Mass killings as a tragedy among us
The multiple murder committed by the boy KK can also be seen as the ultimate consequence of the educational and cultural pattern that we have accepted, and which places children in an explicitly competitive situation. Of course, such an extreme and tragic event has its general social, family and mental assumptions, but they also converge towards a cultural-educational model that affirms and expects excellence, that is, it focuses on good grades, high competitive results inside and outside of school. It is an ideological orientation that demands maximum ambitions, maximum pretensions, maximum pressure both on the children and the teachers, as well as the parents – which can also produce unexpected contradictions and incidents. For decades now, children are no longer being sent to the nearest school, but to the ‘best’ school, which parents choose according to different criteria, even though these are free state schools that nominally work according to the same school program and under similar conditions. In other words, schools are competing to recommend themselves to parents with some of their uniqueness. These are sometimes recommendations of a practical nature, such as full-day classes or day care, etc., but often these are also choices that parents make based on the success of the school, i.e. the results of the children who attend it, as can the social status of the parents or status of the alumni be of importance; it is a society with which you identify yourself with, schools are often recommended as a form of a brand, but also as a city salon.
Vanity, stupidity and the French language are the trinity of the salon of the school in which this happened. France as it were has a kind of mystical status in the fantasy of Belgrade and Serbian worldly culture, which this school reinforces, above all with its bilingual program in French, which of course has nothing to do with the French language as such, but to some extent has to do with the ambition of the French state to endorse its own culture and language, somewhat pressed by the complex of the ubiquitous English language. It could be said that a certain combination of these two asymmetrical complexes, the local one and the imported one, form the atmosphere of this salon. The attendees of ‘Vladislav Ribnikar’ school speak French, and however distant they are from each other, in terms of status and generation, they emphasize their affiliation as a hallmark of some kind of fictitious francophone community, which is rather like a good pedigree in the Serbian worldly universe.
The problem with the mass murder in Ribnikar school is not only the tragedy which is hard in itself, but rather that it is a tragedy among us, the collapse of our values, trauma as an encounter with the real.
The protests we have followed or participated in these days and weeks are subject to some kind of urban sentiment that had its better editions, for example in the fantasy of the so-called urban culture in the nineties and even back then it was a similar arrogance but with a bit more affective charge and political goals. Their paradox is that the events which are at its core do not divide the community in a way that implies profiled and mutually opposed social groups, which should be a prerequisite of every protest. Here we have participants of the same political and cultural profile. The problem with the mass murder in Ribnikar school is not only the tragedy which is hard in itself, but rather that it is a tragedy among us, the collapse of our values, trauma as an encounter with the real. There is a whole world that hides behind some cultural pattern which is a component of that problem from where the finger is being pointed at some fictitious other, a toothless Serbia, etc. However, it all happened in inner city center (Krug dvojke1) – it is possible there to be standing at different stops, but on a line that goes in a circle. It is there that they attain their education, the children of parents with high aspirations, not only in terms of their children’s achievements.
Therefore this is not a tragedy that happened in the ambience of the periphery, the suburbs, a neglected, poor, war and media ravaged and unenlightened environment, none of that. This is precisely the well situated child of highly educated, ambitious parents from the city center who is proverbially unsympathetic to the current regime. In other words, that boy had a constructed horizon of values and expectations in which the programs with a national frequency certainly do not fit into.
The imperative of success and knowledge not only abolishes the concept of childhood, but also puts children in a situation in which they see their classmates in the just newly formed exceptional class as competition – it is the context in which this tragedy occurred.
The massacre is carried out by a seventh grader, which is also very symptomatic. Namely, it is a model, bilingual school in which, starting from seventh grade, classes are formed with exceptionally successful children who will attend classes in different subjects in French language. The school will highlight all school and especially extracurricular activities and achievements of its students, and will give special awards to the most successful. A lot of those children, who are naturally expected to achieve the highest grades in school subjects whose program is too extensive anyway, spend their ‘free’ time in violin lessons, acting, some kind of sport, additional private lessons, etc. The imperative of success and knowledge not only abolishes the concept of childhood, but also puts children in a situation in which they see their classmates in the just newly formed exceptional class as competition – it is the context in which this tragedy occurred. We are talking about an elementary school and yet you have to prepare for these classes for years, so it is quite strange that it is being understood as normal. All those who force children in that sense can easily slip into some kind of pathology that can manifest in children in various ways.
Parents often see school as an instrument in the service of their own ambitions that they have designed and delivered to their children. There is constant pressure aimed primarily at teachers, but also at all other school officials. That is how, due to the pressure of the influential parents of one seriously spoiled and antisocial child, an utterly devoted school security guard quit his job, only to, at the persuasion of the school principal, return to work where, a month later, he would die at the hands of another child. Due to the fear of many children that KK might return to school, because at his age he is not subject to criminal prosecution, the parents’ council organized a visit by a doctor who handles his observation, however, many parents were not willing to hear her out, but demanded that her professional and scientific references be delivered for inspection. References will also be requested from a teacher who gave some child a slightly lower grade, or a kind of mobbing will be carried out through the school administration against a teacher who stubbornly stuck to his criteria and unacceptable grading of someone’s children. KK has also shot the teacher who gave him a lower grade than expected.
Violence is part of contemporary culture, politics and entertainment; war and violence are a general ideological and aesthetic pattern in the world of virtual games that children gladly consume; film as entertainment has always been full of violence, and in principle, is not specific to this environment, nor is peer violence. Didn’t KK’s parents have zero tolerance for peer violence. It should also be said that the hysteria which accompanies this modern phenomenon of peer violence is also an integral part of that phenomenon. An argument or fight between peers that is resolved by adults or institutions usually never ends between children, so children never learn to establish their relationships and find their place among peers. It’s a good way for a peer group or community to never be formed. In fact, parents and the school in this sense mutually encourage and feed this kind of tactlessness towards children’s conflicts, which will only help children to develop their own conflict strategies, taking into account this institutional treatment of violence, but such strategies do not have to always be benign.
Mass murders in schools, however, do not belong to the category of peer violence, it is actually a phenomenon of a militant, alienated and extremely mediatized environment, and that is why it is such a common phenomenon in America, but it is also known to many other countries; it is not only a matter of the availability of weapons, because there are countries where citizens are massively armed too, but there are no such and similar disasters – despite their weapons, these are pacified environments, Switzerland is a good example of that. However, our environment is militant, not only because of the war past, but because of a whole series of circumstances and opportunities in which and with which Serbia, that is, its governors, have operated for several decades, and this configures the general parameters of consciousness and even the attitudes and values of some relatively functional families who find it is acceptable for children, in addition to all their duties, piano lessons, acting and similar activities, to spend time at the training ground or shooting range with firearms for tactical shooting.
It should also be added that the fantasy of specialness or exceptionalism has another aspect that is often shaped and exploited by the media, for whom violence is a convenient tool to gain attention, it is actually an attention industry. More precisely, the media implicitly turns the perpetrators into celebrities. Violence creates affectations that are transferable and profitable. Hence the expression ‘If it bleeds, it leads’, which refers to this very situation which we had the opportunity to see not only in the flood of headlines following the case and the need for journalists to keep attention on this event at all costs, but to also produce conditions for the repetition of similar incidents, which happened here as well with a mass murder in the vicinity of Mladenovac2. At the same time, it is not excluded that KK was inspired by an example that could have happened anywhere; it is known that many mass murders are inspired by American shootings, since they are frequent and have a lot of media exposure. However, it should be noted that in these two shootings that took place at the Vladislav Ribnikar school which in some way was the trigger for the shooting in the vicinity of Mladenovac, in addition to everything else that distinguishes them, they are also distinguished by the social status of the victims and the bereaved. The demands of the protest match the triggers of the Mladenovac event more and the profile of that killer, who was more exposed to REM (Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media) influence, however, the culture of exceptionalism handles this event much easier because it is explainable within its logical and value profile, and therefore the trauma is easier even though the tragedy is the same.
The objection that the opposition is taking advantage of this tragedy is not without foundation, although it is difficult to accept it as an argument from the power that usurps the principles of the changeability of power
The so-called civic Belgrade is trying to dislocate the KK boy somewhere near the current regime that supposedly belongs to some other cultural and political sphere, which is morally problematic and politically far-fetched because the current regime is a hybrid that not only has its roots and connections in Belgrade’s cultural and economic elite, but rather, many of the faces of that world are also faces of power. The power of course, has its arrogant and vulgar faces, because it needs such faces in the exercise of power, but it is a much reduced view which only such people perceive and they identify it with the regime. At the same time, the truth is that accusations and pressure are yielding some results, the regime is faced with violence it is normally prone to, but which in this case it does not control, and this is clearly confusing them. In its own way, the power has accepted the game imposed by the competition, it cannot disperse the gatherings by force because they are commemorative in a certain way. In other words, something like that would be difficult to justify. It’s a sort of a moral trap which the power does not manage skillfully, but in which the opposition can easily fall into as well. That is to say, the power is not the exclusive topic of these gatherings and hence the mismatch between the motives of the protesters and the protest demands formulated by the opposition. The objection that the opposition is taking advantage of this tragedy is not without foundation, although it is difficult to accept it as an argument from the power that usurps the principles of the changeability of power. The protesters however are not bitter political opponents of the regime, they are not of radically different political orientations, although most of the people at the protest marches want the regime gone. The current Power acts as a well-established kleptocracy apparatus that has developed and is possible within existing local and global political expectations and should certainly be dismantled, but for now there is no alternative political horizon that the protesters see and which the power is failing to see.
1‘Krug dvojke’, as a geographical landmark, represents the territory enclosed by the circular track of tram number two in Belgrade and represents the cultural and historical core of the city. In the 1990s, Milosevic’s government came up with it to disqualify intellectuals, people who were against the war and the opposition of the then regime, but also of the current one, with the fact that its pejorative and elitist connotation is still in effect. (editorial intervention)
2A day after the mass murders at the ‘Vladislav Ribnikar’ elementary school in Belgrade, mass murders also took place in the vicinity of Mladenovac near the capital (3&5th of May 2023). (editorial intervention)
Translation to English: Ivana Purtić
The text is published in the printed Bulletin TENANT #18&19, summer 2023.
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