One of the most disturbing things about the Northern Illinois University shootings last week (aside from the actual carnage, of course) was the lack of any warning signs. Steve Kazmierczak, the shooter, did not seem troubled and he wasn’t described by acquaintances as many mass murderers are: quiet, keeps to himself, kind of creepy. His colleagues and advisors at the University of Illinois School of Social Work, where he’d been pursuing a graduate degree since spring 2007, described him as personable, engaging and motivated — and no one, not even his girlfriend, had any idea he would be capable of such a thing. He also did not leave behind any hint as to why he did this, even going so far as to remove his phone’s SIM chip and the hard drive from his laptop. He apparently intended to take his mysteries to the grave with him.
What makes the seeming randomness of it so unnerving is that we can’t explain it. Humans are wired to connect cause with effect. What we can’t explain is scary, because it reveals that we don’t have complete control over our lives. And if we think we understand something, we believe we can prevent it from happening again. It is a primal thing — the same reason ancient people created weather gods to provide meaning and reason behind completely unpredictable and uncontrollable phenomena.
Even more baffling, Kazmierczak was rooted in the field of social work, where the primary goal is to understand and help others. Ironically, social workers are trained in ways that are supposed to make them effective in precisely the kinds of situations that Kazmierczak caused.
The most interesting theory I have heard is from Katherine Newman, professor of sociology at Princeton and author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. In an interview with Celeste Quinn on WILL’s Afternoon Magazine the day after the shootings, Newman explained, “In the US, in general, these rampage shootings…mostly take place in smaller, isolated towns, and their isolation is part of what produces the pattern of a rampage shooting, because the marginality the shooter feels is so hard to erase through contact with people who are different from himself…. f you are in an isolated place, and doing well socially, you are fine, you feel comfortable and happy and know everyone around you, it’s a wonderful environment. But if you are socially marginal, it feels like a permanent life sentence to being excluded and feeling unloved by others.”
So without access to people who are different from the norm in the same kinds of ways they are, and without reason to believe things will ever change, individuals are apt to suffer severe instability, and eventually someone (odds are, a white male) will take that instability to the extreme: He’ll go nuts and starting shooting people. Or, to put it in a simplistic and inflammatory way, homogeny causes mass murder, and diversity prevents it.
Of course, in the interest of fairness, lack of diversity isn’t a great explanation in this particular case. Kazmierczak lived in Champaign and attended the University of Illinois, and while we aren’t San Francisco, we aren’t Mayberry either. I would hope we have enough diversity to stave off mass murder as a natural response to living here.
Diversity, of course, is a concept as mental as it is physical or cultural. And with all the angst in the air and all the psychological processing that needs to be done after an incident like this, it might be illuminating to compare what happened here with what’s going on overseas, in Iraq, where a lack of “diverse thinking” has resulted in some disturbing resonances. Virtually every family in Iraq by now has had someone they know killed by random (or not-so-random) violence, and often in much more gruesome ways than we saw in DeKalb. Imagine the NIU shooting happening multiple times every day in cities across the country, and the emotional trauma that would result. Due to our actions — due to the rippling causes and effects that we control — many Iraqis feel a sense of hopelessness, instability, uncertainty. In perhaps a much more persistent way, they feel as many of us felt after learning of the events at NIU. And when they look at their occupiers, do they see diversity of thought that points to a brighter future? A day without occupation? If not, can we really expect the violence to just go away?
This line of thought has its limits, of course. After all, Iraq does not generally suffer a lack of diversity. The violence there is more likely due to intolerance for diversity by those trying to enforce homogeny, as well as those trying to resist it (which includes just about everyone). Nonetheless, it is an interesting thought experiment. One thing is certain: Humans will always crave diversity, and we would do well to figure out ways to live with it, rather than to fight it.