I turned on the evening news last night just as the Sparks, Nevada school shooting was being covered. It took me several seconds to figure out if this incident was new, or was one that I’d heard about before. I told my friend that I was more shocked by my lack of shock than I was at the actual story; what once was an infrequent occurrence is becoming, sadly, more and more predictable.
However, this morning one news article I read online did snap me into the reality of the situation — after describing the heroism of math teacher Mike Landsberry, the writer simply wrote, “the boy [emphasis mine] used a semi-automatic handgun.” He didn’t refer to him as a “young man,” or even an “adolescent,” but rather as the boy that he was.
A Decade and a Half After Jonesboro
The shooter’s youth reminded me of the shooting at Westside Elementary School in Jonesboro, Arkansas some 15 years ago – long before we became jaded by such atrocities.
Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11 went to school that morning with a chillingly, well thought out mission. Golden excused himself from the classroom and pulled the fire alarm out in the hall to lure students and teachers onto the playground. Once the student body spilled outside, the boys began shooting, ultimately killing four children and one teacher.
It was later determined that the boys came to school with 13 firearms, including 3 semi-automatic rifles loaded with 200 rounds.
Although the boys in the Jonesboro shooting were roughly the same age as the Sparks boy, there’s one major difference: in 1998, the Jonesboro incident was an isolated one. Fifteen and a half years later the Sparks shooting is anything but.
A Complex Issue
As with all tragedies, pundits will weigh in on “what’s wrong with this picture,” and the debate over gun control will once again, heat up.
But something one of the students interviewed said made me wonder if we may be hyper-focusing on guns and bullying and not on something much more mundane and seemingly benign. The student said that although he didn’t know the shooter well, he’d met him recently and they talked about video games.
Bingo, it clicked. And although violence in video games is disconcerting, something that is equally of concern is the fantasy world they create. I’m not so sure that a 12 year old can conceptualize the finality of death as it is, but added to developmental immaturity are the virtual worlds kids increasingly inhabit – worlds where the bad guy gets up after he’s been shot by the good guys, and the game begins anew.
I’m reminded of an observation a friend of mine had after serving in the first Gulf War and then again in Iraq a decade later — he recalled that the younger soldiers didn’t seem to grasp the gravity of what they were about to become engaged in, noting that the vast majority of them were avid gamers. His conclusion: what he initially determined as a disturbingly flippant attitude was actually an inability to differentiate between the cyberworld and reality.
In a 2010 article, Dr. Alan Schwartz asserts that video games de-humanize the bad guys, making them thoroughly evil and worthy of a violent demise. This can cause an adolescent to completely disconnect from the real world, leaving him less empathetic and unable to view his “enemies” as real people with real feelings.
Certainly, the problem is a complex one, worthy of deliberating all contributing factors, not just those that are obvious.