What causes violence like Columbine and Virginia Tech?

wiseGEEK Writing Contest

Individuals perpetrate acts of violence against others for a variety of reasons, but most often the precipitants are rooted in the perpetrator's belief that not to engage in the destructive behavior will reinforce the idea that he is impotent, and that conviction becomes worse than the violence itself. This sense of powerlessness is not uncommon and most people occasionally find themselves in situations where there is no genuinely face-saving alternative to suffering the attendant humiliation. The majority of individuals find a way to live with this unhappy reality, which is thankfully why acts of serious violence, though certainly unsettling, are still quite rare.

For those few, however, who cannot find a more prosocial way to manage the uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability, physical violence offers a clear way to belie its influence. The perpetrator thinks, "If I can affect the lives of others through violence, then perhaps I am not so ineffective and powerless." The individual who is left with this disquieting choice repeatedly asks, "Is anyone watching? Does anyone understand?" And while only the individual himself is ultimately responsible for his violent actions, important people in his life play a vital role in the eventual decision to strike out.

When the perpetrator feels that those two questions are not answered in the affirmative, the accompanying loneliness and rage can become the rationale for a final act of desperation. Again, he thinks, "If no one has taken the time to notice that I recently bought a gun, . . . " or "If no one seems very concerned that I hardly ever express myself and usually seem depressed and angry, then maybe no one cares about me and what I do." While knowing one's thoughts, feelings, or even behaviors is not an easy task, the individual who feels isolated from family and friends is at increased risk of engaging in violent behavior.

The failure of parents to prudently intrude in the lives of their young adult children, so as to sufficiently temper the perception that they are alone in a world that at times seems unwelcoming, heightens their immature but still age-appropriate anxiety. While parents are not the only keepers of the watch in such matters, they are the biggest stakeholders and their inability to provide balanced guidance to their children can be a compelling influence in a young person's decision to act violently. The narcissistic play of young children, that so often requires the intervention of a nearby parent, is the simplest and most universal example of this need. While this parental role must alter with age, its premature abolition can have a disastrous effect.

Acts of violence are complex, idiosyncratic events that defy simple, explanatory equations. However, the ubiquitous element of powerlessness in such cases, and the corresponding calamitous attempt to defy it by means of violent behavior, illustrates a universal aspect of our humanity. With a more equitable sharing of power and influence, there almost certainly would be less violence.

submitted by Edward R. Dalton