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Published: Thursday, 10/5/2006

New horrors, no answers

ANOTHER school shooting - the fifth in the United States in a month - yet the so-called experts still seem to grasp at straws in an effort to explain a phenomenon that has become a grotesque fixture of the American culture of violence.

The summary murders of five girls from an Amish enclave in eastern Pennsylvania batter the senses, perhaps more horrific than any of more than 400 violent school deaths reported in this country since 1992.

The shooter this time: a 32-year-old milk hauler, apparently tormented by dreams of having molested little girls two decades ago. That he would now carefully plan and carry out execution-style killings of similar helpless victims is nearly beyond belief and far beyond the bounds of any rational explanation.

"Why?" is a question that cannot be answered, and maybe never will.

Scarcely more intelligible are the other recent episodes: the drifter who takes female hostages in a Colorado school and kills one; the North Carolina 18-year-old who kills his father, then heads for the local school and shoots two students; a man out for revenge against an old girlfriend who kills a teacher in Vermont, and a high school freshman who claims to have been bullied shoots his principal to death in Wisconsin.

The common thread in the latest shootings is that they were perpetrated by intruders who invaded schools, contrary to a trend of inside violence mostly carried out by students against students or school administrators.

Great Barrington, Mass., 1992; Fort Myers, Fla., 1994; Olathe, Kansas, 1995; Moses Lake, Wash., 1996; West Paducah, Ky., 1997; Jonesboro, Ark., 1998; Littleton, Col. (Columbine), 1999; Red Lion, Pa., 2003; Red Lake, Minn., 2005.

The names, places, and details of the multiple shootings fade into a numbing sameness.

According to the National School Safety Center, some of the school deaths were accidental, a few were due to retaliation for bullying, some were gang-related, some were suicides, and a large number were the result of plain old interpersonal disputes, which are just as sad but are understandable.

But the reasons for by far the greatest portion, some 34 percent, are listed as "unexplained," as when a man with firearms and explosives bursts into a school, barricades himself inside with two by fours, sends away the male students, binds more than a dozen girls together in front of a blackboard, and methodically shoots them.

That's what happened the other day near Quarryville, Pa. How do you explain that? We can't, but whole books have been written about the subject.

James Alan Fox, who wrote The Will to Kill: Explaining Senseless Murder, puts it this way: "If you want to find young kids and get even with society, a school is an ideal place for doing that. They represent a place where people may have felt unhappy, their self-esteem was threatened, where they were bullied, and where they decide to get revenge."

That's an explanation, all right, but it does not reveal why people so often feel compelled to satisfy their grievances with extreme violence. That just doesn't make any sense, and perhaps it never will.



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