Americans, numb on mass shootings, must renew their culture, shunning a lethal mixture of violence and too many guns.
By Louis René Beres*
The shooting at a school under lockdown in California on November 14th, the Texas church shooting on November 5th and the Colorado Wal-Mart shooting on November 2nd are among the latest expressions of American gun crime. Nearly every day brings yet another spasm of deadly mayhem and mass killing, virtually all the work of obviously disturbed individuals.
Still, pertinent truth in such fearful matters is complex and multisided. Limiting access to automatic weapons is essential, an intellectual “no-brainer,” but a corollary requirement for the nation centers on certain cultural factors. Dedicated analysts and ordinary laypersons also seek answers amid the dense thickets of mental illness and psychopathology, yet less attention is paid to certain underlying fractures of American culture. Significantly, as these spheres are often determinative for mass-casualty assaults, Americans should look beyond the news. To wit, they must soon inquire: Is there something revealingly insidious about the wider network of American social life that increasingly makes individual human breakdowns more usual and more violent?
To begin, macabre sentiments can readily trigger distressed people, both young and old. In these impenetrably bitter human circles, a determined will to kill others en masse can sometimes take hold. Whatever the preferred killing venues, there emerges in these circles a seemingly irresistible urge to unleash lethal violence and to carry this out more-or-less randomly in crowds.
Often, there is no understandable connection between the mass killer’s apparent grievances and the names of victims. Yes, of course, the attacker may somewhere have recorded a loathing of certain identifiable individuals or institutions, but the most genuinely consistent object of this cold-blooded antipathy is innocence. Devoid of both sympathy and empathy, the killer openly despises the pristine blamelessness of his victims – a discomfiting innocence that may remind him of his own dismally failed struggle for personal autonomy, dignity and respect.
People, young people especially, are sometimes more afraid of being left alone and inconsequential than anything else, including death. For a few, almost always young males, the paralyzing fears of social or professional rejection can become so numbingly overwhelming that they effectively crowd out the otherwise more widely presumed sacredness of human life. Here, as an imagined compensation for every “injustice,” the murder of schoolmates, anonymous shoppers, churchgoers, concert-goers or young children may appear, grotesquely, fitting.
While individuals normally shrink from personal annihilation, a perversely implemented fusion of homicide and suicide can still augur a deeply reassuring celebration of death. Sinister, to be sure, but also eagerly anticipated, such fusion can offer would-be mass killers a fitting path to “revenge.” For most of us, this sort of twisted reasoning makes no sense whatever. Still, lack of coherence remains utterly beside the point. All that matters is that such aberrant reasoning make sense to the prospective killers.
Conspicuously, crime and mass murder are taking a hideous but predictable turn in the United States. Whatever the source, wherever the venue, violence and death brazenly brutish and recognizably cold-blooded are distinctly popular. This worrisome development is not unprecedented, and increasing numbers of tormented persons who sometimes live quietly among us are eagerly drawn to violent entertainment or deeds that involve beating, battering and tearing apart other human beings.
From the standpoint of “lone-wolf” mass murderers especially, the core problem is not fundamentally legal, political, religious or institutional. Instead, Americans increasingly embrace a relentlessly imitative conformist society, one that is deeply troubled, fervidly anti-individualist, deliriously unhappy and obscenely dysfunctional.
For those who would fail to “fit in” or “merely” see themselves as irremediable failures, the resultant anger can launch incremental or sudden emotional breakdowns, quickly spiraling into assorted specific and non-specific hatreds. By definition, the recent mass shooters are psychopathic, but this does not mean that each had planned his chosen annihilation spasms in a hermetically-sealed civilizational vacuum. On the contrary, such plans are rarely conceived in some neatly detached private universe.
In recent cases of American mass murder, mental distress and disorientation were dangerously intertwined with a larger national landscape of ubiquitous rancor and lurid cruelty. By intersecting with personal demons, this fragmenting landscape of violent harms provides the operational environment within which otherwise unimaginable crimes could actually be concocted and carried out.
At its heart, the dreadful problem of those who systematically murder blameless others stems from a society that loathes the individual. Driven by an almost irresistible need to conform at all costs, Americans have learned not just to tolerate mass society, but also glorify it. In consequence, too many function under carefully scripted rhythmic urgings to worship every inane and distracting technology. Social networking has become more than a helpful key to relationship opportunities. More symptom than cause, it is effectively a new religion, a common expression of submission to unyielding expectations of mass. To act in any manner against these expectations is unacceptable and even blasphemy.
People are generally more attentive to multiple “apps” and personal devices, intent on crafting a fantasy version of their lives, than the palpable pain of fellow citizens.
To the darkly lonely ones who feel unable to belong, that is, find some sufficiently sustaining acceptance in any group, an overwhelming despair can become irresistible. The “remedy” for this gravely painful condition, a sort of residual “sickness unto death” – a term of 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard – may be discovered elsewhere.
Americans must transform their public universe of banal chatter and empty witticisms into an environment more generously dedicated to an openness for real life with its few successes and many failures. Otherwise, navigating society is increasingly crushing, as if there is not enough air to breathe. In a suitably transformed environment, individuals might learn once again how to avoid self-debasement. Only then, could society expect fewer recruits to the growing crowd – Freud would call it a “horde” – of determined mass murderers.
Ultimately, the violent spasms of recurrent American mass killings are the expected result of a society’s pervasive loneliness and its correspondingly manipulated obsessions with death. If an alien were to touch down from another planetary outpost and seek reliable information about the human condition from available US news, movies, video games and television, the conclusions would be dire and stark – that our country’s days are gleefully preoccupied with mayhem, rape and virtually every conceivable variant of human murder including war, terrorism and genocide.
Somehow, before it is too late, we Americans must collectively learn to recover a meaningful incentive to feel, for ourselves, for others, and, simultaneously, to conspire more openly against the disjointed national exponents of separateness, alienation and despair. Otherwise, some of those living among us who are most unhappy and malleable will continue to seek their personal significance in carefully planned spasms of human extermination. In this regard, “America First” is not a proper model for dignified society. Rather, its crudely-sculpted competitive ethos represents the literal opposite of what’s required for global citizenship and US national security.
True feeling and empathy require good people to behave as thinking individuals, not as blindly obedient members. Oddly, perhaps, such individual behavior is often scandalous, a threatening intrusion into the compulsively profitable worlds of raw commerce, mindless jingles, mass marketing, adrenalized competition and celebrity adulation. Yet, even in civilizations on the wane, at twilight, worn and almost defeated, an uncorrupted life is sometimes given a second chance.
*Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (PhD, 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations, international law, art, literature and philosophy. Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue, he has been published in such places as YaleGlobal Online, The New York Times, World Politics (Princeton); International Security (Harvard); Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Special Warfare (DOD); Parameters, The Journal of the U.S. Army War College; Ha’aretz; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Jerusalem Post; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Hill; Israel Defense; US News & World Report; Jurist; The Atlantic; and Oxford University Press. His 12th book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.