I remember exactly where I was in April 1995 when Timothy McVeigh exploded a Ryder rental truck packed with explosives outside the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, a federal office building with a daycare in the basement, killing 168 and wounding 600. I was in Margate New Jersey, at the beach. I woke up early and finished reading a book by the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the great Morris Dees. I walked inside, turned on the TV, turned on CNN, and there was carnage from exactly the racist domestic terrorist Dees wrote about fighting. If you go to Oklahoma City and walk the beautiful memorial where the Murrah building was, and it is spectacular, what is most striking is the scale of the attack. There are buildings half of a mile away that twenty years later still bear scars from the bombing.
I remember 9/11. I was in Maine on vacation. Very early, my wife and I took a long walk on that gorgeous day. We stopped at a fire station where there was a basketball hoop and a ball sitting in a basket. We shot badly and laughed for a while. When we returned home, our friend rushed to the door and was stricken, and said "you haven't heard?" And we watched the second plane hit the second tower and watched along with a young woman who would have been in that second tower had she not been vacationing with us.
I woke up early this Sunday to the news from Orlando. Alone in my living room. That memory will also stay with me.
I study criminology for a living. I can tell you where I was when I heard about Columbine. I can tell you where I was when I heard about Charleston. I can tell you where I was when I heard about Tucson and Aurora and, I can, but I won't because it is too heart-breaking, where I was when I heard about Sandy Hook.
So what's the answer?
The thing they all have in common are angry young men.
So what drives these angry young men?
James Allen Fox wrote a brilliant op-ed in 2011 after the Loughner attack in Tucson where he describes these murderers as "loners and losers." He says about the Tucson shooting of Congress member Gabby Giffords:
"Were schizophrenia the critical element underlying [Jared] Loughners alleged rampage, then one would expect to find profound mental illness in the majority of mass murder cases. Rather, it is his history of failure, rejection and social isolation that set the stage. Had Loughner been successful in his educational or job pursuits, or had he benefited from a strong support network comprised of family and close friends, then his apparent mental illness would have been manifested in far less violent ways."
And this is the point.
Should we restrict access to high-powered weapons? Obviously.
Should we provide better access to care for people with mental health problems and behavioral issues? Of course.
Should we invest in a defense infrastructure that prevents international terrorists from conducting 9/11 style attacks? Also obvious.
But prevention of mass murders along any of these grounds misses the larger point. The larger point is that we have a lot of really angry young men in our country and in the world. Perhaps this has always been true. But I am struck by two ideas.
One is derived from the principals of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a catch all for a simple concept: that you are responsible for your own actions and you have the power to change those actions. What all of these mass murderers have in common is that the problems they care about, the problems that lead them to these horrific acts, are about someone else's actions. The goal then is to get these angry young men to internalize, rather than externalize their fears. And that at the end of the day is the problem: these angry young men are afraid and they lash out.
I end with the core principles of the Southern Poverty Law Center: fighting hate, teaching tolerance, seeking justice. If we could do a better job teaching these values to our angry young men, it would solve more problems than any singular policy prescription. I'm not sure exactly how to get there, but that should be our objective.