Six months after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, we find ourselves mourning once again. One is struck by the layered emotional response experienced after an incident like this — shock that this has happened again, and so close to home; helplessness around what seems like a never-ending string of violence; and surprise at the realization that it was never a matter of if something like this would happen here, but just a question of when.
There are many things we don’t know about John Zawahri and the motivation behind the shooting rampage he unleashed upon our city that seemingly calm Friday afternoon. Many things have been considered, including a history of family violence; past encounters with law enforcement; an attempted intervention by school personnel and mental health professionals; and an affinity for guns and other weapons.
The typical public response to a situation like this is an endless re-examining of the life of the shooter, to try and pinpoint a place where we, his community, missed some sign of things to come. It seems, though, from all of the information that has been shared thus far, that this was a case where intervention was attempted on more than one occasion. And it seems that everyone did everything right, to the extent that they could do anything at all.
In our line of work, we often refer to our knowledge of our clients’ experiences as the “tip of the iceberg,” in that we will probably never know the full scope of what they have gone or are going through. The same is true for the Zawahri/Abdou family. However, there are two things we know for certain in this case: 1) John Zawahri was a boy who lived with a violent father; and 2) he grew into a man who acted out his pain and suffering through gun violence. We also know of the ripple effects of these types of life experiences — family violence is directly linked to violence in the community; what happens to people when they are children, particularly if they are exposed to violence, can have lasting impacts on their quality of life; and finally, we know that the vast majority of all forms of violence is committed by men.
So, what could have been done differently? How could this tragedy have been prevented? Well, these are two very different questions, with two very different answers.
As to that first question, people will propose the same solutions that were dominating the public discourse after Sandy Hook, including stricter gun control, improved mental health screening and access to services, and increased/improved security on and around school campuses. Certainly, these are all important issues to be examining, particularly in a community that is focused on collective impact and collaborative community response, as a tool to improve cross-disciplinary coordination and communication around “high risk” cases.
But while asking these critical questions will likely improve our intervention efforts, none of these questions get us to what will ultimately solve the problem. What lies quietly beneath these symptoms that we so skillfully learn to assess, is a much larger and more nefarious cultural paradigm that allows for violent incidents like these to persist. There is one element that always gets missed.
That leads us to the second question, and perhaps the more pressing question in everyone’s minds: how could this tragedy have been prevented? And perhaps even more importantly, how can we prevent another tragedy like this in the future? The answer to this question is the key.
We are experiencing a collective déjà-vu, thrusting us back into the Sandy Hook aftermath, where the tragedy is picked apart and analyzed in the countless interviews, articles, and press conferences that ensue, and where, interestingly, no one is talking about gender.
In the words of Jackson Katz — whose work is the inspiration behind the Male Violence Prevention Project — you can’t change a social phenomenon until you can identify and name it. And as long as we continue to neglect the connections among guns, violence and American ideals of manhood, we will continue to miss the boat. It must be pointed out that gender is the one common denominator, more common than any other factor, that unites 61 of the 62 mass killings that have happened over the past 30 years.
Katz reminds us that, while much of the dialogue lingers around the seeming “senselessness” of the shootings, these incidents are not senseless at all … to the shooter. In fact, these violent acts make a very specific statement in a very specific language — a statement of pain and anguish acted out through the language of gun violence.
Katz, speaking to the incidents of June 7, “The recent tragedy in Santa Monica fits a larger pattern that is all-too familiar in our society: a young man with grievances goes on a violent rampage to avenge offenses against him, settle scores or express his rage, not only at individuals he knows but at people in general. Not surprisingly the young man had experienced violence in his family. We can develop better mental health screening and implement all manner of security measures. But until we find better ways to teach boys and young men to respond to abuse, loss and trauma without violence, we’re fated to keep revisiting these sorts of tragedies over and over again, with no end in sight. There has to be a better way.”
One thing is clear — we have all had enough of the violence. People in our community are looking to take action, and will galvanize at times like this and expend much time, energy and money on things that, ultimately, will not work … certainly not on their own.
While the tragedy on June 7 falls in line with many tragedies that came before it, and causes us much pain, it also offers us more incontrovertible evidence of the need for a program like the MVPP, which closely examines the underlying cultural norms around masculinity that contribute to violence in our society.
This piece was provided by the Male Violence Prevention Project, a program of Sojourn Services For Battered Women And Their Children, a project of OPCC.