‘Normalisation of violence’: What led to Serbia mass shootings?

Two consecutive deadly shootings in the past week have shaken Serbia, with psychologists saying that the “normalisation of violence” in the Balkan nation has become so dangerous that major changes in all spheres of society are needed to avoid further mass shootings.

Serbia declared a three-day state of mourning until Sunday following a mass shooting in a school – a first for the country. A 13-year-old boy shot dead eight students – seven girls and a boy – and a security guard at an elementary school in the centre of the capital, Belgrade.

He wounded six other students and a teacher before calling the police himself from the school courtyard, telling them, “I’m a psychopath and need to calm down”, according to Veselin Milic, the chief of Belgrade police.

Milic said the suspect had brought his father’s two guns from a safe at home and knew how to use them as he participated in target shootings with his father. He had also brought four Molotov cocktails with him in his backpack.

The motive of the suspect is still unclear. According to authorities, the student had planned the attack for a month; he had a list of students that he planned to kill and a map of the classrooms drawn out, showing how he planned to carry out the attack.

“The sketch looks like it’s from a video game and horror film. It’s drawn out in details,” Milic told the press on Wednesday.

Following the shooting, the union of educators of Serbia announced a strike and called for an end to the promotion of violence in the country.

“We demand for a ban on the promotion and public appearance of all convicted criminals, as well as all reality shows in which the participants behave violently,” their statement read.

“We live in a society where aggression and violence are ubiquitous: verbal, media, physical … It has reached its peak not only in schools, but in the entire society. As a society and as a country, we failed. Serbia needs to stop and ask itself how far it has come and where and how it should go after this,” it said.

The union also called for metal detectors to be set up at school entrances, for professional security to be hired and to better organise school police.

Only a day after the school shooting, as the nation reeled from the tragedy, a 21-year-old man opened fire on pedestrians from his vehicle in a rural area south of Belgrade, killing eight people and injuring 14.

Serbia’s public broadcaster RTS reported that the suspect, Uros Blazic, told prosecutors during questioning after his arrest that he shot people he did not know personally because he wanted to sow fear among residents.

‘Normalisation of violence’

Psychologist Marina Nadejin Simic told Al Jazeera that the school shooting was “a red line” for the country.

“We have crossed every line and we need to seriously address the violence, on the level of the entire state,” she said.

“Unfortunately, in our society, violence is present everywhere around us and it’s tolerated. In a way, it’s a normalisation of violence … Those kids have become accustomed to living in such surroundings and some of them feel quite bad.”

Adding to the problem is that “a lot of kids are a lot more online than in the real world”, leading to undeveloped emotional and social skills, Nadejin Simic said.

“As we grow, mature, we have to go through some process of socialisation … it’s learning how to communicate with others, learning how to fulfil your wishes without hurting others, learning how to behave in situations when you are in a conflict with someone. There are different ways to solve conflicts; violence is not the solution. Unfortunately, our children don’t know enough about this. The prevention of violence has completely failed us,” Nadejin Simic said.

Many people blame TV programmes, including the popular reality TV show Zadruga, for promoting verbal and physical violence, including gender-based violence.

Following the school shooting, the Serbian TV channel Happy featured convicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj on the show to share his thoughts on the tragedy. Seselj was convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and is a common guest on the show.

In previous years, the show also broadcast a jovial conversation with former Serb general and convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic, who phoned in as a guest from The Hague where he is imprisoned and sent his “kisses” as their “grandpa” to the team.

“We have situations where an interview is done on TV, the guest is a man who has been convicted of crimes numerous times. It’s not a rumour, everyone knows this,” Nadejin Simic said.

“And he comes and he shares his story, his life goals, etc, and the youth watch this. And then they ask themselves, ‘Why do I have to sit here and study and try hard when others are living their life [another way]?’”

“We haven’t offered the youth real values; that’s what the problem is. We have destroyed traditional values, but haven’t offered new [values] and these kids are in a vacuum. These kids don’t have an orientation.”

Shortly after the school shooting, Serbian media also reported of youth praising the attack on social media.

“You’re the strongest,” one girl wrote on her Instagram story with heart emojis over a photo of the suspect.

“King”, another child wrote over the suspect’s photo on his Instagram story.

Other comments on Instagram included: “What’s the kill count ahahha”, “8/0/0 he has a good score” and “8 kills, nice”.

Clinical psychologist Branka Kordic told Al Jazeera the youth has been growing up in “an unhealthy environment” as society offers them “everything that’s wrong”.

“Civic morals do not exist – honour, respect, care for others. It’s lies, cheating wherever you go and the children grow up on this,” she said.

“It’s enough for the children to see our parliament. [MPs] are spitting, shouting insults, and children are watching this and horrible reality TV shows. And then we ask ourselves how did this happen? We should be surprised that it didn’t happen sooner.”

Measures announced

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has since announced a “disarmament of Serbia”. Among a series of new measures announced on Friday, he said all those who legally own arms – hundreds of thousands of people – will go through a revision by the end of which there will be only 30,000-40,000 people with arms.

He added that 1,000 police officers will be placed in schools and penalties for illegal weapons will be almost doubled.

Kordic said from all the measures announced, there was no ban on any problematic shows.

“Horrible, disgusting reality shows are shown, like Zadruga … what is the point of controlling weapons when we are raising our children beneath the standards of human dignity?” Kordic said.

“Teachers have been saying, ‘We don’t know how to work with aggressive children.’ Everyone needs help, but help isn’t coming from anywhere. Everything has been politicised,” Kordic said.

Kordic proposed for every school to have a space where students can come to get help and learn how to handle their emotions, whether it is anger or sadness.

When the youth have problems, they typically first go to their peers to talk, not adults. She said it would be helpful to create a pilot programme where children can have a space where they can meet each other and “be trained to serve as a first helping hand and a bridge to professional help”.

Nadejin Simic said Serbia’s educational system needs reform and the health system needs to pay a lot more attention to the mental health of young people.

“TV shows and their broadcasting of very problematic people who say all kinds of things, who offer war heroes, offer values that are dangerous to society – not undesirable, but dangerous -all of this needs to be worked on,” she said.

“But I think it needs to be done on the state level. Individual activities won’t bring about big results.”

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