It’s time we started talking about our young men, about why they become mass shooters, serial bombers, and homegrown terrorists. If any other demographic had demonstrated such a dangerous capacity for violence, we certainly would have probed deeper by now.
98% of mass shooters are men—and most are disaffected young men, whether American, Syrian, French, or Belgian—and they belong to and support a variety of religions and creeds. And yet, we are mostly silent about the demographics surrounding this particularly male phenomenon.
What makes this demographic so volatile? Some studies suggest increased testosterone or the relative immaturity of young men as compared to young women combined with violence prevalent within entertainment culture and easy access to weapons, may create the potentially lethal combination that explains why young men are more likely to commit mass murder.
Many of the murderers also seem to share a common biography across racial, religious, and geographic boundaries: they were young men who were unable to come to grips with a complex world that did not live up to their own cultural, political, and social expectations. After this, they latch onto some ideology, extremist interpretations of their religion, and/or misogyny to justify their violence.
This awareness of a disconnect between our expectations and reality happens to almost all of us. Life doesn’t work out the way you planned, so you adjust. Many people, unfortunately, tend to externalize frustration and often quickly turn to reasons “out there” for why things haven’t worked out. So if you can’t find a date, it’s feminism’s fault. If you can’t find a job, it must be the immigrants.
But what leads men, particularly young men, to act out their frustration through violence?
One thing missing from modern American culture is the initiation rite for young men. In almost all cultures, it was understood that boys did not just “become” men; rather, there was an intentional process that they had to undergo and that had to be acknowledged by the elders of the community. Without it, they’d become self-absorbed and violent.
Across cultures, the rites involved some form of separation from family, a humiliation of the ego, a time to grieve, an intentional or sacred wounding, and a time to be silent within nature. It was an intentional, liminal, vulnerable space, where life lessons could be learned through experience. It wasn’t about head knowledge, it was through body knowing.
Our culture initially used war as an initiation process, and when we weren’t at war, we used violent sports such as football or boxing to initiate. While imperfect, these substitutes could be helpful in teaching the young man about community, teamwork, and sacrifice.
According to writer and Catholic priest Fr. Richard Rohr, the intention of any initiation process is to communicate five hard truths:
- Life is hard.
- You are not that important.
- Your life is not about you.
- You are not in control.
- You are going to die.
The sacred experience of these truths would help the young boy transition into adulthood by desacralizing the self-absorbed ego, reintegrating him back into the community. If not initiated, the young man could become violent and narcissistic. Combine that with access to military grade weapons and extremist rhetoric, and you get a lethal combination.
In Britain an organization called a Band of Brothers has begun a process of initiation rites for formerly imprisoned young men at risk of recidivism. This joins a larger trend of male initiation rites for men throughout the western world.
After turning 25, I decided to attend a version of the male initiation rite. While the retreat was a simulation set within a Catholic Christian space, it helped me connect psychologically, communally, and cosmologically. Suddenly I saw things through a much broader vision than my own ego and the social expectations placed upon me. Suddenly I was unburdened of a lot of cultural baggage. I felt smaller, more humble, and yet also more free to live a good life, to live my life.
I’m aware that there is no one size fits all policy when it comes to any of this. But an anthropological reality remains, that our culture is missing something that many cultures believe is necessary for young men. And our culture is suffering from an epidemic of disaffected young men with access to deadly weapons.
Solutions abound for how to address this issue. Most are politically impossible given the current situation. But perhaps we could agree to some compromises in the meantime. We could raise the age that one could buy a weapon capable of committing a mass shooting. We could create some form of national service for young men and women. We, as people of faith, could draw on our rich history of initiation rites and network of Catholic high schools to reimagine how we form our young men in ways that don’t leave them radicalized by extreme ideologies.
We can and should talk about how these ideologies, combined with easy access to weapons, social isolation, and a lack of mental healthcare contribute to this issue. But we should also talk about the young men who commit the crimes: who they are, why they choose violence, and what we can do as a society to form them better.
Michael J. Sanem is the Director of Faith Formation at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri and studied history, philosophy, and theology at Loyola University Chicago and as a Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union.