Contemplating Mass Murders



I circled the wagons in my classroom in the aftermath of the mass shootings.  I put on some Eliza Doolittle tunes and greeted the students with the admonition to not talk among themselves about the writing prompt, rather to write down everything they were thinking. There would be time for discussing it later.

Today’s student isn’t used to the art of being contemplative. Our educational model isn’t even set up for such activity any longer. The experts who study these things advise that we keep students hopping from one thing to the next. Some teachers even set timers in their classes to make sure that every 15 minutes students are engaged in another learning module.

Don’t even get me started.

But on this one day, they were quiet. On this one day, they were writing. As it turned out, they had a lot of insightful things to say about mass shootings, our writing prompt for the day.

The prompt asked them to consider why these shooters are so intent on killing. And why is it that so many of the mass murders in this country are carried out by white men of privilege? And why when it is a person of color does media often then identify such killers by their religion? And what is it that religion offers these killers anyway?

Here’s some things to know about the bulk of the students in my class: Most are not affluent. Most are brown-skinned. Many do not have access to laptops or Internet outside of school. Some have witnessed horrific violence up close and personal. Some suffer from PTSD.  Almost all of them want to make something good of this one wild life of theirs.

After everyone had pretty much penned their thoughts, I asked them to read aloud their insights. Those insights didn’t vary much from class to class, evidence perhaps that there are things that we as a people can agree upon:

– Most of these murderers display some sort of emotional and/or mental imbalance prior to the shootings

– Rage and anger is the most common precursor to the shootings.

– We are uncomfortable around angry people and/or emotionally/mentally unstable people.

– We are uncomfortable because we are afraid.

– The more afraid we are, the more we avoid those people.The more we avoid those who are suffering emotionally and/or mentally the more likely they are to turn elsewhere to find community.

– Today’s mentally/emotionally unstable person will typically go online to find community/acceptance.

– These are the people that ISIS and other extremists organizations seek out.

– These are more likely to be  young men from affluent families because weapons like the ones they are using are expensive. And buying a lot of ammunition takes money, too.

– Maybe economic privilege makes  a fellow more prone to raging because he is full of hubris (vocab word) and believes he is entitled to have everything go his way, whereas, someone from a lower income level tends to have more humility and accepts things more readily.

– Maybe religion gives such a person a sense of purpose, and that sense of purpose gives that person justification for his actions.

– It is a very dangerous thing when any of us feel we are right and everyone else around us is wrong. Such thinking emboldens mass murderers.

– Religion can be a very dangerous thing misused.

– So can guns.

– People are broken.

– We all need to do a better job taking care of each other.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Burdy (Mercer University Press). 

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.



about 9 years ago

Thank you for this contemplative exercise with your students. Their simple observations would make a good read for every religious leader, politician, scholar, law enforcement officer and military service member. Our metaphor for this nation of immigrants has for two centuries been a melting pot. Time to discard that. Better metaphor for the world is that of a lava lamp, perhaps even deleting the lamp itself. Perhaps just lava. There is much to ponder about socialization of our young, particularly our males. Relative material wealth, a Constitution and laws do not by any means result in emotional maturity or mental health and well-being. They do not ensure healthy and durable relationships. Our current culture offers infinite possibilities for isolation. With about 5% of the world's population, the USA has about 25% of the world's prison population. Hardly a merit badge earning us our favorite self description of "Greatest Nation on Earth." After decades and decades, along with European powers, of supporting corrupt dictators, minority rule, and militarily imposed stability in nation states whose artificial borders do not represent ethnic or tribal/religious affinity, we should not be shocked when stability eventually unravels. Imposed stability in the name of trying to keep fossil fuel production fairly stable eventually ends. Vast disparities in wealth entrench greed and corruption and do not, by and large, serve as the rising tide that raises all boats. They often greatly expand the numbers of "boatless" who drown. Turning a nation like Iraq upside down and then walking away from the mess is to invite spontaneous combustion. Killing "bad people" with drones instead of tirelessly working on the root causes of their "badness" is a false hope that blows up in or faces. Out of sight, out of mind for nearly all of us. But a daily source of bitterness and hatred for oppressed people who see their sovereignty repeatedly violated by unseen demons in the skies. Repeated loss of life of civilians, hospitals, etc. to the imprecision and inevitable errors of "surgical" warfare easily becomes confirmation that we outsiders are in the business of exporting our domestic mass murders via high technology. Brave new world. In urban ministry/ethnic ministry studies in seminary, there was a startling but almost universal finding. It's not the first generation of immigrants who have the hardest time, despite enormous obstacles of language and culture. It's the second, the young who are neither fully what their parents were, nor fully acculturated citizens who identify first as Americans vs. something else. To some extent, we have a relative few second generation people here in USA. Europe now has a second generation tsunami numbering in the multi millions. Melting pot or lava lamp? Next three decades will not be boring... New thought. If domestic mass murderers are inspired by their predecessors to do more of same, can we expect "second generation" populations who don't quite know where they fit, who see their ancestral homelands coming apart and being bombed by outsiders, to not be "inspired" in the same horrific ways? How many were revolted by San Bernardino? How many inspired to take the next step? People unwilling to compromise second amendment rights on assault rifles now face the dubious choice of defending the constitutional rights of domestic terrorists to keep and bear these weapons of mass destruction. The concept of "well regulated militia" as a qualifier has been completely lost. Stay tuned. Next three decades will not be boring. The command to love our neighbors as ourselves has never been more necessary, the challenge of actually knowing our neighbors never more urgent. Waging war is always far easier than waging peace. But the first task is to urgently know ourselves. Let us pray...


Loretta Gillespie

about 9 years ago

I'll bet that your students love you as much as we do!


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