly elements of his killing spree. What was missing in his attack that separates his actions from those of a legally bonafide terrorist? His actions were no less heinous than those of terrorists; the devastation no less sinister. His actions appear to be no less than that of a terrorist.
There is a key variable that separates the story of Dimitrios Pagourtzis from the one of a troubled young Jordanian immigrant, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi who allegedly wanted to bomb a skyscraper; the case of Najibullah Zazi in Colorado and the young Afghan immigrant who went to high school in Queens, N.Y., alleged to have had direct links to Al Qaeda in Pakistan and to have been taught bomb making there. The difference is ideological motivation. The critical differentiator is motive. If you kill someone because you are simply angry, you are a murderer. If you do it because you want to make an ideological statement or are supporting an agenda of an anti-government organization, you are a terrorist. This is the legal definition as it exists today.
There could be an additional factor that needs to be considered when seeking to understand the similar dynamics between Islamist jihadists and young male mass killers. There is a possible connection between the carrying out of murderous attacks and psychiatric drugs. An international study by the Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights released in February shows the connection between violence and psychiatric drug use. This will open an enormous can of worms, especially since one of the drugs being pointed to is the popular ADHD drug, Retillin, often given to hyperactive young boys in order to help them concentrate in school. On the flip side several terrorist organizations are known to provide their suicide bombers with drugs like Captagon or Tramadol, also known as courage drugs.
There has never been a more appropriate time to look hard at the tragedies occurring in our schools and to make some serious changes as to how we are educating our youth and ushering them into adulthood. How many more Dimitrios’s, Nikolas Cruz’s, William Atchison’s are there in our schools today? How can they be prevented from deteriorating emotionally to the point of homicidal frenzy? How can we as a society protect our teachers and students from the fall-out of a society that seems to be cascading into a waterfall of loneliness and despair?
What is the unique Christian response to these tragedies? The first is to mourn. The second is to comfort and the third is to become a part of the solution by introducing the love of Jesus as well as Biblical principles. It is time for Christians to become more deeply involved in the education system in our nation. We’ve isolated ourselves long enough and can expect more of the same horrific occurrences if we do not make changes. Perhaps if Christian parents get more involved in local school district councils and in our children’s lives in general we could stave off some of these incidents and spare the lives of some of our youth.
If nothing is done in response to the killing in schools, the Dimitrios’s of this nation will continue to hunt down our children and murder them. Also, those who are merely eccentric youth who look like Dimitrios will be vilified and through indictment and isolation will be turned into disenfranchised and marginalized kids. Both will be tragedies.
- Mourn. “…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) Mourning is a natural human response to loss and tragedy. Have we lost our ability to really mourn with those who are mourning? The constant bombardment of tragic news from the mainstream media has anesthetized us to the pain and hurt that many are experiencing. Suffering in many ways has become the new normal…”for everybody else.” Sophisticated defense mechanisms isolate us from other people’s pain; as the reasoning goes, “How else could we cope?”
- Comfort. We above all should be the first to comfort those who have suffered loss in events such as the shooting at the Texas school. “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4)
- “Before any of these contemporary problems can be addressed, each of us must first ask ourselves how we might be contributing to the problem. There can be no true buy-in on the part of believers if we expect others to make the sacrifices necessary to bring about a change.” It is time for Christians to join in on the solutions. Many of us are sitting back hoping that someone else will fix the problems while we stay on the sidelines watching from the comfort of our living rooms as we shake our heads in disgust. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)