Imagine you are Donald Trump. Maybe a Kardashian. You star in what the television industry promotes as a “reality” show. And as circumstances would have it, you are getting ready to offload your most recent spouse. Or maybe you are a celebrated snake-oil salesman employed by a cable operation like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. And your staff has come up with a stunning appeal to brainlessness that will provoke the fear and resentment of even your most casual viewer.
When do you make your move?
To maximise the opportunity, you hold your fire until May sweeps, when TV ratings are being tabulated and all the accountants are paying attention. Not to do so is a sucker move. Audience share is everything. So vital, in fact, is viewership that, even if you are happily married, you might consider instituting divorce proceedings just to keep your numbers up.
Today, in a culture driven by celebrity and by the energy of one’s social media feed, an audience is increasingly essential even in the absence of a TV slot. Without an audience, in contemporary society, you flirt with being nonexistent.
Metaphorically, that is. Nonexistent in a figurative sense. In an almost fanciful sense, if you are mature, well-adjusted, secure in your self-image, and enjoy the support of family, friends and the community.
But imagine you are a teenager. You are not yet self-assured. You are undergoing developmental changes. Your identity has yet to crystallize. You are part of a generation, an age group, whose preoccupations are socially contagious, one of the more persistent of which infatuates fully one out of six of your contemporaries:
Suicide. It is always trending.
In 2019, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 18.8 per cent of American high school students reported having seriously considered suicide and 8.9 per cent reported having attempted it. It is the second leading cause of death in the United States among students fourteen to eighteen years old. In 2018, when 2039 of those students took their own lives, it accounted for approximately one in every three injury-related deaths in that age group.
Had it with Call of Duty? Wondering what to do with yourself while waiting for Kanye’s next CD to drop?
Why not catch the bus?
If you are not famous, if you do not have your own sitcom or product line, if your social media profile is not killing it, face it, you are a loser, you are an absolute failure in life, and you might as well be dead, anyway.
And today you do not have to contemplate your self-destruction in isolation. You say you are forlorn? In disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes? Do not beweep your outcast state. Own it. Suicide, once a solitary endeavor, practiced in the shadows by the secluded and thoroughly companionless, now presents itself as a shared experience. You are no longer alone. Today, there is a community of like-minded people — some of them just spectators — willing to support you. There are newsgroups. Chat rooms. Sites where you can share your progress. There is a popular website that will walk you through the job, providing advice on how to acquire the lethal chemicals you need to poison yourself, while at the same time offering a chorus of encouragement from your peers.
Suicide has always been popular with teenagers, and it is growing that much more so. (Between 2009 and 2018, according to the CDC, the teen suicide rate rose by 61.7 per cent.) Now it is showing evidence of inclining toward the competitive. Today, in a civilisation fixated upon fame, where one’s social media reach is a measure of one’s worth, suicide serves as a form of brand extension. And as a mechanism available to everyone, regardless of his or her social stature, it is unrivaled as a multiplier of audience share. In consequence, it is becoming increasingly creative.
Among the more elaborate innovations in the field is suicide-by-cop in the course of a mass murder.
Blow your brains out, but not in anonymity. Go down in history instead. Be the banner headline on every front page. Film at eleven. Of you. You will own the internet, outright. Followers? Not even all the blood pooling in Ukraine captures eyeballs like a swaggering first-person shooter emptying a magazine or two in an American elementary school. And you do not even have to find the courage to pull the trigger on yourself. A cop will do it for you.
In the competitive arena of social media, what better way to up your viewership?
To be sure, mass killings — those defined by experts as involving more than four victims — are rare. Massacres on the order of the shootings last month, one in Buffalo, New York, in which ten people were murdered, and the other in Uvalde, Texas, in which twenty-one were slain, are that much more uncommon. Or at least relatively so. They constitute no more than one per cent of all the shootings in the country.
But of the people who in recent years committed mass murder a preponderance had at least one thing in common. According to the nonpartisan Violence Project, which maintains a national database of mass shootings, about eighty per cent of the perpetrators were actively suicidal prior to the shooting.
Increasingly, such massacres in the United States are being carried out by people who are twenty-one or under. (The Buffalo and Uvalde shootings were both perpetrated by eighteen-year-olds.) Of the deadliest such killings since 2018, the majority fit that pattern. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Dr. Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in Minnesota and a co-founder of the Violence Project, whose research is funded by the National Institute of Justice, said that these young people seem to get caught up in the social contagion of killing.
“And since Columbine,” she said, “they have tended to study and emulate each other.”
The foundation stone of school massacres was laid more than twenty years ago at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. If we were to commemorate it with a national holiday in the United States, it would fall on April 20, the day in 1999 when two twelfth graders slaughtered a dozen of their fellow students and one of their teachers and injured twenty-four other people, using 9mm ammunition and 12-gauge shotguns, before killing themselves. Columbine’s legacy is so absolute that the crime has spawned a term of art within the community of professionals who make a study of such events, “the Columbine effect,” among the constituent elements of which — added to the massacre’s impact on things like school safety protocols and policing tactics — are some sixty similar crimes in the past twenty-three years that are attributed to Columbine copycats.
Like suicide, mass killings themselves are infectious. Inevitably, when carried out, they contain a social media component. Almost always, the disaffected, using one online platform or another, post their intentions beforehand. News coverage takes care of the rest. One high-profile murder-suicide leads to more, furnishing a script for the next angry, susceptible teenager to follow, featuring a protagonist with whom to identify.
Columbine supplied the blueprint.
As researchers are quick to point out, the vast majority of people who commit suicide do not target others in the process. Mental health problems do not predispose people to violence. The mentally ill are in reality more likely to be victims of violence.
But until it is understood that the mass murders in question are in fact suicides, there is little to be done to stop them. The notion that an armed presence in every school will stem the epidemic — a popular solution, championed by the kinds of people who, when asked to address the issue, are inclined suddenly to remember a previous engagement — is fanciful. It runs contrary to logic. Mass shooters orchestrate their killings to serve as their closing act. There is no getaway plan. They are showing up to die; in many cases, to be killed. Someone on the scene with a gun, if anything, is an incentive.
In an interview with Politico in the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, Dr. Peterson, advocating for increased community and school-based psychiatric services, was somewhat decorous in her characterisation of the typical mass shooter.
“A lot of perpetrators,” she said, “are from families where the parents are not particularly proactive about mental health appointments.”
Again, those in need of treatment are not necessarily, or even usually, prone to violence. It is a very long human stretch between being willing to hurt yourself and being willing to hurt others. Currently, however, there is no similar distance between being willing to hurt yourself and being able to hurt others. Not here. In the United States. One treatment for the plague of mass shootings that might prove effective is a law, or even some handshake agreement, that makes it difficult for the aforementioned perpetrators to obtain the weapons they use.
We are not the only country in the world with mentally ill citizens. Nor are we the only country with suicidal citizens. We are the only country where the mentally ill and suicidal are entitled by their citizenship to own as many guns and as many rounds of ammunition as they need.
The good news, if you want to call it that, is that mass murder as a form of suicide has all the attributes of a fad. And like all fads it may eventually burn itself out. It will cost us some children, but eventually, if things work out as they ordinarily do, it will fall victim to the greatest sin in our throwaway culture. Being out of style. Right now, it is in fashion. American school shooting: all the rage. As an accessory to suicide, it is the new black.
Robert Sabbag is an American author and journalist. His books include “Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade”, “Smokescreen: A True Adventure”, “Too Tough to Die” and “Down Around Midnight”.