Reports often indicate fears that violence in society is on the rise, especially on high school and college campuses throughout the United States. While there might be some validity in these concerns, they are often the result of what sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists term a moral panic. A moral panic can be defined as the occurrence of widespread fear about a perceived threat to societal values and interests. It is important to highlight that the threat is perceived, and might have little bearing in reality. Moral panics can arise out of new developments, such as concern over cybercrime due to rapidly changing Internet technologies, or can be based on problems that have existed prior to the panic and will likely persist long after the panic fades away, such as youth violence and illicit drug use.
Moral panics have arisen throughout history. In the 17th-century America, for example, Puritans became hysterical about the presence of witches, giving rise to widespread witch-hunts. At the time, many women (and a few men) were arrested and killed because they were believed to be witches. From a modern-day vantage point, this panic seems absurd, but it was a real concern at the time. Even today, some religious denominations are concerned by witchcraft and perceived occult activities. In the 18th century through to contemporary times, the older and middle-aged members of most generations have voiced serious concerns about the moral decay of the youth of their time, especially in relation to adolescent violence. Specific concerns often go away over time or are indoctrinated into legislation to prohibit the activity, which usually has little success in curbing the issue.
Violence on campuses throughout North America is an important social concern. It is not a new issue, however, nor is it an issue that can be solely linked to crazed students on sprees of violence. For instance, in 1966, Charles Whitman killed 14 people and injured 32 more at the University of Texas. In 1976, a custodian at California State University in Fullerton shot nine people in the school library, killing seven of them. In 1989, Marc Lepine killed 14 people before killing himself at a university in Montreal in Canada. In 1991, a graduate student named Gang Lu at the University of Iowa killed five people. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. While the number of victims in the Virginia Tech shootings is alarming, so is the number of victims of shootings on college campuses over the last 40 years. These examples reveal that serious violence on college campus is not a new phenomenon in the United States and is not perpetrated strictly by students. Likewise, in the 1970s, many students were killed on U.S. college campuses during important political protests; their deaths occurred at the hands of law enforcement officials. At Kent State University in 1970, four protestors against the American invasion of Cambodia were killed and nine others were injured by the National Guard. Also in 1970, two students were killed and 12 others injured when police began firing on student protestors at Jackson State College.
In general, school shootings on college campuses in the United States are infrequent. When they do occur, they garner major media attention, inciting new fears about the moral degeneration of America’s youth. While rooted in actual events, the subsequent fears that no campus in the United States is safe probably do not warrant the increased security measures and precautions taken in the wake of such incidents. After each school shooting, moral panics develop that youth are out of control, violence is rising, violent crime is becoming more commonplace, and students are no longer safe at their schools. While some of these concerns might be legitimate, they are not recent phenomena.
Various theories have been proposed to explain how and why moral panics develop. Some suggest that humans have an innate sense of panic, which serves as a survival instinct. Others contend that the creation of a culture of fear is in the interest of the capitalist elite or the ruling class, as it leads people to become mindless consumers of products and services that make more money for the already wealthy. Similarly, many individuals and groups are reliant on the construction of crime for their livelihood, such as police officers, government officials, researchers, and members of the media. When panics arise, individuals working in the area of the panic see a rise in the amount of funding that they are provided. It can also be argued that moral panics are developed by moral entrepreneurs, or people who have a specific interest in pushing a particular social issue. For example, groups whose operation centers on the promotion of gun control laws in the United States have a vested interested in believing and revealing that crimes on campus that are perpetrated by guns are on the rise. Others suggest that the rise and spread of new media are contributing to the development of moral panics, as new images of violence on campus are being instantaneously broadcast on television, radio, and the Internet, reaching more people, faster than ever before.
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- Thompson, K. (1998). Moral panics. London: Routledge.