Learning to Live Without Lifeguards

I watched as ambulance after ambulance raced past my car, knowing full well that the incident was far worse than the radio was reporting. Though no lives had been lost, I knew for certain that lives would be changed forever.

As luck would have it, I was en route to meet with a neighboring school district to finalize the details of a program to train teachers how to deal with what’s known euphemistically as a “critical incident”—an armed intruder or, worse still, an armed student. The irony was unmistakable: I was on time for my appointment—but already too late to help those whose need was far more urgent.

In the days following the stabbings at Franklin Regional, in a quiet suburb just outside of Pittsburgh,  I’ve been called upon by local news outlets to help answer essentially the same three questions: What kind of person could do such a thing? Can you identify such individuals in advance? And, most important, what do you do if prevention fails?

For most people, such questions lie so far beyond their everyday experience as to defy logic altogether. Yet school violence—even on the scale witnessed at Franklin Regional—is neither rare nor random. Indeed, in many ways, it reflects a process as simple and predictable as boiling water, provided you know what to look for.

“Random violence” and the myth of “snapping”
Perhaps no subject save death itself is more surrounded by denial than that of human violence. It can’t happen here, we tell ourselves. Not to our kids, let alone by one of them.That an otherwise normal kid could just “snap” one day and go on a killing spree and that such events are “random”—and hence impossible to anticipate—are fictions that lie at the core of a denial mechanism that, ironically, helps enable the very events we seek to forestall.The veil of normalcy that surrounds a perpetrator such as Alex Hribal is an illusion. To the casual observer they appear to be a normal kid, from a normal home, in a normal neighborhood, getting decent grades, with no serious discipline problems. What is remarkable, in fact, is their complete un-remarkableness.

Yet no normal person decides to grab a couple of kitchen knives (or other weapon) and attempt to commit mass homicide. Anyone could decide to do such a thing, but only a deeply disturbed individual would.

The key word here is decide. Committing an act of violence—particularly on a mass scale—is first and foremost a decision. It’s not a spontaneous “crime of passion”—it’s a fantasy carefully nurtured, thought out and rehearsed.

Descent Into Darkness
The question is how does one end up actually committing such an act? How does one come to such a decision that to the rest of us is so clearly insane? It begins with a sense of justification. Bullying, social isolation, humiliation, rejections and a profound sense of powerlessness are all common grievances. No matter how irrational or trivial it may seem to us, there is always a grievance that the perpetrator turns into a sense of justification. And once one feels justified, they’ve taken the first step down the path.

The normal tendency – in all of us, when we feel aggrieved and justified, is to entertain fantasies as a means to cope. Many of us envision scenarios of revenge, of getting back at those who’ve hurt us. Neurotics may fantasize about suicide and how everyone will miss them. Character disordered individuals fantasize about vengeance, and often enable their fantasies through pathological play, such as violent video games, writing disturbing stories, or even making revenge themed home movies.

So why do most of us when aggrieved, even when we feel justified, stop at fantasy, while others descend even further? The answer lies in two factors, the first being alternatives, or in the case of an Alex Hribal, the perceived lack thereof. Like a cornered animal, those who see no alternatives see violence as the only answer.

The second is fear of consequences. But to have fear of consequence, you have to have a sense of personal responsibility. If you are already character disordered such that you perceive others to be the cause of all your problems, then you may come to view the consequences of violence as irrelevant or even positive.

Spotting the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Individuals who have descended into this state of mind are observable—they are typically depressed and withdrawn, may see and talk about life and circumstances as hopeless, they often exhibit paranoia, and often demonstrate narcissism and rage. And much as someone contemplating suicide issues cries for help, almost all who commit homicide telegraph their intent in advance via threats, sinister statements or actions, writings, social media posts and the like, and as cries for help are for suicide, the threat is a psychological bridge from fantasy to reality. This is why threats are often the final step before someone jumps off the precipice they’ve been teetering on. “You don’t think I’m serious… I’ll show you I’m serious.”

Yet even when someone feels justified, sees no alternatives, and cares little for the consequences, and is standing at the precipice telegraphing intent through threats, it often takes something to push them over the edge. One final act of bullying or humiliation, or even a copycat effect – such as seeing a mass knife attack on TV the week before.

Courage is as Contagious as Fear
So how do you contribute to prevention, even when you may know few of the details?  Know what you are looking for, and trust your intuition. You won’t typically have something as overt as a threat to respond to, and you rarely get to see all the elements right away, but what do you have to go on is an intuitive feeling that something is not right. Intuition is “knowing without knowing why” and the root of the word means to “guard and protect,” and that is exactly what your intuition does – it alerts you to potential danger in your environment, even if it does not have all the facts.

The opposite of intuition is denial. Denial is having the facts, but choosing to ignore them.

For intuition to work, you must listen to the signals, and avoid slipping into denial by assuming “it’s probably nothing…or someone else will handle…” When you feel something is not right investigate further, and/or communicate your concerns to those in a position to affect the situation. The goal is to intervene before someone jumps off the precipice. Before the suicide, or the homicide, and often all that takes is someone who cares stepping in and saying so.

Lastly, we are not powerless even in the face of such extreme violence. On the contrary, we hold the power to stop them in their tracks. And even though we may not want to the responsibility, it is reality that no matter what the crisis we are on our own, and the worse the crisis, the longer we will be on our own.

At Franklin Regional, a vice principal and a student were the first responders – security came in later. Such is the case in many active shootings and mass homicide events – in fact, 20 percent of the time, we—ordinary citizens—are getting the job done before law enforcement response.  And that’s without training; imagine what can be accomplished if everyone was trained.

It’s always good to have security, to have professional lifeguards, but in the moment of truth, as we saw earlier this week, it’s far better to know how to swim.


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