I have been busy this week, and therefore I did not have time to watch the latest mass shooting unfold as a media event on my screen. I find that I am unable to summon any genuine emotion about it besides vague anger and frustration. Tim Kreider did a good job articulating this anger in The Week. His article was written in May 2014, but I had to read for a while to realize that because these events blend into one another and the same articles tend to work for any of them.
It seems that the perpetrator of the latest mass shooting was seeking fame. “This is the only time I’ll ever be in the news I’m so insignificant,” he allegedly wrote.
As I noted here in 2014, Ethan Watters, In his book Crazy Like Us, describes the work of the Canadian scholar Edward Shorter. “Shorter believes that psychosomatic illnesses (such as leg paralysis at the turn of the twentieth century or multiple personality disorder at the turn of the twenty-first) are examples of the unconscious mind attempting to speak in a language of emotional distress that will be understood in its time. People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from— a ‘symptom pool,’ as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.”
Mass shootings are now part of the American “symptom pool.” Of course there have always been isolated cases of people going mad and acting out in extreme violence. The difference is that now, we have a well-established blueprint for how young men full of pain and impotent rage can express their psychological suffering. Unlike leg paralysis or anorexia, it is destructive to innocent strangers.
Saying that killers want to be featured on the news is not really enough. A deeper question is why they want to be on the news. Assuming that the shooter did write the social media post attributed to him, it is interesting how being in the news is equated with being significant. Being known means that you matter.
David M. Friedman credits Oscar Wilde with ushering in our modern celebrity culture, which he describes in Wilde in America: “It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.”
Fame isn’t the end product, it is the beginning.
We are not, for the most part, a nation that manufactures things. We are a nation that sells things. We are not a nation of companies that train and raise up talent, we expect workers to have “portable skills” and to market themselves. Becoming known is a survival skill– a first step in a career not the result of achievement. From there it is but a small step to believing that only people who are known to many people are significant. It doesn’t matter how one becomes famous. It matters that one is famous. The most reviled reality TV star can probably launch a perfume line and have a career, or so it seems.
This is the part of the article where a writer is expected to close with a call to action– here is what to do about it. I don’t have one. None of the ingredients in the mass shooting soup are going to change easily. Gun culture and politics don’t seem to be on the verge of any sort of change. The TV news networks will continue to answer our curiosity about perpetrators of violence and in the process will unintentionally be giving the next mass shooter a blueprint for action. People will continue to suffer from mental illness, and it will always be hard to act before the event. Our cultural assumptions about the value of known-ness and of masculinity and power will not change overnight. But we can’t be entirely powerless to stop this, can we?