Jonathan Fast, an associate professor at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, is the author of the 2009 book “Ceremonial Violence: A Psychological Explanation of School Shootings” (Overlook Press). The six-year research project involves case studies of school rampage killings since 2000. He believes such incidents stem mostly from the inability of young people to cope with a sense of shame that is too common in a society in which people feel easily excluded. Fast, 64, who lives in Greenwich, Conn., spoke to The Jewish Week about the Newtown elementary school massacre. This is an edited transcript.
Q: You became fascinated by the topic of teen rampages after counseling a student who wanted to blow up his urban Connecticut high school. What happened?
A: I didn’t think he would carry it out and I don’t think he had bombs, though he certainly did know how to make them. My feeling was that if he came in and told me about it, it was a sign that he wanted me to stop him from doing that. I had a choice between reporting him and ruining the therapeutic relationship he was trying to start with me. The outcome was that I helped him, and today he has become a very successful chef.
Your studies have involved kids who attack their own schools. In Newtown, it was an adult who came to a school he didn’t attend. What can you apply from your research?
I believe he grew up in this community [in Newtown] and that he was taken out of the school system and [partially] home-schooled. As a hypothesis, comparing him with what happens in a lot of other school shooting cases, he apparently had a lot of difficulty with communication. It appears he had some difficulty talking and in one [report] I heard that while he was not bullied, people would sometimes giggle when he spoke, which would make him extremely self-conscious.
So he kept to himself and avoided situations where he might be humiliated. I bring this up because a common theme in school shootings is [that the perpetrators have] an enormous amount of shame. Sometimes from bullying or some kids also develop a really fine radar and at a certain developmental point after adolescence, it becomes clear to the person they are permanently damaged goods. [Once you become] suicidal, you can do anything you want with little fear of consequence.
It’s very hard to understand the details why he had this rage toward little kids. Maybe they represent him at another time in his life and he felt killing them was killing himself.
Are these incidents contagious?
We know for a fact that they are. The French sociologist Emile Dirkheim in the 19th century said suicide is one of the most contagious acts, and school shootings are suicide. You’re going to get copycats; that’s a phenomenon. There have been approximately 35 mass shootings, involving two or more [victims] in the United States since Columbine.
Are they preventable?
Schools are doing everything they can to prevent this, but you just cannot tell if a person who doesn’t have a history of violence wants to go into a public place and start shooting people. You can’t profile people who haven’t committed crimes.
There are no warning signs?
Teenagers are bizarre and sometimes they just need all the help and support they can get. To try to figure out who is a school shooter would be a terrible thing to do to an adolescent. In all likelihood nobody in school is a shooter. We have to live with this kind of ambiguity. There is also the question of making handguns available to everyone and whether they need to have large automatic weapons to defend their homes.
How much is our culture and the glorification of violence to blame?
I don’t think that plays much of a role in this, but it’s a complicated question. I think our culture plays a role in an obvious way, not that a person who plays violent video games goes out and shoots someone … but another aspect of our culture is that our expectations have gotten so enormously high and our children very easily feel left out. The fact that we are very aggressively success-oriented in his culture means we tend to leave people behind.
The sense of isolation is the most dangerous thing. Another thing we ignore is shame, which is a taboo in our society, never discussed.