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The dehumanizing formula of a school shooting

3/6/2024

We were all in the formula, the algorithm of horror that is a modern school shooting. Death for some, dehumanization for others.

In covering the Perry school shootings Jan. 4, what struck me was the hope-stealing realization that so many students and families seemed prepared for their roles.

The students I talked with, the parents, all seasoned in the last decades of school violence across the nation, had heard the scripts before — just not in their city, their schools. It is collective marination in madness. They’ve been coached in catastrophe through consumption of hundreds of news accounts on shootings.

We were in pre-ordained roles. The grieving, the questioning and the candle-holding in vigils.

We were but digits in the Modern American Death Formula, a parade without end as the polarized pursuits of solutions to the industrial kid-killing complex produce nothing. 

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Those of us there were reporting or mourning or fighting to salvage the beginnings of community recovery. But the formula stole our humanity.

I kept thinking of Orson Welles’ sociopathic character, Harry Lime, in the film “The Third Man” as he explained away his murderous scheme of stealing penicillin and diluting the life-saving, revolutionary liquid before distributing it, killing innocents.

In an early scene in the movie, Harry Lime gazes down from atop a post-World War II Vienna Ferris Wheel at the people in the deep distance, so far away they look like little moving dots. Through a menacing stare, Lime delivers a devastating justification of dehumanization.

“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic,” Lime says coldly. “Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.”

We did our time as dots Jan. 4, for the formula is stronger than the biggest-hearted city. The algorithm has laid the mines. It’s getting harder to step around them in America. Perry had always seemed so serene.

Mental health? Well sure, we are in a crisis that manifests most awfully in these school shootings, the shattering of a sense of safety in what had been the most trusted and secure public spaces, the generations-connecting small-town Iowa schools, the aroma of cafeteria pizza and sweaty, gum-choked lockers replaced with the smells of gunfire, of death and grievous injury.

Guns? We are gun-soaked in America, to be sure. But the 17-year-old killer in Perry used a shotgun and a handgun — common to the American household, more so in rural reaches. Those weapons are here. To stay.

Who knows what evil lurked in the boy’s head? When did he take pain to idea and then action? It can happen gradually, seemingly so obvious in life’s rewind, or go like quicksilver in the TikTok age. The synapses barely fire before the bullets fly when the pre-frontal cortexes are in the fetal position, no barrier to impulse, insanity.

These killer kids, they don’t have the most elemental of survival skills as a human being — what George Eliot called the memory of outlived sorrow — the knowledge and comfort that a bullying episode or spurned love or insult or other triggering moment will fade with time, the pain moving from a brain-battering screaming that won’t end to a whisper to nothing but an occasional body shiver, a reminder that to feel pain and loss and grievance is to be human.

But are we even still human in the way one assumes one to be human? Or has singularity arrived, the time when man and technology blend into one.

Mass-scale social media and democracy, the safety and sanity of our kids, ourselves, cannot co-exist. That is the reality even if it does run up against The First Amendment and The Tech Gods.

The aggrieved school shooters are so often narcissists quickly drawn into Main Character Syndrome in which they see the world and its people orbiting around them as dots to be erased in their internet-staged vengeance. They receive encouragement in dark reaches of the web, and then broadcast the prelude to murders, their redemption stories, their sick and misguided retrieval of agency, on platforms owned by celebrated tech billionaires who are modern-day Harry Limes, busy diluting our humanity, staring down at us from their Silicon Valley Ferris Wheels.

Facebook and TikTok, peddlers of a dulled society, have rendered us all dots.

It’s time to treat social media like we do alcohol or tobacco with our young people. No one younger than 18 should be able to have accounts on major social media platforms. The tech companies can police this, and law enforcement can police the tech companies — treat them like convenience store clerks caught in stings selling smokes to teenagers — only with bigger fines.

If the school killers have no place to post, they have less rationale to shoot.

Such legislation has just passed the Florida House of Representatives with bipartisan support. Yes, it faces court challenges, but this is not a free speech issue, just a recognition that some unregulated mass-scale platforms have created One Nation Under TikTok.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sees the bill as achieving an urgent end. He also expects it to change before passing.

The goal, DeSantis said, is to get a bill to “actually stick.”

Lives depend on this legislative navigation. The root of the evil, as is so often the case, is the seemingly banal — the social media where people post pictures of their restaurant dinners and birthdays and jolly times. But the horror and evil sprout and grow there, too. We know it. We must end it. ♦

Douglas Burns of Carroll is fourth-generation journalist and founder of Mercury Boost, a marketing and public relations company.

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