A Riot in Slow Motion

What is happening in our culture to young men? Why are we producing cold-blooded killers? This is the hardest question of all in the aftermath of yet another school shooting – why?

In the case of Parkland, Florida, where 17 died, there were plenty of “red flags” around the shooter. Seen with the 20/20 perspective of hindsight, that incident could have been prevented. But in what happened Friday in Santa Fe, Texas, the 17-year-old alleged shooter had no apparent “red flags.”

The shooting at the Santa Fe High School left ten dead and ten wounded. This was the 22nd school shooting in the USA in 2018.

Let that sink in for a moment:  22nd school shooting in the first 20 weeks of the year.  What is going on?

The 21st shooting took place on Wednesday, two days before Santa Fe, in Dixon, Illinois, about 100 miles west of Chicago.  Gratefully, it had a different ending.

Seniors were gathering for graduation rehearsal when a 19-year-old former student with a nine-millimeter semi-automatic rifle opened fire in a hallway. A Dixon police officer assigned to the school rushed toward the sound of gunfire, engaged, and wounded the shooter. No one else was hurt. Officer Mark Dallas is credited with preventing a massacre.

In this case, there were very few “red flags.”  The attorney representing the alleged shooter has known this family for several years.  He says the shooter is, “a nice, polite boy.”  If that is the case, why was he almost a mass murderer?

I read something by David French, a senior writer for National Review, that is perhaps the best explanation for the phenomenon that I have seen.

In 2015, Stanford sociologist Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in The New Yorker where he describes this phenomenon as a riot in slow motion, with Columbine being the key triggering event. If his theory is correct, then as these events continue to happen there will be fewer and fewer “red flags.” That seems to be what is happening.

This is what he means by a riot in slow motion.  In a riot, a group of people begin breaking windows and stealing things.  For each participant in the riot there is a different threshold that triggers their involvement.

The one who threw the first brick through a store window arrived needing only the slightest provocation. He was primed and ready.

The next person to throw a brick needed someone else to go first. They needed more provocation. The next person needed two people to throw bricks before he did, and so forth.  Each successive riot participant needed greater provocation.

Eventually, as the riot expands, there is someone there who, in normal circumstances, would never throw a brick or loot a store. Caught up in the moment, he does that very thing.

There are several “red flags” in the lives of the first rioters. They have a police record, a history of fighting, and a low threshold to violence.  Their action in that situation is fairly predictable.  But by the time you get to the last person in our example, there are no “red flags” in his life.  His behavior seems out of character and quite surprising.

Gladwell argues that, starting with Columbine, a new cultural script was laid down.  The earlier shooters following Columbine, and those shooters whose plans have been thwarted (there have been eleven of them), had a low threshold for violence and were motivated by powerful grievances. There were “red flags” a plenty. As time has gone by and this riot in slow motion has progressed, the perpetrators have made up or imagined justifications, and with little to no “red flags” to predict their behavior, just as we have seen this past week.

No amount of gun control prevents this. The fact is, guns have been part of our cultural fabric since the beginning of our Republic. These mass shootings are a recent phenomenon. Guns are not the driving force behind this. It is something else. The terrifying reality is, this may get worse before it gets better.

We need a new cultural script for young men in our society, one that helps them deal with life as it is, not as they imagine it to be. This new script must compel them toward self-giving, not life-taking. The good news is, we already have that script – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How do we get this message across?  Borrowing a line from a new hit movie theme song – a million prayers is all it’s going to take.

Let’s start now.



1 thought on “A Riot in Slow Motion

  1. Definitely praying for our country


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