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Rampage School Shootings: Reframing the Discourse

[In Karachi, Pakistani children light candles to pay tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting. Image by Arshad/Zuma Press] [In Karachi, Pakistani children light candles to pay tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting. Image by Arshad/Zuma Press]

The most recent rampage school shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary (SHE) in Newtown, Connecticut, that claimed the lives of twenty kindergarteners and six school staffers at the hands of another young white male, took the US and the world by a storm. As messages of sympathy poured down from world leaders and interfaith vigils were held in solidarity with the victims and their families, people in their shock and disbelief tried hard to make sense of this unthinkable act of violence against these innocent children. But no sooner had the news about the sixth mass shooting this year and the second-deadliest school mass murder in the history of the country broke out than the mainstream media pundits as well as some progressive commentators began recycling some ready-made framing narratives that have been repeated ad nauseam in the mainstream news coverage of similar incidents in the past. These narratives, however, ideologically mystify the root causes of the problem and foreclose the possibility of reimagining an adequate political solution to it.

Central to these narratives is the understanding of school mass murders as subjective, or individual, forms of violence that can be more appropriately explained in terms of the individual and cultural conflicts that are presumed to beset a pluralistic society such as the United States. Hence, the media coverage of these events tends to frame these mass murders within a psychobiographical model that profiles the perpetrators as simply alienated loners or misfits. This has recently taken the form of a mental health narrative that portrays them as insane, disturbed individuals, or victims of the failures of the public health system to offer adequate resources to treat them. In the case of Adam Lanza, the mass murderer in the SHE tragedy, he was described as a “deeply disturbed” and “mentally ill” kid,” who was subject to outbursts and who suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, even though Asperger is a neurodevelopmental disorder, not a mental illness.

This psychobiographical model is also embedded within a cultural narrative that interprets these school mass murders in the context of the ubiquitous glamorization of violence in American society. These critics like to point out the pathological obsession with graphic narratives of violence and gore, especially in videogames, as a method to solve personal conflicts. Adam Lanza, it appears, was obsessed with violent video games such as Counter Strike, in which he “would use a military-style assault rifle and a Glock handgun in games with other students.” Such a cultural narrative is valorized over an account that traces the ubiquity of violence in this country back to its irrational anti-Enlightenment foundations that were built on genocide, slavery, and exclusion (from property rights, constitutional privilege, etc.).

This culturalization of violence is also evident in liberal discourses that situate these subjective acts of violence within the crisis of dominant heteronormative structures of white supremacy in the US. The main concern of these liberal critics is white men’s “aggrieved entitlement” and the ways in which the media relentlessly tries to cover up and normalize the white masculine identity of the mass majority of the perpetrators. Even when photographs of the perpetrator are on display, these critics contend, a deliberate effort is made not to turn either the perpetrator’s racial identity or gender into an issue. In addition, critics maintain, the media uses the passive voice to normalize young white male violence. This omission, they argue, has grave consequences for understanding the root causes of the violence and for imagining workable policy solutions and intervention strategies that can help prevent and put an end to this pandemic.

Moreover, liberal critics unravel how this omission and normalization of white male violence invokes unconscious national mythologies (deeply held beliefs) that connect such acts with stereotypically racialized images of crime, ethnic pathology, and social deviancy. This culturalization of violence, with its obsession with identity politics, takes also the form of deconstructing the power of white privilege through a minoritarian frame that reimagines the implications of these shootings, should the perpetrators have been identified as an Other, be it (pathologically criminal) racial Other (Black or Latino) or the (pathologically terrorist) religious Other (Muslim).

Again and again, the focus is on the politics of recognition and representation (who speaks for whom, and the power of white privilege in absolving the white perpetrators from speaking for or on behalf of their racial communities) in a way that forecloses the political significance and implication of these acts for envisioning a radical solution to the problem. Albeit some attribute redemptive value to these acts as rituals or ceremonies of violence that offer the perpetrators resources for reformulating their identities and the social values that could perhaps (posthumously) suture these increasingly fragmented and split communities (which are supposed to be organically whole).

All this media talk about identity politics within the psychobiographical and cultural narratives, therefore, obscures the root causes of rampage school shootings. Media coverage, that is, completely disassociates these tragic events from the contradictions of the political and economic structures of power and domination namely, the national security state and the neoliberal capitalist system that drives it. These power structures constitute the objective or structural forms of violence that have engendered school mass murders in the first place and in which they are embedded.

To understand these forms of objective violence in the case of school mass murders, one must account for the qualitative change of the context, the schools themselves, in which these acts occur. It must be noted that mainstream media coverage of these acts of violence approaches the problem of rampage school shootings within an exclusively American cultural discourse that represents schools as sacred sites where safety and personal security are guaranteed, since any use of violence is thought to be inappropriate on school premises. Hence, media pundits claim that such shootings are rare, citing various variables as evidence of their unique and distinct form of violence in a widely violent culture. At stake here is an aspirational discourse that holds American schools up to some ideal of what we think education should be at the expense of actual student experiences in the system.

As any review of the sociological literature on this sub-genre of mass murder can tell, nonetheless, that this type of subjective violence has occurred throughout the history of formal education in the country. Indeed, the mass school shooting at SHE is the twelfth of its kind in the last thirty years of US history and also the sixth mass murder in the country this year alone. One must also remember that these rampage school shootings have become increasingly popular since the 1990s especially, after the end of the Cold War and the intensification of neoliberal capitalist policies, including the push for privatization of the welfare state.

Consequently, the biopolitical forms of power, coercion, and violence underpinning the neoliberal security state and global capitalist system have turned schools for many students across the socio-economic spectrum, but especially for students from colonized, non-immigrant communities in the US, into sites of violation, humiliation, persecution, reification, and alienation. Hence, a link must be drawn between the alienation and reification that students experience in contemporary schools and the ways in which schools have become sites that replicate the structures of violence, including state-sponsored terrorism, colonial oppression, and economic exploitation that underlie the power of the security state and the global capitalist economy.

As various sociologists have pointed out, schools have been ideologically redesigned around principles of “economic instrumentalism” and “specialization” that train students to maximize their productivity in the service of capitalist interests. Moreover, schools have encoded and reenacted the repressive practices of the security state through the implementation of various surveillance technologies, metal detectors, and the presence of probation officers as well as security guards, turning schools in effect into semi-penitentiaries. It should not come as a surprise, then, to hear various lawmakers rehash the talking points of the NRA that call for appropriating funds for beefing up security measures, arming teachers on school premises, and for creating a school protection program, the National School Shield Program. These militaristic solutions can only reinforce the normalization and naturalization of the repressive power of the structural forms of violence, neoliberal security state and the global market economy, within which schools are embedded.

These objective forms of violence, nonetheless, remain largely invisible in public discourse. And on the rare occasion when they are alluded to, they are justified in the name of national security, the global war on terror, developmentalism, and modernization. In their daily interactions with the system, however, students can identify the coercive nature of the schools, and might (un)consciously make the connection between these forms of violence and the larger structure of objective violence that permeates their lives inside and outside schools. It is no wonder, then, that schools in the minds of these mass murderers are not much different from any other public or private site where spectacles of violence can be reenacted. To this extent, schools constitute a proper site for the expression of violence, which had always already been inscribed within its classrooms and halls.

But the proper way to understand the connections between rampage school shootings and these objective forms of violence is to reframe them within an internationalist perspective that seeks not only to establish a clear link between subjective and objective forms of violence, shifting the debate thus from culture to politics, but also to consider meaningfully the politics of redistribution and socialist justice within an alternative economic order. At stake here is the need to outline the ways in which these school mass shootings and other homologous and non-homologous forms of violence around the world are interconnected within the same global structures of power and domination. In light of the shrinking, finite resources in this world, the privilege of some is necessarily based on the exclusion and disposability of others. This has tremendous implications for understanding the destruction of life, in general, and the lives of the disenfranchised and subjugated masses, in particular, under conditions of structural violence mobilized by the security state and global capitalism around the world.

More specifically, the killing of innocent children anywhere in the world deserves to be the site of political mobilization, not only intense national debate, regarding US national security and the war on terror as an alibi for the intensification of global capitalist exploitation, neoliberal economics, and colonial oppression in the world. It is a shame that we have to be bombarded by an endless stream of images of the recent school mass murders in Newtown, Connecticut, as tragic as they were, but hear almost nothing about the senseless death of over 160 Pakistani children by American drones or have the news of the murder of Palestinian children in Gaza by the Israeli army erased from public discourse and collective memory.

Talking about human loss in Newtown cannot make sense unless we recognize and seek to end human loss everywhere else. The humanity of the Other should not be questioned the way it is done, explicitly or implicitly, directly or indirectly; how else can we explain the dehumanization tropes that depict the victims of the indiscriminate drone extermination program as “bug splats” and wild grass to be mown? To see Obama shed those tears for the victims in SHE can send chills down one’s spine. Only then can we appreciate the perverse obscenity of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s condolence letter to President Obama, in which he engaged in his typical shameless falsification stating, “We in Israel have experienced such cruel acts of slaughter and we know the shock and agony they bring.” Over and over again, anti-Palestinian Zionist propaganda blames the victims and inverts the realities of the geopolitical context in which the imbalance of power that favors Israel’s military supremacy is always obscured by the elevation of Israel to the status of pre-ontological victimization. The chutzpa!!!

It is the irony of our times that the system’s dehumanized Others, those subjugated masses in the age of the American empire and global capitalism, would be the ones to carry the torch on this issue. In the eloquent texts they produce, they teach us the true meaning of sympathy with the victims of colonial aggression and global capitalist exploitation in the global South and call on to us to take full responsibility for all the material and institutional privileges we take for granted, without ever questioning how these privileges have been systematically consolidated by the collaborative interventions of the neoliberal security state with global capitalism by depriving them from others around the world. It is from this sense of mutual responsibility for decolonization that a truly internationalist perspective should be developed for envisioning more effective political strategies that will allow us to think Other/wise, resist nationally-sanctioned forms of ignorance, and articulate the social bases of long-lasting solidarities that find their most transformative expression within a universal history of the struggle for liberation and emancipation.

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