Jonathan Fast, Ceremonial Violence: A Psychological Explanation of School Shootings (Overlook Press, 2008)
Although the need for stricter gun control doesn’t take center stage in Jonathan Fast’s nonfiction debut, Ceremonial Violence, it is an unshakable co-star in this harrowing observation on the causes and effects of “SR” (school rampage) shootings.
Fast, author of eight novels, here provides 13 case studies, five of which are explored in detail. In determining which incidents to include, Fast adhered to a strict set of criteria: the crime had to occur on school grounds, the perpetrators had to have been adolescents, and there needed to be two or more victims besides the shooter. The Yeshiva University professor bases his conclusions on qualitative research—drawing on local newspaper articles and his interviews with peripheral participants, such as friends of the victims and their families.
The decision made by the 15 shooters or “candidates” to turn their suicides into public events gives rise to the book’s central thesis regarding “ceremonial violence.” Fast refers to his subjects as “parasuicidal,” the prime goal being not just to kill oneself, but to do in it in a manner that attracts the most attention. In some cases the candidate will vocalize his plans to friends, outfit himself in specialized garb, agonize over weapon choice, and even pick a theme song. “This kind of ceremony … is a throwback to something very ancient and primitive,” Fast maintains. “The supplicant plays the part of a god, and indulges in a forbidden or privileged activity prior to his own execution or banishment from the tribe.”
Readers looking for a clean-cut, definitive answer to why SR shootings occur will be disappointed. Fast acknowledges a multitude of variables, from malignant narcissism to identity confusion and mental disturbances, which contribute to a child committing mass murder and, in most cases, suicide. Yet the book distinguishes itself from mainstream media coverage by delving deeper not only into the candidates’ psyches, but also the social and historical context of the communities within which these tragedies took place. In the instance of Evan Ramsey, the half-Eskimo/Indian 16-year-old who killed his principal and a fellow student in 1997, Fast traces the town of Bethel back to the 1890s, when whites came to Alaska to pan for gold. They lobbied for schools that would take their children through 12th grade, while natives were limited to an eighth grade education. In 1966 Alaska built six regional high schools (including the one Evan attended) as a way of integrating the state’s two-tiered education system. However, native students were still treated like second-class citizens, creating an enduring cultural divide within the area that helped shape Evan’s psyche.
In his discussion of prevention, Fast claims that any attempts to “profile” a SR shooter (as some schools have sought to do), especially one who has no history of violence, is the “purview of science fiction.” He points to the FBI, which only uses serial killer profiling as a way to narrow down suspects, never for predicting a crime before it happens. Instead, Fast cites anti-bullying programs as one initiative aimed to decrease and prevent children from later turning into candidates. As Fast observes, “Being bullied adds to the candidate’s anger and his sense of being marginalized, while increasing the likelihood of him becoming aggressive and a bully himself, in an attempt to master his humiliation.”
Despite the efforts launched after each incident to pass stricter gun control legislation, the book concludes with some unnerving statistics on the increasing availability of firearms. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” goes the popular pro-gun mantra, which doesn’t excuse the reality that if guns weren’t so easily accessible, these massacres couldn’t have occurred.
Nicole Robson is a freelance writer based in the Lower East Side.