Against Satanic Panics > Recent scaremongers > Dawn Perlmutter > Schoolyard shootings

Dawn Perlmutter on schoolyard shootings

by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2006 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

While doing Internet research on Dawn Perlmutter, I came across Postmodern Iconoclasm: Violence in the School Yard, a paper she presented in 1999 at a conference of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R). The conference was held at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. For some reason, Dawn Perlmutter has chosen not to include this paper among the "Internet publications" listed on the website of her Institute for the Research of Organized and Ritual Violence.

At the top of her paper on "Postmodern Iconoclasm: Violence in the School Yard," she is identified as an "Assistant Professor of Art & Philosophy, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania." Note that her academic fields of expertise were art and philosophy, not any social science, nor religion either, for that matter.

I wonder why she doesn't list this paper on her website. In many ways, her paper on schoolyard violence actually makes a lot more sense than most of what she says in the papers she does list on her website. But, on the other hand, this paper clearly exposes her tendency to see "sacred violence" everywhere - even in contexts which the vast majority of people (including, probably, most of the cops who have been spending tax dollars on her consulting service these days) would not see as religious at all. Her paper begins as follows:

Sacred spaces are usually associated with churches, synagogues and mosques and are characterized as areas in which members of a community congregate to worship in a shared belief system. It is qualitatively different than profane space. School yards are also sacred grounds where members of a community congregate, engage in highly ritualized activities and have a shared belief system. When students choose to kill on school grounds their actions go beyond random acts of violence to embody qualities of sacrilege, blaspheme and desecration. They are iconoclastic actions. By viewing school yard murders in the context of aesthetic and ritual theory I will demonstrate that these acts of violence are neither random, inexplicable or illogical. They are contemporary manifestations of iconoclasm.

The above is a blatant yet relatively harmless example of her propensity for seeing "sacred violence" everywhere. At least, in this case, it's only a matter of semantics. Is a schoolyard "sacred space"? Depends how you define "sacred." Should a murder on school grounds necessarily be considered an act of "sacrilege" rather than just murder? Depends how you define "sacrilege."

I consider the above-quoted paragraph to be a relatively harmless manifestation of Perlmutter's bias because it does not involve smearing religions or subcultures she disapproves of as inherently prone to ritual murder, nor does it involve Perlmutter assuming that the many probably-innocent people accused of "Satanic ritual abuse" must be guilty on the mere grounds that the many skeptics - of many different schools of thought - don't share her "perspective." The latter, much more objectionable manifestations of her bias are displayed in the "Internet publications" which she does link to on her website, and which I've reviewed on the pages below:

Her article on schoolyard shootings contains some defamatory overgeneralizations about Satanism too, but only as an aside, not as one of her main points. For example, about halfway down the page, she writes:

Satanism is an especially violent and highly ritualized belief system. It is intrinsically related to Christian ideology as a reversal of it's ethical tenets. This reversal is expressed symbolically by performing rituals that are specifically prohibited in the bible, for example incest, sacrifice, bloodletting, backward prayers, reversed writing, etc. in order to empower the worshipper with magic.

Criminal activities such as "sacrifice" are not practiced by the vast majority of real-life Satanists and are not, by any means, an essential part of Satanism. Most forms of Satanism specifically reject these activities on various grounds. Nor are Satanists especially likely to practice incest. As for "backward prayers," these are used by some as a form of catharsis, but not as the main rite of most forms of Satanism. (See The Ritual of the Lord's Prayer Backwards on the Black Goat Cabal website, and see also the chapter on "The Black Mass" in Anton LaVey's Satanic Bible.)

However, the remainder of her article contains what I suspect may be some valid insights into the real reasons why some kids go on shooting sprees on school grounds, whether in the name of Satan or otherwise.

In the second paragraph she describes three shooting sprees that occurred in the late 1990's. She then writes:

It became evident after the investigations into these incidents that each of the teenagers felt like outsiders, loners, and misfits that were shunned from the school community. This led them to retreat into their own worlds in which they tried to obtain some sense of importance. Some of them found other outsiders which served the purpose of support for each other. Since they had already been outcast it only seemed to inspire a tremendous sense of loyalty among each other, even if it proved to be a misguided sense of loyalty.

She then writes briefly about some of the specific problems that the killers in the three cases each had with their peers. After that she goes on for a bit about how shame can motivate violence. She also says:

The emotions of shame and alienation that each of these teenagers experienced led them to embrace alternative styles. The significant aspect is that the aesthetic that these children chose to identity with was invariably comprised of violence which served to instill a sense of strength that would gain them the respect of their peers.

To that end, one of the killers was fond of wearing military and hunting attire, while another pretended to be a gang member, and another got into a form of "Satanism."

But Perlmutter also mentions that another young killer, in one of the three cases she examined in detail, seemed pretty plain and ordinary except for a fondness for showing off his guns, and that even the latter wasn't unusual in Kentucky, where guns are commonplace.

She then writes:

Dr. Katz describes the attitude of what he refers to as the Bad-ass to exemplify how toughness is not just an adolescent act but a complete aesthetic lifestyle. He explains; "In many youthful circles, to be "bad", to be a "bad-ass," or otherwise overtly to embrace symbols of deviance is regarded as a good thing."(12) He then proceeds to describe three degrees of intimidating aggression and gives examples of the various levels of aggression as they are manifested in the style and aesthetic of various street gangs. This is applicable to this study in that each of the teens failed attempts at being tough as evidenced in mimicking gangs, joining a satanic cult and making feeble threats only managed to bring further humiliation upon them which subsequently forced them to establish through murder that they should be taken seriously. According to Katz;

The person who would be tough must cultivate in others the perception that they cannot reach his sensibilities. Adolescents who would achieve a foreign and hostile presence in interaction must go farther and participate in a collective project to produce an alien esthetic. But the shaping of a tough image and the practice of an alien sensibility are insufficient to ensure that one will be "bad." Those who would be bad are always pursued by powerful spiritual enemies who soften tough postures and upset the carefully balanced cultures of alienation, making them appear silly, puerile, and banal and thus undermining their potential for intimidation. To survive unwanted imitators, you must show that unlike the kids, you're not kidding; unlike the gays, your not playing; unlike the fashionable middle class, you understand fully and embrace the evil of your style. You must show that you mean it.(Jack Katz, Seductions of Crime, Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil (New York: Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1988) 99.)

Mitchell Johnson who wore red to demonstrate he was a gang member was not tough enough, Andrew Golden riding around the neighborhood in Military fatigues and carrying a knife was not tough enough, Michael Carneal showing off guns was not tough enough, and Luke Woodham joining a cult and threatening harm was not tough enough. It took the deaths of their schoolmates to demonstrate that they were serious bad-asses that meant business.

In the last paragraph, she says: "Although I did not discuss the most common suggested motivations for these incidents which include media influence, lack of parental guidance and access to guns I do not exclude them either. Each of these factors constitute part of American culture hence contributing to the violent manifestations that are erupting in children." And she says that the shootings "are not simply manifestations of rage, they are eruptions of moral indignation at being shunned from a community that preaches love thy neighbors."

Admittedly I'm no expert on young violent criminals, but most what she has said above does seem reasonable, based on what little I do know. At the very least, it seems a lot more reasonable than most of what Perlmutter has said in the papers of hers that she does list on her website.

And, although Dawn Perlmutter herself doesn't say this, her analysis in this paper does make it clear that kids who have dabbled in Satanism and killed their classmates have the same motives as other kids who have killed their classmates; thus, their "Satanism" isn't what made them do it. Maybe that's the reason why Perlmutter doesn't list this paper on her website -- because it would undercut her efforts to vilify Satanism and her claims about the alleged vital importance of "symbolic analysis"?

To the extent that the ideas Perlmutter has presented in this paper are valid, they also suggest one way that we Satanists could perhaps reduce the number of violence-prone young people who are drawn to Satanism. I've noticed that the Satanist scene's undesirables tend to be homophobic; so, we could probably get rid of a lot of them by encouraging gay Satanists, especially gay male Satanists, to be as public as possible about both their Satanism and their sexual orientation. This would probably make Satanism a lot less attractive to many of the kids who would otherwise be drawn to it for no reason other than as a means of appearing tough and macho. And I, for one, feel that the Satanist scene would better off without these kids.

In the last paragraph of her paper on school shootings, Perlmutter points out that the shootings have been occurring in the Bible Belt. She mentions this only as part of her argument that the shootings should be thought of "in religious terms," but I think it's significant in other ways too. One is that a fanatical Christian upbringing can be one more factor in driving a kid crazy. Another is that the Bible Belt is largely rural; hence kids in the Bible Belt are more likely to have access to guns than kids outside the Bible Belt.

Another important point about the Bible Belt is that quite a few fundamentalist Christians there are obsessed with "Satanism" as a threat and see it everywhere, in some cases accusing even mainstream atheists of "worshiping Satan." (See the thread The notion that atheists "worship Satan" (???!!) on the Internet Infidels message board.) So, if a kid in the Bible Belt really wants to shock the grownups, what will the kid do? Get into "Satanism," of course (at least temporarily) - and the kid's idea of "Satanism" will be based more on mass media sensationalism and fundamentalist/evangelical Christian propaganda than on the writings of anyone seriously committed to Satanism as a religion.

So, if indeed Dawn Perlmutter is truly worried about kids getting into "Satanism" - especially criminal activities in the name of "Satanism" - then the logical thing for her to do about it would be to stop contributing to the mass media sensationalism surrounding Satanism. By running around making the claims she makes in the papers she does link to on her website, she is, in fact, exacerbating the very problem she purports to be fighting against. By appearing on TV shows and presenting Satanism as a horribly murderous religion, she increases the likelihood that some kids will identify as "Satanists" in order to appear tough and macho and then use their "Satanism" as an excuse to commit murder.

Most likely, she may also be helping to put in jail a lot of probably-innocent people who can't afford a good defense lawyer. Unfortunately, a truly thorough investigation of a crime, pursuing a variety of leads, is very expensive. So, although in theory they shouldn't do this, it's not at all uncommon for police departments to take the cheap and easy way out by deciding early on in the investigation who they think is guilty and then digging up as much mud as they can on that person, rather than doing what it would take to pursue an unbiased search for the truth. So it's not at all unlikely that a law-abiding person could be arrested and even convicted for a serious crime based on Dawn Perlmutter's "expertise," on the grounds that the accused had at least a passing interest in Satanism.

Ironically, at the same 1999 conference where Perlmutter presented her paper on schoolyard violence, another of the presented papers was The Sex Offender as Scapegoat: Vigilante Violence and a Faith Community Response by Hugh Kirkegaard & Wayne Northey. Hugh Kirkegaard is a chaplain in the Correctional Services of Canada (Toronto), and Wayne Northey is a member of Christian Volunteers in Corrections, British Columbia, Canada. Their paper is about the popular hysteria surrounding child sex abuse, opposing that hysteria on grounds of the difficulties it causes in rehabilitating offenders. If these authors are concerned about the effects of the child sex abuse panic even upon the genuinely guilty, most likely they would also be aware of and strongly opposed to the way in which the hysteria resulted in the conviction of many probably-innocent people in the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" scare of the 1980's and early 1990's. (Admittedly I haven't yet asked them about this, but it is on my agenda to write to them at some point soon.) Thus, it seems likely that at least some of Dawn Perlmutter's old colleagus in the Colloquium on Violence and Religion would be strongly opposed to what she is doing now.

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