We Have to Stop Pretending Mass Shooters Are Monsters

Another day, another mass shooting — this time in a wealthy Chicago suburb.

Why is this happening? Why do so many young men want to cause so much pain?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I want to get past the partisan back-and-forth about guns versus mental health.

The Republican Party wants to keep using the gun issue to mobilize their voters, so they deflect by talking about mental health despite being reluctant to actually invest in mental health support. The Democratic Party wants to keep using the gun issue to mobilize their voters, so they focus on gun control while ignoring the bigger, societal problems that cause people to want to harm others, whether with a gun or not.

That stuff breaks my heart. It’s far too narrow of a conversation to speak to our collective pain and get to the deeper issues.

What I want to talk about is lonely men, including myself.

Because as much as I want to call the Highland Park shooter a “monster,” I know that’s not true. He’s a human being, just like me. He was raised as a boy in a society with narrow, limiting, harmful ideas about what boys should be like, just like me. He lives in this hyper-individualized, isolating, alienating capitalist society, just like me.

We know very little about why men commit violence at far higher rates than women. But researchers studying mass shooters have found that, “Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then [comes] hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers.”

Isolation has been haunting me since I can remember. Since I was a little boy playing video games in my room or kicking around fallen apples in my grandparents’ yard, I’ve craved more attention, more community, more connection. And depending on how alone I’ve felt, the despair, hopelessness, and self-loathing have been there too.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m clinically depressed. As Johann Hari says:

“We need to feel we belong, that we have meaning and purpose, that people value us and that we have autonomy. We live in a culture that’s not meeting those psychological needs for most people. It does not manifest as full-blown depression and anxiety in most people; for some people it’s just a feeling of unhappiness and a life less fulfilling than it could have been.”

We all can relate to that, right?

The more I’ve sat with and investigated my feelings, the more I’ve figured out they have a lot to do with our society’s ideas about masculinity — what it means to be a “real man.”

For many men — including myself — reaching out to make social contact leaves me feeling so vulnerable and open to rejection that I often just don’t do it. As therapist David Braucher writes, many men struggle with their “own self-imposed isolation — the damage caused by being raised male in a culture that teaches boys to be stoic and self-sufficient.”

My point is, the Highland Park shooter (and the Uvalde shooter and the Buffalo shooter and all the men committing violence every day) isn’t different than me. He isn’t inhuman. He isn’t a monster. He’s a little boy that must have felt so ignored, disconnected, alone, and unloved that he was willing to die for attention.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, therapist, and meditation teacher. Subscribe to my weekly email to get posts like this straight to your inbox here.

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Jeremy Mohler

Jeremy Mohler

Writer, therapist, and meditation teacher. Get my writing about navigating anxiety, burnout, relationship issues, and more: jeremymohler.blog/signup