February 15, 2008

Looking everywhere but straight ahead

The Kazmierczak school rampage and toxic culture

Pundits commenting on yesterday's Northern Illinois University shooting are doing the usual – feverishly searching everywhere but at the immediate environment for the causes. Was it a "copycat" crime or was Steven Kazmierczak mentally ill? Next, we'll likely hear about gun control, Hollywood movies, the Internet, and video games. (Perhaps it's the pundits who are the real copycats!)

It's hard to vilify Kazmierczak. He wasn't a neo-Nazi or a Trenchcoat Mafioso. As his photo hints at, he was a thoughtful, studious, respectful, and award-winning young man.

Coincidentally, I just today finishing reading expatriate journalist Mark Ames' masterful analyses of such rampages, "Going Postal." Rather than blaming all of the usual external and individual suspects, Ames points straight at the institutional environments in which these crimes occur. The killings are doomed rebellions by normal people stressed and bullied until they break, he argues.

Yesterday's case is unusual in that we have a more direct document we can examine – a scholarly article co-authored by the killer himself. Kazmierczak was, after all, a would-be scholar with interests in corrections, political violence, and peace and social justice.

The prophetic 2006 article, "Self-Injury in Correctional Settings: 'Pathology' of Prisons or of Prisoners," strikingly parallels Ames' thesis.

"When conditions of existence become overwhelming, people may either acquiesce or resist," wrote Kazmierczak and colleagues. "Rather than see SIB (self-injurious behavior) as only the acting-out of aggressive prisoners or simply as an attention-seeking activity, we should examine the debilitating conditions of prison existence and culture as contributing factors. In this view, SIB becomes symptomatic not only of individual mental health, but of the pathology of prisons as well."

Replace the word "prison" with "school" or "workplace" and, voila, you have the answer.

I recommend Ames' original and provocative analysis of the "toxic culture" that produces these doomed rebellions. My review is on the Amazon page for "Going Postal." See also my related post about the Virginia Tech shooting massacre. Kazmierczak's article was published in the February 2006 issue of Criminology & Public Policy; a subscription is required to view it.

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