(This post was originally appeared in The Huffington Post on December 13 2017 and was updated in 2019).
They would be 13 or 14 years old now, and in the eighth grade. Maybe they’d be learning in school about American history and slavery and reading the novel Lord of the Flies. But those 20 innocent schoolchildren never made it out of first grade.
It’s been nearly seven years since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The bloodshed attributed to rampage shootings continues at a frenetic pace; to my count there have been more than 30 mass shootings since that unspeakable tragedy. While progress is being made in some related fields—school safety and neurological medical research, for example—the sheer number of incidents and innocent lives lost is so painful that whatever steps forward we are able to take get lost in a tsunami of profound sadness and regression. Sometimes it’s all we can do to brace ourselves for the next.
Rampage murders bear a striking resemblance to another American crisis—that of suicide. In most cases that’s what a rampage is. The murderers know they’ll be killed and often kill themselves before police can. That’s exactly what the Newtown killer did. Suicide is so preventable, but it is now the 10th-most common cause of death in the U.S. and, relevant to rampages, the second highest cause of death among young people. The most notable and striking difference between the rampage and most suicides is the rampager also kills many innocent people.
The motives of rampage killers like the Newtown murderer or the 2017 Las Vegas killer are unknown. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from the rare rampager who survives, like the killer in Aurora, Colorado (the 2012 “Dark Knight” theater massacre), or Tucson, Arizona (the 2011 “Congress on Your Corner” massacre).
There is persuasive evidence that rampage killers study the rampagers who came before them, even obsess about them, as the Newtown killer did. They try to outdo their predecessors and achieve a notoriety in death that was unachievable in life. On that point, I believe it would be a significant step toward progress if major news media stopped using killers’ names (as I did here), stopped publishing their pictures, ignored their rants and stopped declaring their murders as “the deadliest.” Why award bloodthirsty murderers with titles and achievements, like trophies on a mantel? The more we make these killers famous, the more we are assuring that there will be someone (or multiple someones) intent on breaking these “records” of infamy.
I went to a very moving ceremony a few years ago to honor the memory of Emilie Parker, one of the little angels murdered in Newtown. The ceremony was the opening of a playground in New London, Connecticut. It’s called “Emilie’s Shady Spot,” a lovely, playful, cheerful, pink playground, with pictures of butterflies. The playground was one of 26 built by a group of New Jersey firefighters and paid for by generous donations. Playing on the sparkling new equipment, the children were running, climbing and playing with bright smiles on their faces. I heard laughter. I fought back tears. More than 200 other people in attendance also fought back tears that morning. Sometimes it seems that’s all a person can do. Or is it? How many more playgrounds have to be built?
[James D. Diamond’s 2019 book, After The Bloodbath: IS Healing Possible In The Wake of Rampage Shootings is now available from the publisher, MSU Press from your local bookstore, and all major digital booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. ]