Another campus shooting in America. Another tragic, senseless murder spree. Another event that, like many others before it, will likely remain partly unexplained, leaving us unsure of what drove Dr Mainak Sarkar, a recent PhD in Computer Science from the University of California, Los Angeles, to shoot his former professor, William Klug, before turning the gun on himself. Sarkar also killed his wife, Ashley Hasti, from whom he was separated.
In the absence of specific details, many of which are likely to be contested even when they emerge (UCLA, for instance, denies there was a conflict between the two men over intellectual property), speculation about motives and triggers in this case would be unethical.
But one can attempt to understand the context within which such violence occurs all too frequently on American campuses and in America at large. It is an incendiary mix of factors, including the pressure of American academic life, which itself reflects an obsessive competitiveness that runs through American society, a culture that is deeply ambivalent about violence, and the cowardice of American political leaders on gun control. To identify these factors is not to exculpate Sarkar from responsibility for his horrific crime nor is it to suggest that these are straightforward explanatory causes for his actions.
Indians are used to telling themselves that India and the US are “the world’s two largest democracies”, as the cliché goes. The two societies, however, resemble each other most closely in extremely unsavory ways. First, both societies are deeply marked by violence.
Scratch the surface of Indian life, Urvashi Butalia has argued, and the “façade of peacefulness very quickly disappears”.
The violence is also celebrated in popular culture, for example, in Bollywood and Hollywood, as a mechanism for legitimate justice in the wake of a failure of the law. Routinised to the point of being banal, such violence is masked by the rhetoric of Indian and American exceptionalism, in which violence is defined simply as an unfortunate aspect of an otherwise gloriously multifaceted society.
The obscenely easy access to guns in America and the weak-kneed position taken by most politicians across the spectrum on the matter are central to the barely-masked celebration of violence in American culture. The only issue that is arguably more of a minefield for an American politician, including so-called progressives like Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, is questioning American policy toward Israel. In the wake of every such shooting, the National Rifle Association, as well as their lobbyists and political mouthpieces, shamefully trot out the usual excuse of mental illness as the cause of gun violence.
Pressures of academia
For the most part, American universities are gun-free zones, though eight states permit students to carry guns on campus. The “Campus Carry movement”, which campaigns for the right of students to bear concealed arms on campuses, seeks to change that, significantly complicating the challenges that campus security officials, administrators and instructors face. Every academic who I know in the US has had at least one experience of a student unhappy about a grade or a class policy. For the most part, these grouses make their way on to sites like Rate My Professors or the now (possibly) defunct My Professor Sucks. But a large number of academics that I know, and know of, have also received serious threats from students, warranting intervention from administrators and campus police.
There is, of course, no one simple universal explanation for all such reactions by students. But the intense pressure that students face in the American education system may well be a factor. High tuition costs, and the fact that college tuition increases typically outpace inflation each year, translate into ever-mounting debt loads for students. In addition to a full-course load, many students have to work one or often two jobs on-campus and off-campus to meet their financial obligations.
Graduate students with impeccable educational credentials like Mainak Sarkar typically receive a full scholarship, including tuition and a stipend for living costs. The quid pro quo for this opportunity is to work as a research or teaching assistant for an academic, typically in their lab for the sciences. Some of the media coverage has pointed out that Sarkar believed Klug had stolen his code. As an academic, one does hear stories of unscrupulous scholars, including some internationally-renowned celebrities, stealing their students’ work. The majority of academics, though, are generous in sharing credit and acknowledging the original contribution of student work conducted under their guidance. William Klug was one such teacher, gifted, accessible, and a dedicated mentor.
I suspect though that the intense pressure to produce significant original work as a graduate student, to land a secure and prestigious job in a highly competitive market, may lead some students to have unrealistic expectations of what an advisor or guide should do for them. The years of dedicated work that a PhD involves – an investment at the cost of lost revenue – and the isolating nature of the experience, especially for international students, may compound such perceptions. The pathological competitiveness that runs though Indian and American society, another sorry similarity between both cultures, further adds to these pressures.
There are no easy solutions to the epidemic of violence on American campuses, and we should recognise it for what it is. A wider conversation in American society about all these aspects, including violence, isolation, access to guns, may be a starting point. There may also be some sobering lessons for Indian society in this tragedy.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University. He runs the Twitter account @IndiaExplained and is co-founder and curator of Auctorly.com.