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Making Sense of School Yard Killing Sprees

Are they crazy acts of pure revenge or calculated shows of just retribution?

By Tina Kells

Why do people crave revenge? What part of the human psyche drives the urge toward retribution, justified or not as the case may be? When we can rationalize away our darker impulses as some form of justice it makes the unthinkable do-able even appealing, but why? Why does the concept of payback make it OK to act in a way that would otherwise be considered unimaginable? Why do we think that revenge is so sweet? And should we allow such rationalizations to persist?

The Roots of Revenge

Taking revenge against those who do us wrong is an idea as old as time itself. Human history is filled with stories of triumphant reprisals against evildoers and miscreants with the punisher being hailed a hero. Often times these stories end in martyrdom, with the hero cast as an avenging angel of sorts, righting wrongs and inspiring future generations to do the same when faced with inhumanity and injustice. The message is a grand one, killing and dying for a cause is not only noble, it’s a calling.

Religion abounds with tales of the righteous teaching deadly lessons to the unjust and Western culture regularly condones killing when it is born from a sense of provocation. When nations wage war, when terrorists attack, when rebels take up arms we are always told that it is done without choice, that somehow the targets of the aggression have brought it all upon themselves. If innocents are slaughtered in the course of a reckoning it is portrayed as a regrettable yet necessary evil and is used to further emphasize the justice of what is being done. In the end God and country will understand. So is it any wonder that most school yard rampage killers claim they were acting without choice, that the actions of others toward them had forced them to react with murderous retaliation?

Why Do They Go On Killing Sprees?

When rampage killers let loose the question on everyone’s mind is, “why?” Once the killing has stopped and the killer been caught or killed themselves we turn our attentions toward trying to understand. We desperately want to make sense of it all. What could lead to killing sprees like those at Columbine, Santana High School and Virginia Tech? Is there a lesson that we as a society should be learning from these crimes in order to stop them from happening again? If we are to believe the killers the answer to that question is a resounding yes, for one common thread in all of these crimes is that the killer(s) believed they were acting from a place of right. They have rationalized their crime to be some sort of grand retribution against the individuals or groups who have done them wrong and a society that has turned a blind eye to their suffering.

Rationalization is the psychological mechanism that allows people to act outside of their moral code or outside of the moral code of society at large. It is a process that is used to cope with dissonance and it allows people to do clearly bad things for seemingly good reasons. It has been said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions but more accurately put that road is paved with rationalizations. The process of rationalization is usually prosocial, that is it usually leads people to behave in a way that benefits society even when it leads one to go against social norms, but when rationalization becomes corrupted it has devastating effects.

A Common Theme in School Killing Sprees

One common thread in every school shooting spree has been the belief by the killers that their victims deserved to die. To the killers the victims were representations of greater evils like peer alienation, bullying, and social exclusion, and the act of killing them was more a message to the survivors than a punishment being given to specific individuals. The killers have rationalized their actions to be little more than an important message for society delivered in a way that is sure to be noticed. Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech gunman summed up the reason for his crime in a press-release type package he sent to NBC between launching the first and second attacks on the campus. “You forced me in to a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off… You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience… Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless.” As convoluted as his rationalizations are his message is clear, unjust treatment by peers, bullying, alienation and ostracism, made him do it. His terrible act of violence is repackaged as a perverse plea for kindness toward one’s fellow man.

Lessons to be Learned?

Should we heed messages delivered in such a heinous way? Can there be any sense to senseless murder? Should we vilify these killers and dismiss what they say as the crazy ramblings of a diseased mind or should we step back from the carnage and take their messages to heart? If we continue to dismiss these crimes as the meaningless acts of crazy people do we do society a disservice and only ensure that it will happen again? Or, could taking the messages seriously only invite other disenfranchised people to act out in this way; do we in effect make murder OK if the message behind it seems fair? Just as the bullying that is alleged to motivate these crimes should no longer be tolerated or brushed aside, retaliatory killing sprees can never be condoned. There are no easy answers or quick fix solutions to the modern phenomenon of school yard killing sprees but there are undoubtedly lessons we should be learning. What those lessons are or should be is likely to remain a topic of great debate and controversy for decades to come.

Tell Us What You Think

This is an opinion piece and we want to know what you think. Has bullying become so bad that we should understand why bullies may be given ad hoc death sentences by their victims? Have you ever experienced bullying that made you want to take your own life or the lives of others? Is society’s acceptance of bullying as kids-being-kids the real problem or are these types of killers just looking for an excuse to commit murder? Post your reply to this article and let us know how you feel.

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