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The Very American Rise of the Mass Shooter

Seamus McGraw’s new book, ‘From a Taller Tower,’ details how our culture of rage, victimhood, narcissism and love of guns has created an onslaught of violence that’s almost impossible to keep up with

On May 26th, a white 57-year-old municipal transit worker “known for nursing grievances and a hot temper” opened fire at a San Jose railyard, killing nine people before turning the gun on himself. It was the Bay Area’s deadliest mass shooting on record, but it only tied the March 22nd massacre at a Boulder grocery store for the highest mass shooting death toll in 2021, a year that’s seen 604 such shootings as of the first week of November. We still, of course, have two months to go. 

The proliferation of these attacks (and how desensitized we’ve become to them) is the subject of Seamus McGraw’s powerful new book From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Mass Shooter, a literary mixture of history, philosophy, theology, criminology, sociology, science and even a memoir chapter that details how, as a drunken 19-year-old, he witnessed an older man getting brained by a meathead with a tire iron. He and the few others on the train platform froze long enough for blood and teeth to splatter around them before springing to action. The point being, most people panic in violent situations or when facing down the barrel of a gun — even trained professionals. The epic American Western Gunslinging Heroes we all believe ourselves to be are best left up on movie screens.

A former crime reporter for the Bergen Record in New Jersey, McGraw, 63, takes direct aim at this country for washing its collective hands and conscience of the blood of strangers, including far too many whose lives had just begun and whose only crime was going to school. He wants all of us, but particularly the white men of his generation, to ask how the U.S. has allowed itself to become a place where a Massachusetts kindergarten teacher repurposes “Twinkle Twinkle” into this:

I recently spoke to McGraw about why he doesn’t consider these deaths “tragedies,” the life-shifting brilliance of March for Our Lives and how he knows wallowing in the world of mass murder didn’t destroyed his humanity.

Let me start by asking you about your background — particularly the years covering crime and how it ties into From a Taller Tower.

Forty years ago, I started out as a street reporter in New Jersey, navigating my way around towns like Patterson based on who had been killed. I covered all manner of horiffic crimes, including the rape and murder of 7-year-old Divina Genao by an ex-con with a history of mental illness and sex offenses, a massive institutional failure at every level. I put in a lot of time on the crime beat, but I reached my limit. About 15 years ago, I drifted away and started writing about the environment in books like A Thirsty Land: The Fight for Water in Texas, focusing on the fractures in society around these major climate issues. 

I was finishing up that book when the October 1, 2017 shooting at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas happened. My publisher is the University of Texas Press, and I said to them, “You have a moral obligation to do a book about this particular phenomenon because it started on your campus on August 1, 1966 with the Tower Shooting.” They said, “You’re right, we do have a moral obligation. When can you start?”

From A Taller Tower is about the specific lone wolf killer of strangers but are there commonalities with the everyday street crime you covered? 

Absolutely. A lot of street crime, no matter how violent, has an underpinning in economics, disenfranchisement and generational racism, but the proliferation of readily available certain species of weapons, the fetishization of things like “Say ‘ello to my lil’ friend” and the emergent culture of grievance…

“Bitterness is a virtue” is your perfect description in the book.

We’ve commoditized rage and narcissism and made it the coin of the realm. Against this backdrop of victimhood, there are applicable lessons across the spectrum. Localized trauma of gang violence may be more consistent, but mass shootings aren’t isolated incidents. All of us deal with the trauma from every mass shooting. We have become more anonymous on our streets but more intimate across the country. Whether it’s on a street corner over a neighborhood beef, or in a public square by a stranger, the distinctions don’t really matter. 

I have a friend whose father was on the University of Texas campus that horrific day, and one of the killers you interviewed is from my hometown high school and used to work with my brother. I mention this solely because it feels a bit like living in New York City after 9/11, the degrees of separation from the slaughter of average Americans aren’t that far apart, and they’re shrinking every day.

I’m not going to mention which shooting it was, but while working on the book, I got a call from a dear friend. She witnessed her best friend’s murder and wanted to talk — not for the book, for the trauma. Where the murders take place has no meaning anymore: school, grocery store, movie theater, house of worship, garlic festival… The trauma spreads horizontally through space and vertically through time. There is no safe space because this isn’t a product of any one locale or any one moment. It’s a product of who we are.

You link a lot of mass shootings together, but don’t mention any killers by name except University of Texas Tower shooter Charles Whitman and the Mandalay Bay gunman Stephen Paddock. Can you explain why?

I consider Whitman to be the first modern mass shooter, the first to do it in the television age and the narcissistic asshole who established the template. I think Paddock is the first postmodern mass shooter because the atrocity at Mandalay Bay was planned from the beginning to be from a taller tower with more fire power and a higher body count. He was steeped in the bullshit lore and mythology we’ve allowed to build up around these killers. Paddock deconstructed previous mass shootings, rehearsed his own death plot and even jotted down calculations in the name of efficiency so he could become the king of a hill of slaughtered bodies. 

Weapon fetishization plays a big role, but so does competition to do the most damage. The Sandy Hook killer was found with a copy of Amish Grace, which is a meditation on the impact of grief and the nature of forgiveness. In the aftermath of the murder of five young schoolgirls in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, the Amish community forgave the killer’s family. It’s a serious book, and far from a bestseller. I have no doubt the Sandy Hook shooter owned it as a benchmark. 

You hold a number of words and phrases around mass shootings in contempt.

Like tragedy? I bristle every time I hear these shootings described as tragedies. They aren’t fucking tragedies! They’re atrocities. Tragedies are things that just happen. Mass shootings are within our control to prevent. The killers are frauds; tragedies give these phony assholes some poetic dimension they don’t deserve. I’m adamant about using the right words. 

There’s a moment where the now middle-age man from my hometown, one of the few who didn’t take his own life, delivers the jaw-dropping insight into all of this—

“I thought I was the good guy with a gun.” 

Right, because there are no singularly definitive signposts or indicators of who becomes a mass shooter — many are bullied/many are bullies, the largest age group is 40 to 49, most guns are purchased legally, the majority aren’t clinically diagnosed with mental illness, a third aren’t white, etc. But the one throughline — other than the fact that 98 percent of them are male — is that they all consider themselves the hero of their own twisted story.

Exactly. It’s the killer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh saying, “Screw the optics. I’m going in.” As if this were a combat mission saving lives and not just murdering unarmed elderly Jews. There is no silver bullet to counter all the deadly lead ones — it’s always a combination of factors. But there is usually a stunted adolescent belief in some bullshit vengeance narrative. Look at the massage parlor killer in Atlanta, he basically said I’m too weak to control my sexual impulses, so I’m going to grab a firearm and murder seven women as some kind of spiritual reckoning. Think about the rank narcissism in that and tell me it’s not what we hear echoed in the larger culture. It’s a bug that’s infected our entire society, so it’s become hard to tell who presents a real threat.

Not exactly on topic, but the personal hero story that jumps to mind recently is Kyle Rittenhouse, the kid in Kenosha play-acting military and murdering two people.

It’s what school shooters do when school is in lockdown. 

On the other hand, in one of the hardest chapters to reckon with, an actual “good guy with a gun” who helped end the Sutherland Springs church massacre, holds the not uncommon Christian belief that Jesus Christ and AR-15s are working as one in a battle against Satan.

Make no mistake about it, Stephen Willeford is a true American hero. But the most important line in that chapter is when he acknowledges that had he not been able to open his gun safe, he still would have headed to the church to do what he could that terrible morning. The killer had no idea if Willeford had a gun or not when he called him out of the church. We’ve allowed powerful charlatans to combine two phrases that don’t belong together. Words matter. We need to decouple them. Willeford was a good guy. Or a good guy and a gun. Most people under those circumstances wouldn’t do what he did, gun or not. 

To that point, the book ends before the pandemic, but do you see the same culture of rage, grievance and indifference to the loss of life driving the anti-vaxxers?

Yes, it’s really what the book is about. I didn’t set out to write a 2,478 count indictment of my culture, but that’s what I ended up doing. I’m a 63-year-old white guy, and I wrote the book for other 63-year-old white guys because I speak the language. I’m about to get my .50-caliber flintlock rifle out to roam the woods hunting deer until the end of January. I wrote the book knowing the problem is guys like me. Not wearing masks at a public health hearing isn’t far removed from the guy a few miles away from my home who opened fire on a township committee meeting because they told him to clean up the piles of junk in his yard. He claimed they were infringing on his sovereignty and identity, and he was feeling threatened. It’s the same act — anti-masking and all that stuff. I hate to get political, but all of these perverse self-centered idiosyncrasies have become a political movement, one that held the presidency for four years. 

So then, what do you think of the rise of the young, diverse Parkland Movement?

I’m thrilled. It’s time for us old white dudes to sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up. My whole career has been writing about fractures in society and looking for ways to bridge them, but for some things, like the mass shooting epidemic, there is no room for compromise. This is one of the rare moments when I think the right kind of anger is rising to meet the moment. Enough with the guys who purport to speak for us old white guys. They have made too many of us more radical, intransigent and absurd, with a staunch refusal to find any kind of even basic solutions to the underlying issues. 

Those who were slaughtered at Nickel Mines or Sandy Hook would or could not speak for themselves, so the message got co-opted and distorted by and for people like me. The survivors of Parkland are speaking for themselves so eloquently, even turning our collective silence back on the atrocities we allow to happen again and again. I have four kids, their ages range from 16 to 30, and none of them ever pick up a firearm. The reason is because guns represent an ugly foreign culture they don’t identify with, or want to be a part of, which I think is representative. The Parkland kids have had a profound impact. It’s simply remarkable what they’ve accomplished. 

Is there anything specific to the younger incel-type mass shooters who fall in the same generation as the Parkland kids? 

I need to point out that school shooters are younger but not mass shooters overall. Hell, in the 1980s, before Columbine, “going postal” became an expression because so many shootings involved middle-age postmen. The reason school shooters are younger is because killers generally target familiar places. But to answer your question about murderers like the one in Isla Vista, California — the so-called “Incel Killer” — I think from the time they’re sentient, a lot of American males are led to believe that they’re entitled to certain things. Other countries have violence, but not like this, because they don’t prize victimhood. Shame is still part of society. A self-absorbed culture like ours becomes particularly heightened when you’re younger. Add in fame-seeking copycats and shooters trying to top the record, “kill the last killer” as it were, and the phenomenon is easy to fathom. There will be more. 

Along those lines, The Trace reported Americans bought 1.6-million guns in September, which is 20 percent over September 2020, but still the 16th highest month on record. Does it even fucking matter what laws may or may not be passed? Haven’t the guns already won? 

I don’t think guns have necessarily already won. There is evidence that background checks work; Connecticut’s firearm homicide rate decreased by 40 percent when a law was passed following Sandy Hook. The starting point of closing the loopholes would be a big help. I also differ from some stringent gun control advocates in that I believe stronger registration for semi-automatic weapons would make a major difference. In the early days of concealed carry, potential owners had to meet with local authorities, get fingerprinted, pass a thorough background check and so on. It was like getting a merit badge. 

Culturally, things are also shifting and I think it’s of equal importance. Here’s an example: A few years ago, an outfitter near me was mainly selling ARs, to the point I quit shopping at his place because it wasn’t for hunters anymore. Following the Parkland lead, students held a March Four Our Lives Rally in town, which included a moment of silence in front of his store. Almost immediately thereafter, the hunting rifles started to come back. Mass shooters fetishize certain weapons like AR-15s — they see them as part of their identity — which is a problem that can be tackled if we have the political will. 

I’ve only written one article about one mass shooting, but wading through the details, especially of a six-year-old boy in a barbershop, took a toll for a while. How was it for you writing From a Taller Tower? Did you take a lot of breaks? 

I didn’t. I probably should have because I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t have an impact on me. I learned to compartmentalize a long time ago, but violent stories always creep up on you when you least expect it. For this book, it was when I sat down with the first cop through the door at West Nickel Mines. He said the hardest order he ever gave came in the fog of war, telling the parents of a little girl barely alive to stay behind a picket fence — they’re Amish so they obeyed — while simultaneously telling a fellow officer to stay with her so she wouldn’t die alone. 

I’ve gone over that story a hundred times. But even now, talking to you, I still can’t think about it without choking up. You want to know how I handle this? I thank God I still get choked up. It means that for all of my railing against a society that provides cover and sustenance for these killers, I, we, are still pained enough to be outraged. As long as we have that…