The copycat phenomenon.
Late this week we saw disturbing examples of it across SouthCoast high schools.
At Dartmouth and at Durfee in Fall River, at Westport and at New Bedford. At Bridgewater-Raynham, students made claims about mass casualty events occurring at their high schools.
The copycat claims, of course, were made in the wake of the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida where 17 people were gunned down by a recently expelled student.
The Florida killings were just the latest time that a gunman had used an AR-15 style semi-automatic weapon to mow down school students. The gunman in this case was just the latest deeply-disturbed individual to do what itself was a copycat massacre.
Nikolas Cruz, a violent, clearly unstable 19-year-old, had grown up hearing about and watching school shootings across the country his entire life.
Cruz himself had made threats of violence to schools that went unreported by the FBI. He had posted on YouTube that “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”
We can only assume that the FBI sees so many of these threats that it is becoming challenging for them to follow up on all of them, that it is impossible to distinguish which are real predictors of violence and which are not.
The family that Nikolas Cruz lived with didn’t see him as capable of actually doing a mass shooting. Even though they knew he had been expelled from high school for making threats of violence. Even though they knew he had an AR-15 style gun.
The unnerving task facing law enforcement in every community across America is how to distinguish between the Nikolas Cruzes who will follow through on their violent threats and the harmless students who do it because of false bravado or a misguided attempt at attention.
Oftentimes, what goes up on social media is not a direct threat but a prediction that violence is going to happen, a prediction that the poster has inside information, or maybe just wisdom, that the violence is coming. They are contemporary versions of the bomb scares that used to be common a couple generations ago.
In a different era, newspapers didn’t print information about bomb scares on the belief that they led to more of them. But newspapers nowadays are just one small slice of the information pie. The threats on Facebook or YouTube or Twitter reach far more people than do newspapers, even on the local level. The posts go up fast and are taken down fast but they are more than effective as attention grabbers.
And what of misguided attempts at attention?
Isn’t that in the end what the mass shootings with semi-automatic weapons themselves are? Primal screams that are aided by powerful technology to get a kind of attention for perceived grievances and wrongs?
No other country has the repeated mass shootings that the United States experiences. No other country has laws that allow people to so easily possess weapons that can perform quick, massive killings.
We have all this technology, for efficient killing and for efficiently dispersing threats and predictions about killing. But we don’t seem to be able to control it.
It’s not beyond our ability to run a mass database that could alert any firearm seller about a mentally-ill individual trying to buy a gun. It’s not beyond our ability to ban certain massively efficient weapons, or even restricting the messages on massively efficient modes of communication.
The task before us is figuring out a way to control powerful killing and communication technology that right now seems to be controlling us.
And then having the will to do it.