I recently read two books that on the surface don’t seem to be related, however, as I thought about their messages, I decided they very similar. The first book, “Last Day on Earth,” is by David Vann. He is not a local author nor did he appear in the area to promote his book, but it is about the February 14, 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University which affected many local students who attended the school.
The other book is “The Macho Paradox” by Jackson Katz. He appeared at Concordia University in November 2011 as part of a joint program between Dominican and Concordia sociology departments. The auditorium at Concordia was packed with both students and community members like me but what he had to say did not sit well with many of the male members of the audience who walked out on the speaker. I had not read any of his books prior to attending his presentation, but when I finished “The Macho Paradox,” which is only one of several books by this same author, I was profoundly disturbed about violence in our society.
Reading the books concurrently was difficult. Each has something profound to say about why our society tolerates mindless violence. And yes, I know that the crime statistics say that we are less violent than at any time in the last thirty years, but every day when I look at the number of shootings, murders, rapes and instances of child abuse that are reported, I think that we are still a mighty violent place to be.
Katz is clear and uncompromising: violence by males against both women and other males is ubiquitous; as a society we both encourage and ignore it and we talk about the men who perpetrate such things as mass shootings as outliers, when in fact, Katz argues they are just regular guys.
What makes a mass murderer like Steve Kazmierczak, the shooter at NIU, unfathomable is that same ordinariness. He has problems, true, but unlike David Vann, the author, I can’t say that those problems adequately explain his actions. For the most part he is a guy who struggles to find his way and has some significant successes—he is honored as an outstanding graduate student, he gets respectable grades and he is well-liked within his department.
He has problems with his mother who is an unstable person. Unfortunately, Vann uses that old, tired excuse as a primary reason for why Kazmierczak shoots strangers in cold blood. Vann also says Kazmierczak doesn’t get along with his girlfriends, likes guns and violent video games and is obsessive-compulsive but unwilling to take medication. Vann argues that these factors also partially explain Kazmierczak’s behavior. But to me, he sounds like hundreds of other young men who haven’t grown up yet. Fortunately, they have not allowed their fascination with Columbine or Virginia Tech to rise to the level of emulating those horrific tragedies as did Kazmierczak.
What makes the Vann book so chilling is that he compares his own mass murder fantasies from his adolescence with Kazmierczak’s. Their lives intersect in that they both were obsessed with guns and killing people and spent hours planning how to do it most efficiently.
Vann says that while men were shot at NIU, the shooter was actually targeting women, he was just a very poor shot. Vann begins by looking at the similarities between himself and Kazmierczak but concludes that Kazmierczak was quite different from him, in part, because Kazmierczak had a “disturbing mother” and a mental health history whereas he, Vann, had a father who committed suicide because his wife divorced him.
Which brings me back to Katz and his argument that we glorify violence in our society and condone the use of it as a way to settle disputes and the logical outcome of this is the carnage that we have daily on our streets. Just recently another gunman shot a police officer at NIU. No motive was revealed and it’s possible that he didn’t even know the cop, who had pulled over another vehicle for a routine traffic stop. I don’t know if the recent shooter had mental health problems or difficult parents but those factors alone do not make other people shoot strangers for the hell of it.
My point is that our explanations for violence are riddled with unproven suppositions and leaps of logic. Supposedly crime rates are plummeting, but a look at today’s Chicago Tribune revealed these news stories: campus sexual assaults are rarely prosecuted by Cook County states’ attorneys, one man stabbed his mother in Bolingbrook and another in North Lawndale. No reason given in either case as to why. A young girl was shot in the chest and another young girl is missing, perhaps abducted. Several men have been shot by other men for unclear reasons. In other words, the day is a usual one with plenty of violence on tap. Every news story about violence was perpetrated by men yet most men will become highly defensive if that is pointed out, saying that they are not murderers or rapists. And this is the truth: most men are not murderers or rapists but an overwhelming majority of violence is done by men.
I have three sons and as far as I know they have not shot, beaten-up, raped or otherwise been violent and aggressive towards anyone else. But when I try to talk to the men in my family, they roll their eyes and think I am over-reacting. They don’t see that unwanted attention and comments to women are hostile and demeaning. They don’t want to hear about how the way women are portrayed in movies, video games, music and other forms of entertainment contributes to the idea that women like to be demeaned. They don’t want to hear that pornography is degrading to the person who uses it just as it is to the person who is depicted. They are nice guys and would never dream of doing something awful like that.
But if the men closest to me cannot or will not understand how their behavior dismisses women, then how do I proceed? They see the violence as separate from themselves. Things done by “perverts” and other lowlifes. They are incapable of seeing their own contribution to it. And in doing so, they also denigrate my concerns and think that it’s not nearly as bad as I try to tell them it is.
Katz’s argument is a powerful one. He says that men who are not violent and not aggressive need to stand up and confront their own complicity with the guys who do these heinous things. They need to stand with women against the violence and redefine what it means to be masculine. And we all need to understand that this extreme violence is not innate, not the result of hormones but the result of a culture that encourages these attitudes. We can decide to celebrate the majority of men who are kind as the examples we want our children to emulate but it will require a culture shift that no longer defines masculine as aggressive, that no longer tolerates bad behavior as “boys being boys.” It will not be easy, but how long do we want our daughters, sisters and mothers to live in fear every day of their lives just because they were born female?