Essay: The unattainable 'American Dream' behind US mass shootings crisis
On 23 August, criminal justice professor Adam Lankford stood in front of a crowd of sociologists to explain how American culture contributes to the all-too-frequent American mass shootings. It's not just that we have a lot of guns, he said - though he does believe that the high rates of firearm ownership are
Millions of Americans feel these strains and never commit a crime. But for a small handful, they breed the kind of resentment and fury that can explode into violence.
When an embittered former Roanoke, Virginia, reporter opened fire on his one-time colleagues three days later, interrupting their live broadcast to ensure that his attack made it on TV, it was as though he was trying to prove Lankford's point.
The alleged shooter, 41-year-old Vester L. Flanagan II, embodied every problem Lankford had identified in his global review of public mass shootings since 1966. He was reported to be frustrated with his patchy career as a television news reporter. He aspired to fame - either behind an anchor desk, or, according to photos shared on his Twitter account, through acting and modelling - and he got it, in a way, via the TV and GoPro footage of the slayings.
Flanagan admired other mass shooters whose names have become inextricably linked to those of the schools where they committed crimes. And although he was the one who allegedly raised a gun and pulled the trigger, ending two lives, he saw himself as a victim.
"WDBJ7 made me snap . . . they sure did. They are responsible for all of this!!!" reads a memo attributed to Flanagan in which he raged at former coworkers who he said harassed him for his race and sexuality (Flanagan was black and gay) and decried the killing of nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year.
At three deaths, Flanagan's alleged attack does not qualify as mass killing - in the macabre hierarchy of violent crimes, a shooter must take four lives to be granted that title. But according to Lankford's analysis, he was the archetype of the American public mass shooter, someone who sought fame and a kind of meaning through death when he could not find it in his own life.
Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, is the author of a new study on what he calls the "exceptionally American problem" of public mass shootings. The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association this week and will be published in
The United States, according to Lankford's analysis, is home to just 5
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One explanation is Americans' high rate of firearm ownership. All five of the countries with the largest number of guns per capita (of which the US. is No. 1) ranked among the top 15 countries for public mass shootings, including two countries with reputations for safety, Switzerland and Finland. Many other studies have found a correlation between local gun ownership rates and deaths from shootings.
But that's not enough to explain why mass shootings happen so much more often here than anywhere else. There are also cultural factors at work, Lankford argues. The things that Americans believe make us exceptional - our emphasis on individualism, our sense of destiny, our wealth-and-fame-based standards for success - also contribute.
The connection begins with something called "strain theory," developed by sociologist Richard Merton in the 1930s. According to the theory, Lankford says, "deviance occurs because individuals who strive to meet culturally defined goals lack the means to do so".
This is especially salient in the US, where the "American Dream" promises a better life than one's parents for anyone who is willing to work for it. According to a 2010 survey, 81
"There's a sense in which these aspirations are subject to that axiom that the bigger they are the harder they fall," Lankford said. "If you're reaching for the stars and you come up short, that's perhaps more frustrating and devastating."
The reality is that very few Americans achieve the wealth, fame and prestige they're all
The strain theory framework has traditionally been used to explain high rates of crime, particularly in poor and
"They are in real pain, but they're eager to blame that pain on those around them," Lankford said.
Workplaces and schools - or, in Flanagan's case, former colleagues - are the symbolic sources of their strain; by attacking them, shooters seek to exact revenge on the people and institutions they believe have kept them down. In the US, the strain of unmet expectations and
The brazen violence of mass shootings
"The priority of fame is more common and stronger in the US than perhaps in any other culture in the world," Lankford said. And at the same time, "the distinction between fame and infamy seems to be disappearing."
American is the country that gave rise to reality television and the phrase "I'm not here to make friends," Lankford points out. The States already rewards people for being arrogant, aggressive and vitriolic with book deals and contracts for their own clothing lines and incessant news coverage. It's arguably easier to become infamous in the United States than it is to win fame. Yes, your name with forever be tinged with
"It's probably not surprising that, for a small percentage of people, they'll take the next step of guaranteeing themselves fame by killing," Lankford concluded,
It's not difficult to imagine that Flanagan, as Lankford put it, entertained these kinds of "delusions of grandeur." He sought to become a television news anchor - a public, high profile and prestigious position. In the memo sent to ABC News, he described himself as a victim of a conspiracy of racist and homophobic harassment, using phrases like "out to get me."
Ultimately, the Charleston massacre - a horrific attack on a black community - convinced him that his aspirations
"[I] tried to pull myself up by the bootstraps," Flanagan wrote in his memo, according to ABC, but, "The damage was already done and when someone gets to this point, there is nothing that can be said or done to change their sadness to happiness."
- The Washington Post