Maybe This is Our Strategy in the War on Terror

The BBC began its report on the shooting in San Bernadino, California by saying “Just another day in America…

The Los Angeles Times described Americans reaction was “numbed acceptance, bordering on disassociation.”

And as politicians block discussion on a bill that would close the “terrorist loop hole” keeping people on the terrorism “no fly” list from buying guns, I find that there is actually a certain perverse logic to it.

Today it is people inspired by ISIS. Last week it was someone inspired by anti-abortion rhetoric. Before that it was racism, then an aggrieved young man who was tired of being rejected by women, then someone who believed aliens were speaking to him through his radio…

If we protect ourselves from people who would plow down American citizens because of one ideology, but do nothing to stop others, it won’t change much.

In the end it doesn’t matter all that much whether it is ISIS or Al Queda or someone who thinks re-enacting Columbine will make him infamous. People who were going about their daily lives are dead, we do not seem to have the power or will to address the thorny problem and have tacitly agreed to cope with these events as if they were natural disasters.

When large numbers of Americans are killed in the course of their daily lives, when they are shot in a mall or at the movies or in church, we say “Oh, it’s one of those.”

So maybe this is all part of a brilliant strategy to win the war on terror by creating a population that is no longer capable of feeling terror.  Maybe we need to rename it “numbed-acceptance-bordering-on-disassociation-ism.”


Because We’ve Seen The Film Before

Ollie switched on the television. There had been another one of those mass shootings. A guy went barmy and shot a dozen people in the office building where he worked. To Ollie it meant that regardless of what channels the hotel subscribed to, there would be something interesting to watch on TV. He flipped through the channels until he found CNN and then threw the remote into the center of the bed. He listened to the report as he opened his suitcase and pulled out a small bottle of vodka and the manilla envelope that held his final divorce papers. He’d been carrying them around for about a week, and hadn’t found time to look at them until now.

The television coverage of real life mass shootings were like genre fiction, a cookie cutter mystery, except that in this case you know who done it, but you keep flipping pages to find out why. This story followed the same basic formula as other mass shootings, only a few characters and details were switched. There were the politicians praying for the families, the candle light vigils, the photos of people in tears surrounded by police in bullet proof vests, there was the slow unwinding of the killer’s biography which revealed everything but his motives. There was the debate about guns and mental health, destined to go nowhere. “Heroes” who jumped in front of bullets and newsmen drawing optimism from the fact that people came together to help the victims…

On the TV screen was the last tweet of one of the victims. She was looking forward to going to a concert with a friend that weekend. She’d just bought the tickets. She didn’t know that would be her last public utterance. Her first, really, for a national audience.

“I shouldn’t know this woman’s name,” Ollie thought.

This excerpt from the novel Identity Theft came to mind this evening as I read an article in The Wrap, a Hollywood business publication  The article speculated on why mass shootings are so rare in Hollywood movies and television programs.

To me, the answer seems obvious. We already have the drama of mass shootings on television. If we’re not sufficiently engrossed in the latest permutation (I’d forgotten about the Oregon shootings entirely until a TV segment mentioned it today, and I still don’t remember the details), we can tune in in a week or so and another one will be shown.

Did you see that crazy episode earlier today when the landlord decided to let reporters into the alleged shooters’ apartment and they fought to get shots of family photos and children’s toys like the Black Friday fisticuffs they show us to fill the airways each Thanksgiving weekend?

Shooting for Significance

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?

Shoplifting vs. Robbing the Store

Do you remember this famous scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard wander through a shop full of novelty items, lampshades and cutlery looking for something to steal for the sheer thrill of it.

Turner Classic Movies has this scene on its web page with the headline “Ever Steal Anything?”

Do you remember the episode of House where the hospital is on lockdown and Dr. Wilson and Dr. “Thirteen” Hadley play truth or dare in the cafeteria? Dr. Hadley dares the uptight Dr. Wilson to steal a dollar from the cash register. He gets caught and has to put it back.

Do you remember in 2002 when Winona Ryder was caught boosting thousands of dollars of jewelry from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills? She later went on Saturday Night Live to parody her own misdeeds. Time Magazine did a story on the Ryder theft and it reported that store owners turn over only 24% of the perpetrators they catch shoplifting to the police, in spite of the fact that shoplifting in the U.S. costs retailers more than $10 billion a year.

We can all agree that it is illegal and wrong to steal. In practice sometimes we treat it as criminality sometimes as mischief. There is “robbing a store” and then there is “shoplifting.”

What we call it depends a great deal on who is doing the stealing.

racistedit1-thumb-565x423On the left is a badly photoshopped image that went viral. Jarnell Hasson actually carried a sign that read “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he leaves home.”

The Riverfront Times, which had originally published the undoctored photo reported that the man who did the photshopping

…created the image because, “it captured mine, and many others, frustration with this whole situation.”

More than 28,000 people shared the faked photo after…a Maplewood native who’s owned a south-county sign business for almost twenty years, posted it on Facebook with the (very incorrect) description: “You can’t make this up!!!!!”

… [The man who posted the image to Facebook] says he is surprised and saddened by the backlash to the photo he posted because “qualified investigators at all levels of government” concluded that Brown robbed the convenience store before his death.

Before I go on, let me first address the implication of the doctored sign that black people are always stealing from stores. FBI data show that approximately 70 percent of shoplifting arrestees are white. One study published in 2000 by two professors in Minnesota in the Journal of Education for Business found evidence that the typical shoplifter in their state was a white female between the ages of 25 and 50.

So there’s that.

No, Michael Brown was not an innocent.  You must know a teenager or two who is rebellious, troubled, in with the wrong crowd. He’s gotten into fights, dabbled in recreational drugs or underage drinking, stolen on a dare or to look cool for his friends, took his mom’s car out for a spin before he technically had his license, drove while intoxicated. Maybe it was you when you were young.

He is a good kid, he made a mistake…

(I was not even going to mention Ethan Couch, the teen who pled “affluenza” and was sentenced to rehab after killing four people while driving drunk, but I find I cannot help myself.)

When it is you, or your child, or a member of your community do you interpret these things as the actions of a dangerous thug who must be stopped at any cost? How we interpret the crime and the dangerousness of the perpetrator depends to a great extent on whether or not we see him as being “like us.”

An authority figure (a judge or a police officer) looks at a large, African-American teenager and makes a quick calculation. All kinds of mental associations go into that split second judgement. What type of person is this? Is he a good kid? How should I approach him? Is he armed? Should I be afraid? The teenager looks at the authority figure and in a split second he makes a judgement. Am I going to get a fair hearing with him? Is he going to treat me with respect? Is he going to shoot me? Should I be afraid?

Those perceptions are not easily legislated away, but we need to be honest about them and aware of them so we can devise ways for our system to correct for them.

Michael Brown robbed the store.

A person should not have to be innocent of all crime to avoid being shot to death.

Lessons Not Learned From Columbine

“He could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons…”-The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays.”

Dave Cullen must be the most frequently invited guest to television news who no one actually listens to. Cullen is the author of the excellent Columbine. He spent ten years getting to the bottom of that tragic event, learning about the killers, the victims and the community. He gets a lot of exposure these days as he is invited to comment after each mass shooting.

He was on Anderson Cooper last night, explaining once again, that most of the narrative we create about a killer’s motivations in the immediate aftermath of an event will be wrong. He emphasized that even the killer’s own writings can create a misleading picture. (He had pages from Dylan Klebold’s diary as a visual aid.)  The question we most want answered in the wake of a tragedy is “why” and we will grasp any clues and expand on them. We need a sensible narrative and it is difficult for the sane to be satisfied with an explanation that makes no sense, the kind of motivation that the mentally ill mind produces.

In the wake of Columbine, a narrative emerged about two bullied teenagers who took revenge against the people who had tormented them. The truth was quite different.  I highly recommend Cullen’s book if you would like to explore this topic in depth. The Columbine shooters were not social outcasts. Dylan Klebold felt he was, but this was his own misconception. Eric Harris was a sadistic sociopath who wanted to bring down the world and the school just happened to be his environment.

Yet for the next couple of years we talked about bullying and schools trained teachers to watch the ones who were marginalized by their peers. All in all, cracking down on bullying is a noble cause. It is certainly worth doing. But linking it to Columbine and thinking anti-bullying efforts could have prevented that tragedy is misguided.

With the most recent event, the news coverage focused initially on one detail. In the report I saw, the reporter referred to the brand of the killer’s car every time she mentioned it. “He ran his BMW into…” I do not think she would have done this had he been driving a Toyota Camry. This tells you he was well-off. So immediately you hear the shocked, angry community members following suit using the word “entitled” to describe him. “He felt he was entitled to destroy any woman who didn’t serve his needs.”  Had he been driving a rusted out car, they would probably say he felt rejected and fell into an obsessive rage. The narrative would be slightly different.

“Resist the temptation to extrapolate details prematurely into a whole,” Cullen wrote in the New York Times. “…The killer is rarely who he seems.” (This one was after the Aurora cinema shootings.)

That is why the current focus on “women” and the hashtag #YesAllWomen that sprung up in the wake of the tragedy seems a bit off to me. It is like Columbine all over again. Putting an end to bullying was noble, but it would not have prevented that event. Putting an end to sexual harassment is also noble, but as a response to the killing spree, it seems misplaced. It is taking a mentally ill person’s delusional sense of grievance and debating it as if there were some merit in it.

The Virginia Tech shooter also left a manifesto. He seems to identify rich people as the cause of his pain.  He also compares himself to Christ. The Tucson shooter (who shot Gabrielle Giffords and many others) also wrote an explanation. It was vaguely political but generally made no sense. The latest attacker seems to have been a better writer than his predecessors, because those who have read it (I have not.) understand what it says.  It is women, he says, who have caused him to take vengeance on the world. Had he been failed by a teacher or fired by a boss instead of rejected sexually, I am convinced he would have found another target for his rage and acted out in a similar fashion. The problem was his rage, not what he chose as its focus.

There is a discussion to be had about masculinity and if there is something in our cultural expectation of manhood that makes men so much more likely to present with this form of destructive mental illness. (The Good Men Project had quite a good article on this the other day.) We should discuss what cultural forces might be making the mass shooting part of the American “symptom pool.” I don’t think, however, that we should take a killer’s explanation for his own actions at face value.

Thoughts on the Latest Mass Shooting Part 106

One of my old posts suddenly got a bunch of hits. It was called “Thoughts on the Latest Mass Shooting.” It was not about this one, it was about one of the others.

I know that there has been another one mostly through glimpses in the social media. I can’t watch any more. I don’t want to see the grieving relatives and friends, the makeshift memorials. I know they are there.  I don’t need to know what weapons the madman used or how many times he fired and what the timeline was. I know the answers to that: too many. Too short a time to change so many lives.

For the next week or so, there will be discussions about what could have been done, what this teaches us, what could be changed. We’ll hash out different ideas: better availability of mental health services, better systems to allow interventions with the potentially dangerous, making sure that when someone is in danger he does not have access to weapons with high capacity magazines. We will talk about our culture, and what social forces make a certain subset of our mentally ill young men (and they are almost always men) act out in this distinctive way.  We will focus on some small aspect of the narrative that is different. This one’s deluded belief system blames women for his sense of vicious, impotent rage. This one blames the boss that fired him. This one was a returning veteran.  This one blames the aliens. This one is on a mission from God. So we’ll talk about sexism, or schizophrenia, or PTSD or employment or religious extremism. We will do this with some intensity until a video surfaces of a celebrity kicking her boyfriend in an elevator.

We will change nothing.  We will have decided, through our inaction, to accept that these events are a part of American life, something that cannot be prevented, like a natural disaster.

And when the next one comes, we’ll report on it in the same way: with shock and horror.  I can’t watch any more.

106 is the number of mass shootings that have happened so far in 2014.

Have We No Shame?

ImageIt is the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and there’s another “don’t say the killer’s name” story making the rounds.

One of the victims refused to appear on an anniversary edition of Meet the Press because they couldn’t guarantee the killer’s names would not be spoken by someone in the panel discussion.

It is not something I should have to say, but just for the record, let me make it clear that my sympathies lie with the victims not the perpetrators of the violence. I am sympathetic to the anger and bewilderment victims must feel when they read that the younger Boston bombing suspect has a following of young women who believe someone with such big, brown eyes cannot be guilty and must have been framed. Yeah, he’s cute. He’s also a cold-blooded killer who was able to suspend all human compassion and commit a horrifying act.

We are shocked by this kind of anti-social behavior. It doesn’t compute, so we come back for more information and more. We look at killers with confusion, horror, fascination. What makes someone like that? We need to know who the perpetrators are to try to make sense of what happened. So we talk about them.

What I am trying to understand is how fame came to be understood as a universally positive category regardless of what a person is known for.  Speaking someone’s name, in and of itself, is not praising a person. You can make someone known in order to damn him.

In colonial times, as an example, people who violated community sensibilities were placed in the stocks. While they were out in the public square, their humiliation served as a corrective and a kind of entertainment. The people in the stocks were the most known members of the community at that moment. To put it in modern terms, they were the most famous.  Being gawked at, having your name on everyone’s lips, was not an honor but its opposite.

When you think about the axis of honor and shame both poles imply being known and talked about.  Both the honored and the shamed are famous.

The particular axis of values at play now seems neither to be about being moral or immoral nor in step or out of step with the community.  It is an axis of known vs. anonymous with known being equivalent to the “honorable” pole and unknown being equivalent to “shameful.”

Old value: Honor= Good  Shame=Bad

Current value: Fame=Good Anonymity=Bad

I had a conversation recently with a friend who is a fan of the kind of reality TV shows where catty rich women cheat with each others’ husbands and say snarky things about one another to the camera while brazenly social climbing. I told my friend that I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be on a show like that and air all their dirty laundry in public.

She started to talk about all of the benefits these women received– fashion design contracts and perfumes and opportunities to appear as a “celebrity guest.”

Being known for bad behavior seems to be socially preferable to being unknown for behaving well. (Thus the ending of House of Mirth had to change when it was made for modern audiences so the protagonist’s noble sacrifice is not left a secret.)

Is it possible that we are judging our fellow citizens not on their inherent qualities or their actions but on their entertainment value?


Everything is a War. The Culture of Agonism.

Yesterday I came across an article in the New York Times called “Wounded by the Language of War” by Paula Span. Span wanted to know why the language we use to talk about dealing with illness seems to “resemble a Pentagon briefing.” People who die are described as “losing a valiant battle against cancer.”

Span quotes Patrice Villars, a gerontological and palliative-care nurse-practitioner, “I worry about the implication that somehow, someone was deficient or a loser or didn’t do something right if they died…People die.”

Do you ever have one of those days when an idea seems to be following you around?  A couple of hours after I read this article, I decided to look at some of my old books and I noticed The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen.  The book was written in 1998, and it describes a situation that seems to have only gotten worse. We have, Tannen writes, a tendency to frame all discourse in the form of an argument or debate, allowing for only two sides and focusing on winning over the other.

“Culture, in a sense, is an environment of narratives that we hear repeatedly until they seem to make self-evident sense in explaining human behavior. Thinking of human interactions as battles is a metaphorical frame through which we learn to regard the world and the people in it… In a society that includes people that express their anger by shooting, the result of demonizing those with whom we disagree can be truly tragic.”

She refers to this habitual posture as “agonism” based on the Greek word for contest. It is a programmed contentiousness “a prepatterend, unthinking use of fighting to accomplish goals that do not necessarily require it.”

Some of the causes or factors she points to (indeed, when it comes to culture it is hard to say what is the cause and what is the effect they work together in a reinforcing loop) is a taste for entertainment, which she traces to World War II, in which victory comes when the pacifist takes up his weapon and kills the bad guy.  She also discusses our polarized political discourse, a presumed need on the part of journalists for news to be about confrontation and conflict. She cites one study about the coverage of the Clinton era health plan– and found that the politics of the battle were reported twice as often as the impact of the plan on consumers.  I have a feeling the gap between coverage of the politics of Obama’s health care plan and the content of the plan would be even more dramatic.

Tannen also has a chapter devoted to the adversarial legal system. Another author, Thane Rosenbaum, in his book The Myth of Moral Justice, makes a similar point. The system actively discourages apologizing. “In the American legal system,” Rosenbaum writes, “moral behavior automatically triggers exposure to liability. You do the right thing, in the eyes of the law, you get punished…One of the dirty little secrets of the legal system is that if people could simply learn how to apologize, lawyers and judges would be out of work.”

What struck me while re-reading The Argument Culture was how current it sounds and how dramatically the trends she presented have been amplified. Tannen was writing the Fox News Channel was only two years old. Rachel Maddow was still working on a philosophy degree at Oxford. The Tea Party was an event that happened in Boston. No one was blogging or posting angry comments about “you liberals” and “you conservatives” on on-line articles.

The Columbine High School shooting happened a year after the book’s release.

If it is true that people express mental illness in culturally recognized ways, it is worth asking whether framing every disagreement or challenge, big or small, using the language of war is one of the social forces that acts on the mass killer.

Culture does change over time. It doesn’t change through acts of congress. It doesn’t usually change with one artistic work– to be accepted in one’s time a book or film has to speak the language of that time enough to be accepted. Culture changes with little nudges. Perhaps we can try to nudge our discourse out of its war footing.

Thoughts on the Latest Mass Shooting

A few months ago I went to my local library to hear a speaker who had worked for the secret service for many years, including on the detail of President Kennedy.  One of the things that he mentioned in passing was that throughout our history we had someone try to shoot a president every 20 years or so. Ronald Reagan was the last. I remember as I left the lecture wondering if mass shootings of ordinary people had in some way replaced attempts on the lives of presidents and celebrities. It is much easier for an angry, irrational man seeking infamy to go into a crowded place than to get access to the leader of the free world.

In his book Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters 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 seem to have entered 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, in part due to the publicity surrounding mass shootings, this type of behavior has become an increasingly common form of expressing a certain kind of anger and pain.

Back in 2012, Adam Lankford, writing for the New York Times, made a persuasive case that the same mindset that creates a school shooter in this country creates suicide terrorists in other nations.

Over the last three years, I have examined interviews, case studies, suicide notes, martyrdom videos and witness statements and found that suicide terrorists are indeed suicidal in the clinical sense — which contradicts what many psychologists and political scientists have long asserted. Although suicide terrorists may share the same beliefs as the organizations whose propaganda they spout, they are primarily motivated by the desire to kill and be killed — just like most rampage shooters…It is tempting to look back at recent history and wonder what’s wrong with America — our culture and our policies. But underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers — including suicide terrorists — in other countries. The difference rests in how they are shaped by cultural forces and which destructive behaviors they seek to copy. The United States has had more than its share of rampage shootings, but only a few suicide attacks. Other countries are regularly plagued by suicidal explosions, but rarely experience a school shooting.

The word “amok” comes from Indonesia. It describes a condition in which a man suffers a minor social insult and launches an extended period of brooding punctuated by an episode of murderous rage.

Our version of “amok” seems to be the mass shooting.

After each event there are talking heads who advocate various changes that could address the issue. I find myself increasingly weary at hearing them speak. “Our thoughts and prayers are with…” “Care for the mentally ill in this country…” “Where was security…” “Would more people with guns have prevented….”

It doesn’t seem as though it should be controversial to suggest that better access to mental health services and better training for human resources to recognize and deal with people who might be mentally ill would be a step in the right direction. Having a functional system to keep weapons out of the hands of people who should not have them would be a step in the right direction.  Maybe we could try making high capacity magazines hard to come by so  that when someone does decide to shoot up an office or a mall he at least has to reload.

It does not seem to be a simple question of gun availability in and of itself. Canada has relatively high levels of gun ownership as well. Yet Canada does not have the same problem of gun violence as its neighbor to the south.  (It takes sixty days to buy a gun there, and there is mandatory licensing for gun owners. Gun owners pursuing a license must have third-party references, take a safety training course and pass a background check with a focus on mental, criminal and addiction histories, says Business Insider.)

The reason we seem to be paralyzed in our discussion is that there is not a simple solution. There is not one law that can be passed to make the carnage go away.  That does not make for great political sound bites.

One question that we probably should ask is what aspects of our culture are producing these impulses in unstable young men. (And they are almost always men.)

I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I have a few thoughts. After a deadly shooting, angry people speak out against the shooters who wreak so much havock and alter so many lives. There are a couple of things that tend to be said, and these may provide some clues as to what we assume motivates mass shooters and therefore they may point to what cultural forces drive them.

The first is that people tend to call the shooter a “coward.” It is not really the right word. But then, I do not think they say this because they believe the shooter was afraid of risk. They say it because they believe that the shooter wanted to prove his manhood and strength and they want to rob him of what he wanted. They do not want to let him win.  This suggests that there is something about the idea of bravery, power and proving one’s manhood that is a driver.

Describing mass killers, Adam Lankford, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Albama, wrote in the New York Times that they share “a deep sense of victimization and belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else, who has bullied, oppressed or persecuted him. Not surprisingly, the presence of mental illness can inflame these beliefs, leading perpetrators to have irrational and exaggerated perceptions of their own victimization.”

After the Newtown shootings, Michael Kimmel wrote on the CNN blog about notions of masculinity in particular:

In the coming weeks, we’ll learn more about Adam Lanza, his motives, his particular madness. We’ll hear how he “snapped” or that he was seriously mentally ill. We’ll try to explain it by setting him apart, by distancing him from the rest of us. Risk factors among shooters And we’ll continue to miss the point. Not only are those children at Sandy Hook Elementary School our children. Adam Lanza is our child also. Of course, he was mad — as were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Lee Loughner, James Eagan Holmes, and Wade Michael Page — and the ever-longer list of boys and young men who have exploded in a paroxysm of vengeful violence in recent years. In a sense, they weren’t deviants, but over-conformists to norms of masculinity that prescribe violence as a solution. Like real men, they didn’t just get mad, they got even. Until we transform that definition of manhood, this terrible equation of masculinity and violence will continue to produce such horrific sums.

Most often, mass shooters are middle class males and predominantly white. What cultural norms do people in this demographic share?

I think back to Dave Ramsay’s article on the success secrets of the rich and his assertion that the rich “teach success habits” to their children while the poor do not. What he means, I believe, is that the rich and the upper middle class teach their children to expect opportunities and options and that they will succeed at whatever they put their mind to. They teach them to “aim high” and never give up. Working class people, studies have shown, are more apt to teach their children that they will not always have choices and they need to learn to adapt to difficult circumstances. (I have argued that this is, in fact, teaching a different kind of “success habit.” See the link above.)

The culture of the college-bound middle class is most likely to believe optimistic assertions that failure is only a temporary road bump on the way to success, and that there is always a way if you try hard enough. If people believe they have full control over their destinies then failure is a much greater taboo. In the toxic case of the mass shooter, the self-esteem that we so value turns toxic. He expects to achieve, he is blocked, and he looks for someone– all of society perhaps– to blame.

As I wrote in a previous post, “…the fact is, failure happens. Because we are loathe to admit this, we have an absolute dearth of instruction on how to deal with failure– not delayed success– failure.” Maybe a more nuanced idea of “success habits,” which includes how to deal emotionally with inevitable failure (everyone experiences failure sometimes) would be healthier for everyone.

Another thing that people usually say after a mass shooting is that the shooter should not be given the “prize of fame.”  Whether it really is the shooter’s motivation or not, we assume that he opened fire in a quest for fame.

After the Newtown shooting I wrote on this subject:

Some time ago I read a quote in a book called The Frenzy of Renown by Leo Braudy that struck me: “John Lennon of the Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus,” he wrote.  “As far as immediate fame goes, he was right.  But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: If Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”

It seems as though we have lost the sense that there is such a thing as negative known-ness.  Not fame but shame.

In Puritan times, those who upset the community were held up to public ridicule.  They were placed in the stocks.  That made them the most visible members of the community at that moment.  In other words, the most famous.  No one confused this type of fame with honor.

…If the world were fair, [a victim of the Aurora theater shooting] would never have come to the attention of the general public at all.  If the world were fair, he would be some guy who went to a movie one night, and came home and no one outside his circle of friends would never have heard a thing about him.  Most of the admirable people in life have never been and will never be recorded in history.  It does not mean we value the spectacularly known faces of the famous more than the anonymous people who change the course of our lives day in and day out.

I should not know the name of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School.  None of us should ever have heard of her.

We assume that shooters are motivated by fame (and they may well be) because we assume everyone wants to be famous. We assume that saying the killer’s name on television is a kind of prize. All of this points to the value we place on being known. We live in a society that values popularity and self-presentation.

Quiet by Susan Cain does a great job of showing how American culture has evolved to value extroversion and devalue introversion. “…today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold , to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts…”

The successful job candidate is the one who can prove he is a “people person.” Writers were once understood to be solitary creatures who were much better at expressing themselves on the page than face to face. These days, any book on writing, and any of the thousands of writing blogs will tell you that it doesn’t matter how good your book is– success goes to the writer who knows how to promote, promote, promote. The person who can’t, or doesn’t want to, live up to an extroverted ideal can have a hard time of it.

Most shooters are described as quiet loners. This may be because they are quiet loners or it may be that the people reporters ask to describe a killer following a tragedy are not the ones who knew him best. “He didn’t socialize with me, so I assume he didn’t socialize.”

If they really are introverts, the cultural value we place on self-presentation and being the most known could well be a motivating factor. You have an unstable young man who feels as though the world is made for the benefit of other people, who expects to succeed and blames others for his inability. His model for known-ness is right in front of him, in the TV reports on the mass shooting of the month.

From where I sit in the early part of the 21st Century, it seems had to imagine that these cultural trends will change. Yet cultures do shift and change. American culture of today is different from what it was a century ago.  There was a time when women experienced a pool of symptoms that were diagnosed as “hysteria.” Men who were traumatized by war used to routinely suffer from hysterical leg paralysis.  We can only hope that mass shootings will somehow fade out of the modern American “symptom pool” as well.

On Senseless Violence

I am a writer, and I feel as though I should be able to express something meaningful after an outbreak of absolutely senseless violence.  I have not been able to.  It is not through a lack of opportunities to try– Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tuscon, Newtown, and now Boston.

Each time I have sat with my pen and looked at the paper.  I went back to Earnest Hemingway’s writing prompt: “Do not worry.  You have always written before and you will write now.  All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence that you know.”

But what I found was something inarticulate.  The truest thing I know is a scream.  It is the wail of a child, before words.  Verbal expression eludes me.

I’ve been watching the follow ups, the familiar stories of the “heroes running towards,” the search for clues, the manhunt, the endless speculation about why.

I’ve been watching two stories dance around one another in the news.  The story of the families of the victims of Newtown campaigning for gun reform and the search for the Boston bombers.  They start to blend into one dark narrative about good and evil, and the different reactions people have to it.

As New York State Senator Greg Ball tweets “Who wouldn’t use torture on this punk (the surviving bomber) to save more lives?”

The Huffington Post asks the religious if they will pray for the perpetrators as well as the victims.

I keep thinking about a passage in an article I read yesterday on a Christian blog called “Mercy Not Sacrifice.”  The article had the attention getting title “How did Jesus Come to Love Guns and Hate Sex?”

The Arkansas legislature this February passed a law overturning the ban on carrying loaded guns into church… But there’s something else going on here. Let’s say I do go to a “right-to-carry” church. The reason that I’m not going to tense up if Deacon Billy’s pistol falls out of his pocket while he’s passing the offering plate is because good people like Deacon Billy don’t shoot people; bad people do.

If I carry a gun into church, I am embodying a two-fold doctrine of sin: 1) There is no danger that I would be tempted to sin with my gun (like in the heat of an argument over the church budget or a sermon that sounds un-Biblical). 2) There is enough danger from the wickedness “out there” that I should be armed in case the bad people storm our building and start shooting. This two-fold doctrine of sin could be termed the total depravity of everyone else.

This is a quote from an article in the UU World by theologian Paul Rasor, which I put in my journal after Aurora:

Most theologies include what theologians call a soteriology, a doctrine about salvation or deliverance. In the theology of violence, violence itself brings salvation. Theologian Walter Wink calls this “the myth of redemptive violence.” Like religious myth­ologies everywhere, its story is ritualistically told and retold so that its explanatory power is continually reinforced. The basic story line is always the same. Think of any Western movie or any modern equivalent, such as Star Wars, any police or detective story, any superhero story. In every case, “bad” violence, symbolizing the evil we must conquer, is overcome by “good” violence. The good guys bring the bad guys to justice by applying superior force, and sometimes, superior intelligence, either by capturing or killing them…

Good violence vs. bad violence.  The goodness of my group and the depravity of those outside it.  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a bomb is a good guy with a bomb,” someone posted on my Facebook feed.

We know that Decon Billy is one of the good guys, because he is a member of the church.  But do you trust your instinct to tell the good guys from the bad?  Today, I am not so sure I trust mine.

I’ve been looking at the photos of 19 year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the news. There is something deeply disconcerting about it.  His face is so young, his big brown eyes so innocent looking.  He is the kid beside you in psychology class.  He’s the guy who bought the beer.   He’s the one you chatted with yesterday in the gym.  His image was found in someone’s Facebook album titled “Happy Days.”  There he is with a red carnation in his lapel, the perfect prom date.  Doesn’t he look like he should be one of the good guys?

The thing that continues to haunt me about the Mercy Not Sacrifice article is this observation: “There is no danger that I would be tempted to sin with my gun.”

How certain can I be that I am the good guy?  Those who do evil often do so believing in the righteousness of their cause.  The Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho had the deadly delusion that he was righteous and Chirst-like.

“Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, who inspired generations of the weak and defenseless people,” he said in his manifesto video.

To his diseased mind, he was the good guy.

I look at Dkhokhar Tsarnaev and I wonder, are there circumstances in which I could be so deluded?  Are there situations in which I could become a Tsarnaev brother?

Even posing the question terrifies me.  It is much easier to say that I know I am good and that evil comes from the outside.  My goodness is something I can build a fortress around and protect with guns.

In the midst of their killing spree the Tsarnaev brothers carjacked a man and rode with its owner for a half hour as they tried to take cash out of ATMs with his bank card.  At the end of the ordeal, they let him go unharmed.  Why?  I suspect that they had spent enough time with him that he had become a human being to them, not simply a target, one of “those people.”

I think about this as people debate whether the bomber is entitled to Miranda rights, about whether “that punk” deserves torture.  The dehumanizing hatred is natural after what he has done.

But when we dehumanize “bad guys” aren’t we engaging in the same mindset that allows someone to bomb a street full of strangers?  If I see the person I hate as an inhuman monster who deserves to be tortured and killed without the benefit of a fair trial, can’t I write off someone else as too bad to be treated as human?  Couldn’t I, conceivably, justify to myself killing or maiming a crowd of these non-people for the greater good?

And the gun debate goes on with its dehumanizing language about “those liberals,” “those teabaggers,” “those gun nuts.”

Arkansas State Rep. Nate Bell (R) sent out a tweet Friday morning, asking “I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?”

I don’t have a conclusion for all of this.  When I try to sum it up with the “truest thing I know” the only thing I find is a sense of heaviness.

I am optimistic about humanity.  I do think we humans are naturally empathetic, we want to do good and to make the world a better place for our having been here.  Real horror, like that unleashed in Newtown and Boston is the exception not the rule. Maybe the only reassurance I can have that I am one of the “good guys” is that I am willing to accept that there are times when I might not be, to correct, to atone, to keep trying.