For four months Dimitrios Pagourtzis practically begged Shana Fisher to date him. Fisher, who had recently turned 16, constantly refused his advances. Eventually, as if to show Pagourtzis he had no chance of succeeding, Fisher stood up in class and told him in no uncertain terms to stop hassling her and to leave her alone. Pagourtzis was humiliated, distraught, and so it was that he ended up walking to school one morning with one thing on his mind – murder.
On Friday 18th May, ten people were killed and another thirteen wounded in the latest of a spate of school shootings in the US. In fact, this is the 22nd incident so far this year. We aren’t even halfway through yet. A lot of the discussion in the aftermath of these attacks focuses, quite rightly, on gun control, or the lack thereof. Clearly there is a problem with how accessible these weapons are and something needs to be done before it’s too late. However, I want to focus on something else – not how these attacks are carried out, but who is carrying them out.
Of the twenty-two school shootings this year, all but one have a major component in common: the perpetrator has been male. More specifically, the perpetrators tend to be current or former students of the schools they attack, and are often teenagers. Whenever you hear a statistic as alarming and conclusive as ‘95% of school shootings this year were carried out by boys’, you have no choice but to question why.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. At least there’s no answer lying in plain sight. But if we begin to dig a little deeper, then we can start to see that something is amiss. In the case of Pagourtzis and his battles with unrequited love, for example, we have a boy who was madly in love and had his heart broken in a wholly embarrassing way. But who hasn’t? We’ve all had our fair share of high-school crushes who don’t even realise we exist. We’ve all been upset. And, perhaps more importantly, girls go through the exact same things that boys do. There’s the crux of the issue. Boys and girls both have their hearts broken but for some reason boys are twenty-one times more likely to murder their classmates as a result. And it comes down to one thing – boys are broken.
Boys are taught to be stoic and strong, to be resilient and to show no signs of weakness. We aren’t supposed to talk about our problems, we’re supposed to bury them deep within us, keep them bottled up, and never tell a soul. All that anger and resentment lurks underneath turning innocent children into ticking time-bombs ready to blow at a moment’s notice. Pagourtzis was described as “quiet” by his parents. He kept his head down, kept himself to himself, and that was the problem. He didn’t want to talk about his feelings and so his feelings manifested into a bitter resentment. And so he snapped.
This obsession with ‘manhood’, with being the ‘alpha male’, is rife with teenage boys. Those who embody the masculine traits of strength and nonchalance are the popular guys. They run the school, they get the girls. Or at least, that’s what they’re led to believe. And so high schools become a Darwinian struggle for survival, where being the fittest means being the most manly. Boys who attempt to eschew those traditional stereotypes are told to ‘man-up’ and are bullied and harassed by the other boys.
This toxic environment means that boys don’t know how to deal with complex emotions and feelings. Teenagers are flooded with hormones, they start thinking about sex and relationships, they have the stress of exams, of choosing a career, of deciding who they want to be. So when the inevitable trials and tribulations of teenage life rear their ugly heads, it can be hard to deal with them. From an early age, girls are taught to talk through their problems. Their friendship groups act as surrogate therapy groups. They share their problems, and deal with them together. Boys don’t have that support network, they have nobody to help them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not justifying the actions of these boys in any way. What I’m saying is that the school shootings are a symptom, albeit an extreme one, of this sense of male entitlement and bravado that is rife among young boys, and grown men too for that matter. For these boys, sex is a right. If they tick all the boxes of stereotypical masculinity, then the girls will fall into their hands. Decades of film, TV, music, and pop culture have enforced that belief. Boys are taught that if they want something, they can go out and they can get it. This is a stark contrast to girls who are often discouraged from chasing after what they want. This is the key difference.
There’s no easy solution here. I’m not providing an answer to school shootings, and gun violence in general. I’m simply pointing out that boys are broken, boys are damaged, and some of them strike out and kill others. Sure, taking their guns away might help, but they’ll still find a way to inflict pain and suffering. I think we need to look deeper, at the underlying mental state of boys, and convince them that there’s more than one way to be a man – and none of them involve murder.