Demonic Males

What if Barack Obama — once a troubled young man, by his own admission — came to see the violence problems vexing the end of his administration, as male problems?

One week after Christopher Harper Mercer killed nine people and himself at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, we’re working toward a different viewpoint on the crisis.

And it is a crisis: a recent CRS report found that between 1999 and 2013 in America, there have been 314 mass shootings that have claimed more than 1,500 lives. As for the killer, there’s a type: 98% of them were committed by men — the average age is 28. And as violent crime drops, this kind of killing is on the rise according to research done at Harvard:


When we think about mass killings, we think of Dylann Roof’s massacre in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic killing spree in Santa Barbara. James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theater, and Adam Lanza killed 26 in an elementary school. We call them ‘loners’ living on the internet, amateur extremists. Sometimes they’re mentally ill, sometimes they’re enabled by a promiscuous gun culture akin to idolatry. (Meanwhile, there are Chicago neighborhoods with homicide rates higher than those in Honduras, the murder capital of the world.)

But what if we claimed them as sons, of our families, our country, our sex (for 49% of us), and of our species? That’s where our guest Andrew Solomon, the writer and psychologist, begins in his book, Far From The Tree. He has embedded with several of the families of mass shooters — first with Tom and Sue Klebold, then with Peter Lanza, father to the Newtown killer:

Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia, points out that many young men are asocial and unhappy, spend too much time online, become video-game addicts—but cause no harm. The few dangerous ones are impossible to identify. “Even if we knew who they were or were likely to be, whether they’d actually accept treatment is an open question. Among the hardest people to engage in treatment are young males who may be angry, suspicious, and socially isolated. Coming to a therapist’s office for an hour a week just to pour their heart out doesn’t seem like a particularly attractive opportunity, in general.”

Solomon writes up the element of mystery in the personal decision to commit violence, and still acknowledges the trends. You can hear a longer version of our conversation with him here:

The mass shooting is a distinctly American phenomenon, so much so that The Onion has made a dark, running joke of it. But the male pattern applies elsewhere: Åsne Seierstad once told us the story of Norway’s resident mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, a 33-year-old Warcraft obsessive who became the deadliest of them all one day in 2011.

Meanwhile, the average of the 9/11 hijackers was 26, Latin America is overrun by young men in gangs, and ISIS has welcomed 30,000 new recruits — mostly angry young men drawn down from Europe, Asia, and the countries of the Persian Gulf.

The primatologist Richard Wrangham will take us back to our origins, to the moment in evolutionary history when what he calls “demonic males” emerged in our hominid ancestors. We still see troops of male chimps launch bloody territorial ambushes. What should we see in that other world?

So with Solomon, Wrangham, doctor-anthropologist Melvin Konner and sociologist Michael Kimmel, we’ll ask whether the roots of our violence lie in our genes, our guns, or our guys — and what we can do to pacify the unfair sex.

Related Content