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Opinion

Shootings reflect bully culture

It happened again. Monday morning, news broke of

another school shooting, this one in rural Pennsylvania. Charles Carl Roberts

IV, age 32, a milk truck driver, shot 10 girls, killing five, in an Amish

schoolhouse.

It's the fifth school shooting in the country in six weeks and the 33rd in

the past decade.

What's behind the violence? In almost every shooting, boys attacked other

boys who questioned their masculinity by relentlessly teasing them or calling

them gay, or they attacked girls after being rejected or having some other

difficulty with them.

We live in a bully society. Americans will intimidate and undermine their

peers to get ahead at work. We have brought back the death penalty with a

vengeance. Our prison population has increased eight times over since the

1970s. Revenge and retaliation are an accepted first response to conflict.

Our society's definition of masculinity - heterosexual, tough and dominant

over women - encourages bullying and assault against females.

Although Charles Carl Roberts' entire history is not known - he said he

molested children when he was an adolescent and wanted to do it again - my

study of school shootings since 1996 shows that bullying and trouble with

females triggered almost all of them.

Workplace massacres doubled since the 1970s, almost always a case of

ultimate retaliation against relentless bullying. The New York Times reported

in 2006 more frequent homicides in many parts of the country, most committed by

men and stemming from arguments about women or in other ways a defense of

their masculinity.

By picking up guns, these males (and with one exception each, workplace and

school shooters have all been male) became instantly more powerful, more

aggressive and dominant over women.

These men were trying to affirm their manhood according to our society's

definition, drilled into us from childhood. Americans consider aggression a

normal part of being a boy. Research shows that teachers intervene in only 4

percent of bullying incidents, waving off fights as "a rite of passage" for

boys. Parents, social workers, administrators and sometimes court officials

even encourage it, saying, "If he bothers you, fight back," or "Stand up for

yourself. Be a man." These attitudes create and fuel the bully society, which

in extreme cases explodes in violence.

Sociologist James W. Messerschmidt, whose many books include "Masculinities

and Crime," finds that boys are more likely to choose violence if they are

taught to emulate male role models who do so. The boys in Messerschmidt's study

cite fathers, grandfathers and friends who taught them to physically fight

when they were teased and to put women in their place.

One boy explained: "When you keep a girl in check, that's the way it should

be. If she talks -- and you slap her down, that would not be violence." The

1986 film "River's Edge" opens with a teenager who just killed his girlfriend.

His justification: "She was talking --."

The shock of this week's shootings is that grown men entered schools to

prey on innocent girls, ages 6 to 16 - girls with whom (with the exception of

one Amish schoolgirl whose family reportedly was on Roberts' milk delivery

route) they had no connection. The Pennsylvania gunman seems to have intended

to sexually assault the girls he captured before killing them. Less than a week

earlier, Duane Morrisson, 53, took six girls hostage at their school in

Bailey, Colo., and sexually assaulted them before killing 16-year-old Emily

Keyes and himself. Both men let the boys leave first.

In addition to targeting the boys who bullied them and the girls who

rejected them, school shooters also sometimes attack people who are similar to

those that they feel gave them grief. Some randomly shot people they described

as "preps" or "jocks" whom they blamed as a group for mistreating them; others

aimed at girls in general, not just the ones whom they felt had wronged them.

There was a time not long ago when people having a conflict at school or

work would "take it outside." But today, no place - including even houses of

worship - seems off limits to violence.

Some shooters, besides feeling personally wronged, are raging against a

society they believe will never change. Luke Woodham was 16 when he killed his

ex-girlfriend and her best friend at school, and his mother a few hours

earlier, in Mississippi in 1997. "I am not insane. I am angry," he said. "I

killed because people like me are mistreated every day."

We must overhaul this bully society into a civilized community. Consider

the words of Michael Carneal, who at age 14 killed three girls who rejected him

in his small town in Kentucky. He said from prison, "People respect me now."

Jessie Klein is a sociology professor at Adelphi University. She is at work

on two books, "The Gender Police" and "The Bully Society." She is a former

public school teacher, social worker and guidance administrator.

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