It will sound either morbid or histrionic, but the students in the safe Midwestern town where I grew up spent a lot of high school talking about which of our fellow classmates were likely to one day kill us all. Or maybe they’d kill people outside of school — we allowed for that possibility, too — but whatever happened would involve someone bursting through a door with a gun. This was the era of Columbine, and that incident, 800 miles away but all over the news, had provided us a way to verbalize the erratic scariness that some young men emitted: the sense they might turn their resentment into horror.
Was it going to be the young man who wore combat boots and stalked female students in the hallway while calling them sluts? Maybe the one who once beckoned me to the park pavilion at a class picnic and then randomly started kicking me? I’d pretended it was a joke, because how else to explain such a bizarre act; we’d barely spoken before that.
I know we worried about a particular varsity soccer player; I know we debated whether another guy’s submission to the literary magazine was creative or genuinely ominous. I know most of the young men we worried about turned out just fine, or they hurt themselves more than they hurt others, or they did hurt others, but they didn’t kill anyone.
I think of these young men of my youth every time there’s a mass shooting, which is always: There have been more than 250 this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
This weekend, two young men killed a total of 31 people. Twenty-two in El Paso, and then, less than a day later, nine in Dayton, Ohio — events that have managed to hold onto the headlines even in gun-numb America, because of their quick succession, their cumulative gore.
The incidents, at least for now, don’t appear to have a lot in common. One shooter allegedly was a racist who posted an anti-immigrant manifesto online shortly before he opened fire in broad daylight at a Walmart. The other wore a mask and bulletproof vest as he stalked revelers in a nightlife district.
But, allegedly, they were both young men. A 21-year-old and a 24-year-old, described by the words that neighbors and acquaintances now always seem to use to describe young male shooters after the fact: Quiet. Loner. Disaffected. Troubled.
The suspected El Paso shooter, a former classmate told the Los Angeles Times, was “irritable and had a short temper.”
The suspected Dayton shooter once kept a “hit list” of classmates and administrators he planned to target. “He was not bullied in school, he was a classic glorifier of violence who had threatened many of my friends in the past,” read a Facebook post written by someone who said he was a former classmate. “His violence was simply ignored as ‘boys will be boys.’ ”
“Boys will be boys” is such a glib-sounding statement, such a reductive description of personality traits. Most boys are not that kind of boy. Not all the boys who seem like that kind of boy will go on to do horrible things.
But the phrase gets at something that I never much thought about as a high school student, and which only seems the slightest bit odd to me now: We never, ever worried about the girls.
There were definitely young women who were troubled. There was one who’d set fire to her own locker, another who quietly cut her arms and legs, another who regularly ran herself to exhaustion around the track and then made retching sounds in the bathroom.
These, it seemed, were the girlish responses to pain. Inward, self-harming responses, enacted on their own bodies. Sad. Tragic. Material for an after-school special.
The boys, though: We thought it was very possible that at least one of the troubled young men would kill lots of people.
Because even back in the late 1990s it was beginning to look — based on Columbine, based on Paducah and Pearl and Bethel and Thurston, based on the Fairchild Air Force Base shooting, and the Chuck E. Cheese shooting, and a shooting rampage of a 21-year-old neo-Nazi just a few miles from our town, which left two dead the summer I graduated — like shooting lots of people was a thing troubled young men did.
Society and culture had somehow made them believe it was an option for them. Not a good option; it was, in fact, the worst option. But the message that shooting after shooting seemed to reinforce was this: The pain and resentment and anger of young men is so grand and vast and special that they can and will make others pay for it.
Based on Orlando. Based on Virginia Tech. Based on Sandy Hook and Sutherland Springs and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Based on all the quiet loners upon whom we retroactively bestow pages and pages of psychological analysis, based on the fact that only nine out of 250 active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2017 involved female shooters, according to the FBI. White men have committed more mass shootings than any other group, according to one accounting of the data.
After shootings, we seem willing to talk about various contributors to and solutions for the violence. The discussions always break down at party lines.
Liberals will talk about gun control, with America’s grotesque worship of the Second Amendment.
Conservatives will talk about mental health. “The bottom line is mental health is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, after the El Paso shooting.
Both conversations are worth having, and heaven knows we need to get better at having them, because our national sickness doesn’t show any sign of healing.
But these points seem like only two pillars of a three-legged conversation. The third pillar is gender. The third pillar is how we got to the point where troubled young women vomit quietly in bathrooms, and troubled young men go online and order assault-style weapons, as the Dayton shooter allegedly did, and then commit mass slaughter.
We need to talk about how the shooters keep getting guns. We need to talk about how the shooters keep not getting the right kind of psychological help. And we need to talk, frankly, and exhaustively, about how they’re almost always men.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.