This is an edited transcript of a conversation between Freddy Gray and Lionel Shriver on The Spectator’s Americano podcast, which you can listen to here.
Freddy Gray: Lionel, I feel a bit guilty asking you to talk about this, because I know you’ve become a kind of go-to person about mass shootings in America because you wrote a very significant novel – We Need to Talk About Kevin. You’ve written before about how awkward it is that every time there’s a mass shooting in America, people ask you to come on and talk about it. But in your book, the killer was using a bow, not a gun. So you don’t really feel well qualified to talk about the gun debate. Am I summing that up right?
Lionel Shriver: I went through a long time of just refusing to participate, because one of the observations that I continually made on these appearances is that it’s our excessive attention to these shootings that helps encourage them because the shooter often wants to publicise himself. For example, these shooters are often driven by a peculiar combination of grandiosity and low self-esteem. They are willing to risk or even lose their lives in order to make a final splash on the way out.
Freddy Gray: That’s very extraordinary, isn’t it? The idea that you would want to be so famous so much that you don’t care if you’re dead.
Lionel Shriver: It’s remarkable. We’ve now had two killings within the last several years that entailed the massacre of very small children. And that is a unique subcategory. The whole thing is baffling, but it takes an extra twist of mind to want to kill little kids. I’m a novelist, so it’s my job to imagine my way into the mind of such a person. And I have difficulty doing it, because I just don’t understand directing your animosity at small children. There’s no way these kids ever did anything to that 18-year-old boy. So what is it? I’m more interested in this than the gun control debate. It’s more interesting to me what goes wrong in someone’s head that they are driven to an act of such nihilism. It is profoundly anti-life, it is profoundly spiteful, and it is directing that spite at the last people you would think deserved it. It’s almost designed to be the worst thing you could possibly do on purpose.
Freddy Gray: Let’s deal with the psychopathy here, the desire to do the worst possible thing you can do. Because these incidences are increasing. What is driving young men to do the worst possible thing they can do? Tell me if I’m barking up the wrong tree here, but I think it’s probably the internet. It’s the sharing of this sense of ‘who can go sicker, who can go further, who can do the most disgusting thing you can do’. Doing something so fundamentally inhuman is the point, is it not?
Lionel Shriver: I’m not sure I would blame the internet this time. The school shooting phenomenon predates any mass exposure to the internet. This is deeper and sicker than that. There’s definitely a sick element of competition: I think there’s a competition over body count.
Freddy Gray: Do you believe that it’s evil? Do you believe in the idea of evil?
Lionel Shriver: I think it’s an apt word as a description of what happened. I don’t think it’s a very useful word as a description of people. Evil has an intrinsically unknowable quality, and it’s a way of dehumanising someone. It removes any obligation to understand them. But there are people where it’s hard to use any other label. You get to the point where you just throw up your hands and say ‘I don’t understand this person, so I’m just going to lift from myself the requirement that I make that effort’. In this particular case, I understand that. But the label ‘evil’ doesn’t get you anywhere. It does not advance understanding. It’s a fundamentally useless category.
Freddy Gray: Why are we so fascinated by these events? Is the evil not just down to the individual, but the evil in all humanity? In the age of mass media, there is something interesting and fascinating in doing something so terrible, which is evil.
Lionel Shriver: People do terrible things to each other. Look at Ukraine. The people who do these terrible things usually have some reason they tell themselves. We know what Putin tells himself. But I think we are more focused on the individual instance rather than a whole army doing horrible things because it personalises it. I’ve read what I could about the nature of the shooter. I think we’re all curious. We might feel a little guilty about how curious we are. But I have combed the papers looking for some kind of explanation. I think we’re all looking for meaning in these incidents, and in some ways that is our mistake. There isn’t necessarily a lesson. That’s one of the reasons I get frustrated with the gun control argument, because that is an impulse to derive something useful from this. And actually, there is nothing to take away. There is nothing good about this. And it doesn’t teach us anything. I have read any number of pieces now about how we have a crisis among young men. But to generalise about all the young men in the US on the basis of this handful of individuals is probably a mistake. It does a disservice to young American men in general.
Freddy Gray: The number of people willing to do a mass shooting is increasing, and there is some sort of debate to be had about assault weaponry which America doesn’t seem willing to have. Joe Biden gave – by his standards – a very eloquent speech about gun control this week. But I feel we’ve just heard this over and over again: ‘we would fix this, but we can’t because of the NRA or the gun lobby’. I wonder whether they really want to fix it because it suits them to pose as the people who want to sort this problem. But they don’t actually want to do it.
Lionel Shriver: Because it wouldn’t work. I have been a supporter of more stringent requirements for gun purchases in the United States. But I can’t see this problem being solved: you would have to close all the gun stores, withdraw or reinterpret the Second Amendment, and remove all the 400 million guns in the United States. The one restriction that would have kept this incident from happening would have been raising the age limit to 21 instead of 18. But there are many, many other incidents where that wouldn’t have helped. So background checks wouldn’t have worked on this shooter: this latest shooter didn’t have a criminal record. And there’s a lot of talk about the gun lobby, but the NRA has really been crippled and doesn’t really pour that much money into Congress anymore. Republicans are reading their constituency and it’s their constituents who don’t want stricter gun legislation. I think the calculation is that you would lose more than you gained by passing some federal law. And I am just not that optimistic that the measures being discussed would bring this phenomenon to an end.
Freddy Gray: I suppose what a lot of non-Americans don’t understand is the actual point of the Second Amendment.
Lionel Shriver: There are some constitutional scholars who believe it was merely encouraging people to be able to defend themselves in the form of militias before police and an organised army were widespread. Then there’s the other interpretation, which is that it is your right to be able to defend yourself as an individual. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but it would be a big transformation for us to go back to that earlier interpretation of the Second Amendment. I mean in other words, good luck with that.
Freddy Gray: Gun ownership has increased quite dramatically in the last few years, and people are putting that down to a couple of things. One is Covid: when individuals feel the state is infringing on their liberties, they feel the need to tool up against the state. The other one is Black Lives Matter. When the riots happened, a sense of lawlessness kicked in. A lot of Americans felt their properties weren’t safe because the political class were encouraging these riots and the burning down of cities, and they wanted to arm up, which I think is rational. I think Brits can be very sneery about this, but unless you’ve lived in Kenosha or somewhere like that, you don’t really know how it felt.
Lionel Shriver: I think there is an overall sense of lawlessness that is growing in the United States, and that is not just a subjective impression. It’s reflected in the statistics. It’s not just the murder rate that’s going up: shoplifting is rife. Furthermore, this sense of everything being out of control is fed by what’s going on at the southern border where literally millions of people are pouring into the United States, and we don’t know who they are. I wouldn’t denigrate them broadly, but certainly some of them are drug runners bringing huge amounts of fentanyl and meth into the US. And at the same time, we’ve got this huge drug addiction problem. 100,000 people died of drug overdoses last year in the US. It’s a collective feeling of the centre not holding. Then you pile Covid on top of that, and you pour Black Lives Matter on top of that. And you’ve got a lot of rhetoric in our institutions talking about what a horrible place the United States is, and that it’s institutionally racist and you’re horrible because you’re white, and you were born bigoted and will probably die bigoted, and that we can’t wait for you to go away so that the entire country is made up of non-white minorities. I don’t know how much this whole feeling is an ingredient in these mass shootings, but it’s almost like a feedback loop because my sense of these young men is that they are a state of despair. I think they’re experiencing rage, resentment and hatred. But the other side of the misanthropy is self-hatred. Anger is a defensive emotion. It takes dark emotions and projects them outwards. What’s underneath it is depression: a feeling of having no self-worth and feeling that there is no future for you. A bleakness. That’s what’s behind this.
Freddy Gray: When we talk about these things, we end up talking about gun control. But it’s a bigger problem, isn’t it?
Lionel Shriver: I think one of the things that has started to become super creepy about these incidents is that everyone is watching what group the shooter is in, and what group the victims are in. What’s their ethnicity? What’s their race? But this time, the shooter is Hispanic, and as far as I could tell, all the victims were Hispanic. And that’s inconvenient for the Democrats because they’ve been selling this notion that the biggest problem in the United States right now is white supremacy. When the FBI talks about domestic terrorism now, they’re no longer talking about Islamist culprits, but white people who are bigoted and have to be stopped. I have never seen any reliable data that back that this is indeed the case, that white supremacist violence is going through the roof in the United States. It’s taken as a given on the Democratic side. The Buffalo incident was perfect for them. It seemed to validate this larger view that the biggest problem the United States has in terms of domestic violence is white supremacists on the rampage. This latest one doesn’t fit in the box. So that’s why we’re talking about gun control instead.
Freddy Gray: Do you think the conversation moves onto gun control when the racial discussion doesn’t work?
Lionel Shriver: That’s right. A lot of the gun violence is, we should clarify, intra-racial: black people shooting other black people. And that’s not convenient.
Freddy Gray: It’s not convenient. But also, why it should be? The problem is deeper than race.
Lionel Shriver: The other thing we shouldn’t forget to mention is that the people who are most victimised by gun violence are suicides. More than half of the people killed by guns in the United States were people killing themselves. And most of the people who are shooting themselves are white.
Freddy Gray: Do you think this whole issue is where Europeans and Americans just don’t understand each other? Because America is essentially a huge experiment in freedom. I don’t think Europeans understand the extent to which the right to bear a gun is part of the American experiment with liberty. If you look at something like Covid, that very much taps into the American sense that if the state has too much power, it will start to infringe on your basic human liberties. Therefore, the appeal of a gun is more attractive, isn’t it? It’s your way of saying you don’t get to tell me exactly how I can live my life.
Lionel Shriver: Conventionally the state has a monopoly on violence. Americans are more traditionally mistrustful of the state and authority in general than Europeans are. Europeans are much more prone to regard the state as their protector, and in fact they have too much faith in the state. They tend to believe that government can solve all their problems, and it can’t. But when you give over to government the power to solve all your problems, then you don’t have any power. That’s a kind of tyranny, a voluntary tyranny. And that’s one of the things that went wrong with Covid. We made it the state’s problem. I liked the fact that there was a constituency in the United States that was not just going to roll over and say, we have to wear a mask outside all the time, we can’t visit anybody, or we can’t see more than one person six feet apart outside. At least somebody questioned that authority. I think that’s the good side of the United States.
Freddy Gray: So do I. I think it’s also very attractive to non-Americans, this idea that you can actually get a gun and tell the government to get lost.
Lionel Shriver: It’s part of an ethos of self-reliance. If somebody breaks into your house, you are going to defend your territory yourself.
Freddy Gray: That’s obviously tied into the Puritan ethic. But do you think what’s maybe going wrong and perhaps why we’re having all these mass shootings now is that you have the individualistic ethic in America without the Puritan self-restraint. So you have this ‘I can do what I want’ attitude, but no counterweight.
Lionel Shriver: We’re developing a culture of pathological self-pity. We have this whole therapeutic culture which says we’re all mentally ill. That’s all part of this victim ethos as well. You have to be oppressed in order to get any respect. It’s perfectly the opposite of what traditional American culture has elevated: the self-reliance, the individualism, wanting to be a self-made man. You never hear that expression anymore. Rather than getting kids to toughen up and get ready for adulthood, they are much more likely to be coddled. It’s not a culture that celebrates strength anymore. It celebrates weakness. And we are motivating people to feel sorry for themselves. There’s no question that these shooters feel deeply sorry for themselves. That’s one of the things I found from doing a lot of reading about school shootings.
Freddy Gray: Do you think you could come up with We Need to Talk About Kevin now, or has the world changed since you wrote it?
Lionel Shriver: I thought when the book was published, the phenomenon would disappear because it would become passé. It would become trite to the point where we weren’t given them as much attention anymore. I was totally wrong and it got worse. I wish I had been right. I wish I had been right. Yes, I could write Kevin today. The only thing that’s changed is the body counts have gone up enough that if I were writing Kevin today, seven kids, a cafeteria worker and a teacher would not be devastating enough.