The nation's worst school massacre occurred in the spring of 1927, in the farm community of Bath, Michigan. Forty-five people, mostly second grade students, were killed that day, and 58 were injured. The perpetrator, Andrew P. Kehoe, 55, was a bankrupt school board member and electrician angry about a property tax levied to fund the school. One May morning, after about six months of careful planning, he murdered his wife, burned down his farm, and blew up the school, students and all.
What, if anything, has that tragedy to do with the latest school massacre? On November 7, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, an 18-year-old Finn, opened fire randomly at his high school, killing eight. Police and the media immediately described Auvinen as a "bullied teenage outcast" and an "alienated youth," a "school gunman profile that has become the norm since the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado."
Unfortunately the profile is wrong.
Few people who commit massacres are going to be elected prom king or queen. If they are outcasts it is likely because they seem abnormal, or in common parlance "creepy," like the Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui who had severe mental problems and whose creepy personality rightly disturbed his fellow students and teachers.
But this is not always the case. As Slate reported, "[the Columbine shooters] were far more accepted than many of their schoolmates. They hung out with a tight circle of close friends and partied regularly on the weekend with a wider crowd."
Alienation and bullying, however, are only part of the motivation given by the media and its experts. After the Finland shooting the blame spread to Finland's relatively lax gun laws and the Internet. "A Finnish teenager's shooting spree shows how the Internet may be fueling violence among alienated youths," reported USA Today.
But it turns out that these factors had little or nothing to do with any of the most high-profile shootings.
An exhaustive report, released five years after the Columbine shooting, concluded that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bent on outdoing their hero Timothy McVeigh. The fact that their mass murder would happen at a school was irrelevant to them. They simply chose the school as a convenient location where they could inflict maximum casualties. At one time Harris planned to hijack a plane and crash it into New York City. (Michael Moore failed to mention that little detail in his Academy Award winning documentary Bowling for Columbine.) When that became impossible because of tightened security, they decided to blow up their school, shoot down fleeing survivors, then detonate car bombs that would kill survivors and rescue workers (just as Kehoe had done), all of which they hoped would be broadcast on live TV. It was not just fame they were after, said Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI's lead Columbine investigator and a clinical psychologist:
They were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.
Auvinen's manifesto reads like the confused rant of a paranoid schizophrenic, his views oscillating from extreme left to extreme right with no stops in between. His targets, he wrote, would be "students and faculty, society, humanity, [and the] human race." What is more he saw himself as a "political terrorist," and wrote "altough I choosed [sic] the school as target, my motives for the attack are political and much much deeper and therefore I don't want this to be called only as 'school shooting.'"
Auvinen's rants are somewhat reminiscent of the loopy manifesto left behind by the Virginia Tech shooter, who blamed deceitful charlatans on campus, rich kids, materialism, and hedonism and compared himself to Jesus Christ. Most experts agree he was copying the Columbine killers, who likewise did not want to be seen as "school shooters."
Copycat murders are nothing new either. In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries assassinations and anarchist bombings were virtually monthly events, one provoking another. President McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was copying -- indeed obsessed with Gaetano Bresci -- the man who assassinated Italian King Umberto I a year earlier, going so far as to copy Bresci's type of handgun.
The day after the Bath massacre, the New York Times's front page headline stated: "Maniac Blows Up School, Kills 42, Mostly Children; Had Protested Taxes." The next day the Times' headline was "Maniac-Dynamiter Had No Help." The lead paragraph of one story read: "Still stunned by the deed of the madman Andrew Kehoe, who yesterday killed his wife and then blew up the consolidated school here and his own automobile causing the death of forty-three persons, including himself, this little community today was groping its way through tears trying to meet the awful consequences of the tragedy."
Today the press would never consider calling Auvinen a maniac or a madman. Instead we try to understand his motivations, and when we do not like what we find, the rants about thinning the herd of undesirables, we blame lax gun laws, video games, YouTube, even other students who ostracized him, and we pretend there is something about modern society responsible for these tragic events. The truth is Auvinen was a maniac and a madman. We will all be better off when we stop pretending that they do not exist.