Mass murder is different than 1:1 murder and suicide. It symbolizes deep social decay. Add in heavy weaponry and you got yourself one big social problem. What issues underlie the phenomenon? Is it mental illness? Is it guns? Is it endemic to a country that is in “the waning days of empire?” Is it an outgrowth of massive wealth inequality? What role does race play? Read on for some exploration of this noxious type of social violence that seems to constantly recur like an absurd, American Sysephean tragedy.
The NRA — the lobbying group in which anti-government cooks meet gun nuts meet white supremacists — makes sure that gun control is eschewed, no matter how heinous or obvious a shooting is. Sometimes garishly so. It hasn’t always been thus; it was once a recreational shooting club; the political Right took it over.
Guns don’t kill people, but they sure do make it easier for the rageful, jealous, aggressive, impulsive, unrestrained, or sociopathic individuals to do so. It is worth pointing out that guns are often used in suicide, and many thousands of times do provide an effective means to murder one’s rival, spouse, or neighbor. Many shootings have to do with killing a particular person, and since these are virtually 100% men, many of the victims are, therefore, women. It’s basically domestic violence taken to the extreme.
Jelani Cobb notes in this article that “After Newtown, Wayne LaPierre, the C.E.O. of the National Rifle Association, said, ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ But in Las Vegas the only thing that could have stopped a sniper hidden behind a bank of windows on the thirty-second floor of a building, shooting at people twelve hundred feet away, would have been the unlikely presence of a similarly armed sniper located at a vantage point that gave him or her an open shot at the perpetrator.”
So, everyone freely carrying weapons is not a cure-all for a fractious, extremely diverse, poorly-educated, pressured society, it probably goes without saying. Nor will it probably be terribly effective; armed civilians create a whole new set of problems, and only about 3% of mass shootings are stopped by a citizen. Nor do they often have the capacity to take these well-armed and very dangerous individuals on with their handgun, no bullet-proof vest, no hope of triangulation, no training to speak of, etc.
According to German Lopez in Vox.com, while 3% of mass murders are interrupted by a “good guy with a gun,” “34 people are killed in gun homicides, 78 people in suicides, and two in accidental gun deaths. Guns are enabling much more death in the innocent than they are protecting people from a similar fate.” A 2014 study by the FBI showed that the ability to intervene by an armed citizen was abysmally low: one in 160 active shooter incidents.
Here is a politically-right perspective that does raise some interesting questions, though:
“Blaming the NRA is good politics for the left. It helps with fundraising, stokes outrage and helps herd voters into tribal camps. But is it possible that it’s incomplete, like blaming airplanes for the 9-11 terrorist attacks? There may be something in our culture that is wrong and sick and festering. And recent mass shootings may be a symptom of larger cultural illness.
We know that we’ve become increasingly nihilistic, and isolated from one another on our electronic devices. We know we’re divided into politically warring tribes, as the political center crumbles, as the Washington establishment holds desperately to power. We know that attendance continues to drop at traditional centers of worship. And even so, the political/cultural elites who frame our gun and other debates often mock the remaining faithful as ‘religious fanatics.’
As America abandons religion for entertainment, we consume unprecedented amounts of pharmaceuticals, from opioids to mood-altering drugs, to mask our emotional and mental pain.” ~ John Kass
Don’t let that convince you that the NRA is sane. The Editors of The Week magazine point out that: “In 2000, [gun maker] Smith & Wesson agreed to a deal with the Clinton administration to develop a ‘smart’ gun and help prevent firearms from falling into criminals’ hands. The NRA was incensed.” They released the CEO’s phone number online and organized a boycott. If you can believe that. And let’s not forget the way Michael Moore showed them to be, basically, “gun nuts,” doing stupid, selfish, and offensive things. It culminated in an interview with Charleton Heston that was eyebrow-raising it was so pathetic.
I suppose I am about “mid-range” on gun control. Clearly, there are perpetrators who can inflict damage on others with bombs, knives, or even strangulation. Fully-automatic weapons are so rare that they are almost beside the point; our porous net of gun laws is more apropos. Handguns are the real dangers. I do think we have too many guns, but anything over a million is going to be “too many” when it comes to criminal use.
It is worth noting that 100,000 people in a year can own 200,000 guns and none might use them for a mass shooting. More suicides and incidents of domestic violence will occur than massacres. Here are the exact numbers.
Home protection is a key right I personally do value. Finally, it’s just never going to happen to remove 300,000,000+ known guns from the homes of Americans steeped in (or hopped up on) the 2nd Amendment and, in many cases, terribly concerned that we elected a black president. Nor should we probably take that route; there are legitimate uses of firearms, such as hunting, target practice, home protection, and yes, staving off government tyranny. Further, we don’t want to have a situation where the only people who have guns are outlaws. In fact, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Since 2007, at least 82,000 guns have been reported stolen in Florida and never found.” Yikes.
As well, guns being merely inanimate objects causes one to aptly perceive the locus of control within the mind of the violent individual. As Rosenwald might point out, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, OCD, autism and the like do not account for mass murders. I am absolutely in favor of better mental health care (parity, ease, affordability, availability, etc.). I know that depression and substance use account for a huge number of missed work days every year in the United States. However, it’s not “that kind” of mental illness we are talking about. “It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders,” noted Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University, author of “The Anatomy of Evil.” I think we as a society want to steer as many citizens away from despair, addiction, anxiety, and normlessness as possible, but it isn’t probably the same ballpark as brutal serial killer type individuals. Schizophrenic individuals actually commit less violence than non-schizophrenic individuals do. It’s those with aggressive kinds of personality disorders and those under tremendous stress with few functioning coping mechanisms we need to worry about.
Removing access to the tools of mass violence is only one aspect. Mental illness is commonly discussed as a necessary but not sufficient cause of such events. Michael S. Rosenwald claims in this article that indeed, most mass murderers aren’t mentally ill: “While acknowledging that some of the country’s worst mass shooters were psychotic — the Colorado theater gunman, James Holmes, with his orange-dyed hair; the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung Hui Cho, whom a judge ordered to get treatment — experts say the vast majority of such killers did not have any classic form of serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or psychosis.”
I would point out that, though, he is correct that the individual isn’t “psychotic,” they do, pretty much by definition, experience a mental aberration that leads to obsessive-compulsive symptoms + a violent impulse. It is a typology, to be sure; it’s not like the group of FBI agents on the television show Criminal Minds wouldn’t be able to use theory about psychopathic individuals and known techniques for predicting future behavior – and probably to successfully characterize them based on history, findings from psychological tests, and so on. In a word, these individuals are societally and psychologically disturbed, and their victims are not one individual (murderer) or a series of individuals (a serial killer), but groups of people. We’re talking about unhinged, rageful, random social violence greatly facilitated by advanced weaponry.
Mass murderers make use of the skills and weapons available pretty freely in this pretty free society. The latest perpetrator utilized an automatic weapon – which are highly regulated and difficult to obtain in the United States – though not illegal and not terribly difficult to fashion. So “gun laws being stricter” is not the first and last stop on the path to a solution because guns are necessary but not sufficient to bring about such horrific social violence. It would be hard to kill people in public with a knife, but it would be even harder if one were “normal” and well-adjusted. It is maladjustment + access to dangerous weaponry that = mass murder. Remove one component and the citizens get to go home safely that night.
Indeed, Rosenwald notes that Dr. Stone sees depression and disorders of the mind as one category – what are known as “Axis I” disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Version) – and “Axis II” disorders, which are called personality disorders: “those with personality, antisocial, or sociopathic disorders who may exhibit paranoia, callousness or a severe lack of empathy – but know exactly what they are doing.”
Eric Harris, half of the deranged duo who kicked off the modern wave of school shootings (Columbine High School), was emasculated, lonely, and bullied. He basically fell through the cracks and was not singled out for some kind of societal or psychiatric intervention by any primary or secondary prevention program (i.e., school counselors, community mental health interventionists, clergy, etc.). Clearly, his parents were incapable of predicting or stopping such acting out aggressively. I would assume Harris had some organic brain dysfunction. Issues such as prenatal influences, brain lesions of one sort or another, or early childhood abuse are implicated in serial killer physiology and genesis. An aberration that leads to way too much exposure to serotonin is associated with psychopathy, as well as a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex – one of the most rational and executive parts of the brain.
I don’t want to overlook the twists and turns that the life of a teenage boy can take if the boy rolls “snake eyes” on the dice of troubled youth occurrences. Divorce, abuse, parental violence, bullying, poverty, and the lack of close, warm, nurturing, consistent relationships with one or more caregivers are precipitants of aggressive acting out. Kids who experience trauma or dysfunction can turn inward (internalizing symptoms, such as depression or anxiety) or outward (externalizing symptoms such as physical aggression or vandalism). Combine such environmental stressors with a brain that is experiencing hormonal changes and isn’t even fully developed until the mid-20s, and it could equal a socially-impactful situation. Individual psychopathology morphing into social violence. Columbine shooter Eric Harris wrote this about his childhood:
“Loosing (sic) a friend is almost the worst thing to happen to a person, especially in the childhood years. I have lived in many places, but the last three places have been the most fun and the greatest experiences of my childhood. Although memories stay with you, the actual friend doesn’t. I have lost many great friends and each and every time I lost one, I went through the worst days of my life.”
This is a newly-added link to this blog, but one that is good enough that I wanted to go back and insert it: Nicholas Kristof analyzing public massacres now that there have been 18 in 2018. It’s turning out to be, like the opioid epidemic, a major problem for society – and both are all the more remarkable because of the powerful social forces undergirding it. Only in a sick society will addictive, painkilling drugs and weapons of public destruction be so insoluble to problem-solving. It’s like our Social Security problem or our health care issues or the influence of money in politics – it’s not that it is rocket science to make steps toward solutions, it is that industrial and political interests are arrayed against solutions. The NRA and all the lobbying of Tea Party-type Congresspeople is absolutely quintessential. Here is the link.
This is a newly-added link as well: Republican Congressman and disabled war veteran Brian Mast put out a very succinct and sensible piece about banning AR-15-style rifles in the wake of the recent school shooting in Florida. It’s worth considering; maybe a drop in the bucket, but right now the bucket is almost empty! We have to start trying things; the NRA and our sclerotic and quasi-corrupt political system is stymieing change; after all, 95% of Americans favor full and unavoidable background checks, and yet…crickets chirping. My friend Bob thinks that maybe a veteran or retired cop in each school would be a smart idea, not unlike having retired individuals serve in schools. I’m not opposed. Here is that article.
Peter Langman wrote two books on school shootings. He has an idea about the impetus for violent acting out, and calls it “damaged masculinity.” Rosenman notes that Langman believes “…it is overlooked not just in the Columbine case but in many other mass shootings — an important observation considering that most mass shooters are male.”
Langman points out that “Harris was born with a birth defect in his leg. He also had a chest deformity that required surgeries just before high school. He had a noticeable, sunken chest. His hopes to follow his father into the military — to be a tough guy, a Marine — were likely to be unrealized.”
“Guns”, Rosenman notes Langman reasoned, “could give him power and control.” “I am (expletive) armed,” Harris wrote in his journal. “I feel more confident, stronger, more Godlike.”
We don’t want to go so far as to say that handicaps = violence, of course. But there probably is something to the idea that boys who feel wounded, weak, and inferior might take their angst as “external” as possible – and when combined with a society in which it is easy to obtain weaponry and play strategic, violent video games – it can be a recipe for disaster.
We may never know for sure what drove Paddock to kill, but this much is certain: Mass killings are a malignant meme deeply lodged in our nation’s psyche. He had no apparent racial, religious, or political grievances, but no doubt felt the same transgressive thrill as the faux warriors who shot up Columbine, the Pulse nightclub, the Aurora movie theater, the Charleston AME Church, the Newtown elementary school, the San Bernardino conference center, and other domestic killing fields.
What these mass killers had in common was profound alienation from a world that seemed indifferent to their pain and humiliation, and easy access to weapons that amplified their rage. Radical Islam, white supremacy, and other ideologies can serve to justify violent vengeance, but they are optional. …For damaged souls in whom empathy has died, inflicting misery can be its own reward.
Adam Gopnik enlightens us with the following: “The truth is made worse by the reality that no one – really no one – anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life….The reality is simple: every country struggles with madmen and ideologues with guns, and every country – Canada, Norway, Britain – has had a gun massacre once, or twice. Then people act to stop them, and they do – as over the past few years has happened in Australia. Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue.”
James Fallows points out two disconcerting facts. One: “[n]o other society allows the massacres to keep happening. Everyone around the world knows this about the United States. It is the worst aspect of the American national identity.” Second, “we know that everything about the news coverage and political response would be different, depending on whether the killer turns out to be ‘merely’ a white American man with a non-immigrant-sounding name.”
Fallows, heartbreakingly, ends his essay with this:
“This is who we are. I was going to add, ‘unless we decide to change,’ but that’s the kind of mandatory-uplift note you put at the end of a speech because you have to.
This is who we are.”
Perhaps. But I think there are distinct class, race, societal, and mental health issues that underlie all these murders. And much other social dysfunction. Our social problems didn’t come out of nowhere, and social science is bound to be helpful – if we will only listen. That means muzzling the NRA and asking the liberals who already have a sign that reads “Gun Control Now!” to sit down and listen. Be civil.
Boys don’t go so far awry as massive, random social violence for purely idiosyncratic reasons: they start as little acorns, and some grow tall and strong, and others grow into oak trees of evil. “As the twig’s bent, the tree inclines,” illustrated Alexander Pope. A child can become schizophrenic in adolescence because of genes; a child only kills themselves or others when something significant and unusual has occurred. It also happens to men (and every once in a while, a woman becomes evil): this author titled his piece about Capitol Hill shooter, James Hodgkinson, “A Long Descent into Rage.”
Race and class: two major issues which underlie so much in America. Social class underlies everything, in fact. Race is absolutely, inseparably part of the fabric of this country. Two twin, absurd nuances to American violence: it recurs when we are incapable of rooting out the fundamental causes, and it’s related to race. The movie Bowling for Columbine attempts to make this clear.
I can see the rage that James Hodgkinson was feeling when he wrote: “I believe it’s time for the 99 percent to demand that our Republican congressmen tax the rich like our great leaders of the past.” Being on the losing end of economics has a way of making some people first turn inward with rage, and then, once in a while, outward. The frustration from not catching breaks and suffering unlucky twists of fate can take a toll. I think we see that with the phrase “to go postal,” meaning, to finally go to pieces because of the nature of one’s existence. It is a type of weakness that we all should pity, though of course, not condone. To understand the feeling of social frustration that is endemic to a dog-eat-dog society – which pretty fairly describes America – is not to excuse the violent acting out in response. We need to have the kind of society where there is less pressure on the lower social classes. The middle class is getting squeezed, as well.
Roberto Ferdman notes in this piece that “Black Americans are more than twice as likely to die from gun violence than whites, according to a new study that surveyed more than a decades’ worth of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” This, plus the fact that most mass murderers are white (and serial killers) is most interesting. Toss in the fact that America has a hugely disproportionate percentage of prisoners that are African-American and you start to get a sense of the issue. Pointing out that Dylan Roof was a noxious racist is simply obvious. Or that Nazis marched in the streets in Charlottesville with guns, whereas if black Americans did that there would be a massive reaction, pretty much puts a ribbon on that fetid package. “The reality is that gun violence is largely divided, and shaped, by race in America,” Ferdman concludes.
On the social plane, anomie is one way of thinking about aggrieved, aggressive, antisocial individuals who act out with violence in the most public and effective of ways. Often, the perpetrators are men, authoritarian, marginal or otherwise emasculated, socially-disconnected, religious non-believers. They tend to be white and they tend to be lower- or middle-class. They are callous and they know exactly what they are doing. They are, basically, domestic terrorists.
Encyclopedia Britannica notes that “[a]lthough Durkheim’s concept of anomie referred to a condition of relative normlessness of a society or social group, other writers have used the term to refer to conditions of individuals. In this psychological usage, anomie means the state of mind of a person who has no standards or sense of continuity or obligation and has rejected all social bonds. Individuals may feel that community leaders are indifferent to their needs, that society is basically unpredictable and lacking order, and that goals are not being realized. They may have a sense of futility and a conviction that associates are not dependable sources of support.”
It seems clear that in a country of 320,000,000 people, with 300,000,000+ guns, a capitalistic system that on the one hand favors the lucky and the connected, and has little in the way of social welfare, and in which the media drone on ceaselessly and the television has other Orwellian characteristics, some shit is going to hit the fan. “What is violence? Bullets, nightsticks, and fists are not the only forms of violence. It is also violence when people ignore the fact that infants are starving in one corner of our city?” asks
There is a lot of divisiveness nowadays, as well. The flames are fanned by the media, driven by their uber-competitive 24-hour news cycle. Don’t even get me started on Fox News. There are special interests crawling all over the issue, as well. When you have many corporate-owned news outlets sensationalizing and ginning up the conversation and millions of viewers, things can get haywire. It is bound to push a few that were on the edge, over it. Do you remember the media guy in the movie Natural Born Killers? He had the class of an opioid-addicted used car salesman, and Robert Downey Jr. did a fine job in the role.
Regarding televising of live events and ceaseless analysis, there is also the phenomenon of desensitizing the populace to violence. P.O.V., multi-player, 3-D violent video games certainly don’t help. Veterans fighting in wars that go on unendingly and when nuclear war is threatened nearly every day now only tears at our fraying social fabric. America began with violence and I believe has used the military over 250 times in various engagements, wars, and so on. Who knows how many people were murdered by the C.I.A. and how many coups were fomented. It doesn’t take a skilled social critic to see the dismal state of affairs in modern America.
Perhaps this problem is not a coincidence, but the chickens coming home to roost. Perhaps the reason that we in America resemble Israel in so many ways is because of our similarities; that it is how nations who sow we do have to reap what we do. John Whitehead asks: “What is it about America that makes violence our nation’s calling card?” Whitehead answers with alarming assertiveness: “Perhaps there’s no single one factor to blame for this gun violence. However, there is a common denominator, and that is a war-drenched, violence-imbued, profit-driven military-industrial complex that has invaded almost every aspect of our lives.”
We are in fact the largest exporter of arms in the world, one of a few countries who executes criminals (including some innocent and some incompetent individuals), we have more nuclear weapons than anyone, and we spend more on our military than pretty much the next 10 countries do. There are many citizens in jail (more than China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia), and thousands of Americans kill themselves every year with guns. There is a huge amount of wealth inequality and poverty. There are 300,000,000 firearms. If we didn’t have a social violence problem, it would be odd!
Robert Koehler sums up his feelings on the latest tragedy with: “This is not because of tepid gun laws. It’s because the country funds — and benefits from — endless war and violence of all sorts. Occasionally the violence comes back to haunt us.”
Unfortunately, it was well over a decade ago when Margaret Atwood said these now-prescient and haunting words. We had better tune in, and quick:
“[America], if you proceed much further down the slippery slope, people around the world will stop admiring the good things about you. They’ll decide that your city upon the hill is a slum and your democracy is a sham, and therefore you have no business trying to impose your sullied vision on them. They’ll think you’ve abandoned the rule of law. They’ll think you’ve fouled your own nest.”
I thought about Charleton Heston, that numb-skull NRA shill, saying this in the aftermath of Columbine High School: “We will again suffer tragedy almost beyond description.” Atwood continues:
“The British used to have a myth about King Arthur. He wasn’t dead, but sleeping in a cave, it was said; in the country’s hour of greatest peril, he would return. You, too, have great spirits of the past you may call upon: men and women of courage, of conscience, of prescience. Summon them now, to stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in you. You need them.”
If I could summon them, I would be out on a mountaintop, on bended knee, during sunset, plaintively wailing toward a silent sky for succor and solace this very evening. We do desperately need these great spirits. Our time often seems woefully limited.
Look up the keyword violence, hatred, anger, social, gun, peace, mental illness, or murder in The Wisdom Archive, the free, 26,000-quote search engine available only at www.ValuesoftheWise.com! Here are a few gems:
“I hope that both necessity and opportunity will soon provoke a general elevation of our collective consciousness, such that we may outgrow our present proclivity toward violence, injustice, and selfishness.”
“What’s wrong with our children? Adults telling children to be honest while lying and cheating. Adults telling children to not be violent while marketing and glorifying violence… I believe that adult hypocrisy is the biggest problem children face in America.”
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”
“What is different about this story is that while I obviously had compassion for my son, somehow in my heart I felt compassion for the fourteen-year-old who took my son’s life. There were victims at both ends of the gun—[my son] Tarik, a victim of Tony, and Tony, a victim of society.”
“To get beyond the negativity of mere griping, I decided to try teaching peace. Criticizing the way of violence is hollow unless we can offer alternatives.”
“Pacifism is passive, but nonviolence is active. When Jesus Christ said that a victim should turn the other cheek, he was preaching pacifism. But when he said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching nonviolence.”
“I can’t think of a more American thing to do than to raise questions – and demand truthful answers – when our leader wants to send our sons and daughters off to die in a war.”
“Over the past fifty years, progressives, in close partnership with the courts, have helped to reinvent this nation, moving from the deeply racist and homophobic 1950s characterized by widespread misogyny, frequent eruptions of police violence, ongoing acts of religious intolerance, and recurring spasms of political repression to a contemporary America that, while far from perfect, is at least a place where toleration—racial, political, religious, gender and sexual—has become a mainstream value.”
“I know there are some good white people, but the soldiers must be mean to shoot children and women. Indian soldiers would not do that to white children.”
“It’s true that things like violence and rotten schools are destroying the cities – but they’re destroying them because of a social structure that we’ve got to change, from the bottom up.”
“Because violence can only breed more violence and suffering, our struggle must remain nonviolent and free of hatred. We are trying to end the suffering of our people, not to inflict suffering upon others.”
“We are at a crossroads; I am at a crossroads; you are at a crossroads. We are in the midst of an age-old story, that of the forces of light versus the forces of darkness. Will we choose the path of fear, anger, and revenge, or will we choose the path of nonviolence and hope?”
“Violence will only generate more violence; the carnage has just begun. Now, more than ever, we need the strength to love and to dream.”
“Blood cannot be washed out with blood.”
“For millennia men have fought wars and the Blade has been a male symbol. But this does not mean men are violent and warlike. Throughout recorded history, there have been peaceful and nonviolent men. Moreover, obviously, there were both men and women in prehistoric societies where the power to give and nurture, which a Chalice symbolizes, was supreme. The underlying problem is not men as a sex. The root of the problem lies in a social system in which the power of the Blade is idealized – in which both men and women are taught to equate true masculinity with violence and to see men who do not conform to this ideal as too soft or effeminate.
“Males constitute the vast majority of criminals in any human culture; they engage in most of the violence; they constitute the vast majority of discipline problems in schools; they take the majority of moral and behavioral risks. While we could argue whether boys or girls are harder to raise, I don’t think that most people would disagree that boys pose a special challenge when it comes to moral development.”
“If we believe absurdities we shall commit atrocities.”
“…State terrorists are worse than individual terrorists; for the pretty obvious reason – that states have means of violence that individuals don’t have.”
“When man wantonly destroys a work of man we call him a vandal; when a man destroys one of the works of God, we call him a sportsman.”
“Disarm, disarm. The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.”
“My insight into the origin of violence came to me at that time and has never left me. I saw then and still see a victim in every aggressor. Some say there is such a thing as gratuitous violence, committed by individuals whose youth was favorable to all appearances. Violence for the sake of violence, an exercise in brutality at the expense of others, without provocation, past or present? I beg to differ.”
“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.”