Making Sense of Murder: AlterNet Readers Discuss the NIU Shooting

The shooting rampage at Northern Illinois University has prompted the customary barrage of speculation about the gunman's motives and the larger forces that made the shooting possible. All of the usual explanations are being trotted out: easy access to guns, gun-free zones, faulty medication and violence in the media.

In "Northern Ill. University: Was the Killer Crazy, or the Campus Hopeless?" Mark Ames proposes an alternative way to make sense of the tragedy. Ames argues that school and workplace violence is rooted in the economic and social problems faced by most Americans. Seemingly senseless rampages like Kazmierczak's are symptomatic of the hopelessness and dissatisfaction pervading small towns like DeKalb and schools like Northern Illinois University.

Ames' article has sparked a vigorous debate among AlterNet commenters. Many readers accuse Ames of making unfair assumptions about "second-tier" universities and glibly knocking life in "middle America." Other readers point to a culture of entitlement that sets up most Americans for disappointment. Still others bring up issues that Ames fails to address, such as a lack of adequate care for the mentally ill.

Not surprisingly, some of the most vehement objections to Ames' article come from students, staff, and alumni of Northern Illinois University.

Reader commonsense1 defends NIU as " ... a proud place with faculty that comes from many of the best businesses in the Chicago area ... " and points out that "A perusal of an NIU alumni magazine [shows] the many great things NIU graduates have done and are doing."

Timemachinist, an alumni of the graduate program in history at NIU, describes the faculty as "accomplished, stimulating, challenging, inspiring and available for one-on-one discussions. Timemachinist continues his critique of Ames by arguing that the article "mocks the satisfying and beautiful lives of [NIU] students and graduates, and apparently measures us by the same exact elitist standard it seems to blame for the deeply evil action of an individual."

Reader leebee also critisizes Ames for placing the blame on NIU. "It is with great sadness and anger that I read the scathing comments about a university I love and have wonderful memories of ... I never had an allergic reaction to the lovely cornfields, and I never smelled anything offensive." The problem, argues leebee, is a sense of student entitlement. "In too many students, there is a sense of unhealthy entitlement, a lack of commitment to learning, a disrespect for faculty, a willingness to project blame onto other people and other circumstances. Don't blame NIU. Look at who and what you are."

NIU alumnus Aquafunkapus, a "proud graduate of NIU," criticizes Ames for implying that " ... this crime was committed due to the fact that these people went to a 'crappy' college in a 'dirty' town."

Many readers not personally connected to the university also echo the sentiment that Ames is unfairly critical of so-called "second-rate" colleges. Reader Lonl states, "Everybody doesn't get to go to Harvard and Yale, yet any number of people who have not still make immense contributions." Lonl goes on to make the undeniably valid point that " ... one need only to witness our current POTUS to see how awful some grads from top-tier institutions can be."

Rwday argues that second-tier universities serve a valuable function, since "not every student has the ability or interest in attending the top colleges. Lots of students derive great satisfaction from their attendance at these schools, far more than the number who find them hopeless and wastes of money and time, and infinitely more than take a gun and start shooting."

Reader upperaccess finds that "the author has some genuine insights but loses credibility with his elitism. So the college is in a rural area where job opportunities are limited? And, horrors, there's a nearby pig farm? What, not many grads become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies? Ooh, no wonder it spawns mass murderers!"

An interesting counterpoint is provided by Heid, who argues that Ames is bringing needed attention to the unfair advantages enjoyed by elites. "Those at the top of the social hierarchy do not suffer from the same stresses. They know that they're going to have interesting work. They know that they're going to have work, in fact -- assuming they want it. They know that they have access to the best of everything, whether its jobs, clothes, food, travel, whatever. In other words, their advantages result in a lack of stress that everyone else must live with."

Other readers expand on Ames' contention that these shootings are rooted in wider social and ideological forces. Barnettb points to a culture of entitlement among many middle-class white men. "These people are the ones who have been promised their whole lives that they have a place to belong and that they'll mean something someday. To awake to a reality where you are just another meaningless number (consumer/student/drone), when you have been promised (by implication) entitlement, your whole life has got to suck. And if you feel powerless -- when you think you have been born with the right to power (i.e., white/male privilege), that can really piss you off."

Others point to the economic, political and social realities that foster a sense of hopelessness in many Americans. According to Marid:

The elevator that may have existed to give a lucky few a ride to the top if they played by the rules and worked hard doesn't come to the ground anymore. Poverty has increased under compassionate conservatism, more people struggle with no health insurance, college tuition has tripled in static dollars, an energy crisis looms on the horizon, we have lost face nearly everywhere on the planet, real wages continue to stagnate or decline, debt is rocketing upward, we base our worth as a nation on our military might, and we still defend and side with the predators who control our country ...
Many readers lay the blame in more specific factors, such as America's lax gun laws. Sofla100 claims that the shootings occurred "because America does not restrict gun ownership ... and, it will keep happening, over and over again. Guns are simply too available in America." Reader Ruby agrees, bluntly stating that the tragedy occurred "because he had guns. It's not possible to have done this without them. The question should be: Why did he have guns? Maybe the NRA could explain that to the families of the victims, including the shooter's."

Several readers trace the shooting to the sorry state of American healthcare. Tomkara writes:
The real issue here is the lack of an integrated healthcare system in the United States ... [our system] treats mentally ill people as though they are patients on an assembly line, using drugs without combining adequate social support. ... The murderer was clearly disturbed, and the fact that he was on medications and stopped taking them cannot be trivialized. The broad social context in which this happens is obviously even more important, but I don't think this incident happened because Northern Illinois University isn't an Ivy League. Let's focus instead on a society that doesn't value universal healthcare and integrated medicine involving not only drugs but social support ...
Cozyrose also points to the lack of adequate support for the mentally ill. "As a therapist in a mental health 'company,' I see people heroically struggling with ... many human dilemmas. The mental health 'clinics' of the past, which provided low-cost care to anyone needing it, are gone."

In the place of adequate healthcare, the mentally ill are given dangerous medications. Reader Gravitas writes, "As it turns out, the Virginia Tech shooter, the Amish shooter, Andrea Yates, Phil Hartman's wife, and one of the Columbine shooters were all on some type of these drugs ... and there are so many more stories that never make the headlines of passive people becoming violent only after a few days on these drugs; as well as the covering up by Pharma of negative side effects. (Normal mode of business for that evil industry.) We all say we would do anything to prevent another tragedy like this one. Well, start by plugging the dangers of Paxil or any of the other SSRI antidepressants in a search engine. You will be shocked and horrified at what you find out."

There are many ways to try to understand how someone could turn to extreme violence in response to the countless economic and social stresses buffeting almost all Americans. But, as reader BST points out, "I hope that any young people out there who are carrying around grief or anger or fear will, somehow, turn not to mayhem but to a parent or trusted adult, valued friend, teacher, doctor."

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