“She was hysterical and screaming. I tried to comfort her.”
A young girl in Northern Ireland had just witnessed four female prison guards being mowed down by terrorist gunfire in front of her house. One of the grievously wounded women was crawling into the little girl’s yard, eliciting the screams and the efforts of a nearby shopkeeper to comfort her.
That scene was visually embedded in my mind by a newspaper sketch, and a few days later I was at the scene where the women had been shot, bringing the girl’s screams back into focus. I made eight trips to Belfast and began writing my own articles about terrorism, but that first attack in the city of Armagh and the girl’s scream became an anchor, a touchstone, for future mass shootings.
A Florida high school student’s cell-phone footage brought the scream back once again, the shooter poking his gun into a classroom and blasting away while students dove for cover. Now a whole community — if not the nation — tries to comfort those who witnessed such horror and lost friends due to the whims and wickedness of a young man.
That’s the most common profiler — a young man who’s either fighting for a cause — think IRA and ISIS (Irish Republican Army, Islamic State) — or because he has no cause to fight for, taking out his frustration of aimlessness on targets tied to his fears and failures. The Oregon college shooter of 2015 wrote, “Here I am, 26, with no friends, no job, and no girlfriend.”
Nine died due to this frustration, now 17 more in Florida.
This latter group of mass shooters might be named the AAYM, “Angry, aimless young men,” the Oregon shooter for one modeling himself after his gun-toting heroes of the IRA. ISIS likewise has drawn AAYM’s into their cult with slick videos that promise purpose for lives otherwise lost to today’s fast-paced world where success is elusive and dying a martyr’s death an attractive way out. Nikolas Cruz — the accused killer in Florida — may have had heroes and role models from other school shootings, violent video games, and terrorists who have injected horror into civilian life across the globe.
A trip to the market or mall, a night out for a concert, a meal at a nice restaurant, even a visit to one’s church — all turned into a bloody nightmare because an AAYM acted out on his own or had joined one of the cults of killers. Dead is dead, and the grieving parents, friends, and relatives may care little to know the murderer’s exact methods or motivations.
Each shooting may have its own scenario of cause and effect. But if we’re to intervene before a frustrated or angry young man exacts vengeance, turning his personal cause into chaos for others, we need to strengthen the paths of personal development for young males. Social media, video games, keyboard bullying, and other impersonal facets of today’s high tech-low touch life have pushed church, scouts, ball teams, school dances, and other more wholesome avenues of maturing boys into young men into the background.
We need to encourage and help pre-teenage boys find a path that’s productive and a million miles removed from becoming lost in a world of drugs and crime, or, heaven forbid, a mass shooter who freezes the world for a few days — even in Florida. I don’t want to wake up to another girl screaming for the horror to go away.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.