Sandy Hook. Columbine. Aurora. Tucson. Fort Hood. These names ring out in popular memory as the sites of seemingly random, horrific atrocities.
Mass violence and how we can address it has become a hot-button issue and for good reason. Last week, between October 26thand November 1st, there were five mass killings in the United States. And Monday, a gunman opened fire in a New Jersey shopping mall, firing several shots, but killing only himself.
Our nation leads wealthy democracies in allowing the market to disseminate, nearly unchecked, huge numbers of guns into the hands of a society riddled by extreme economic inequality, widening social polarization, and deep racism. In this context, advocating gun control is the only sane thing to do. Yet, to jump from mass violence to the conclusion that there are just too many guns - and that the solution is simply to reduce them - is to fatally misdiagnose the problem.
While mass shootings are the most publicized American gun deaths, they are far from being the only ones. Every day dozens of people are killed in this country, mostly young people of color and mostly in the poorest and most economically devastated neighborhoods of our major cities. This chronic social crisis largely appears in the establishment press as statistics or else as a situation to be managed but never fundamentally addressed. And typically, these everyday killings are assumed to have a different explanation than the spectacularly horrific mass shootings that are covered in the national press, if any explanation for them is offered at all.
After each mass shooting, on the other hand, the national news media presents us with blank expressions of the killers in mug shots, school pictures, and family photographs that only vaguely hint at the capacity for cold, calculated murder. The explanatory strategy, if there is one, is to explain the tragedy in light of the killer’s upbringing and psychological history.
The problem of how we are to explain atrocities of such enormity is one of considerable difficulty. The German thinker, Immanuel Kant, held that we can give no reason why a human being would commit an evil act. We can diagnose such an act, but not explain it. Hannah Arendt, unconvinced by Kant, tried to make sense of evil by coming face to face with Adolf Eichmann during his trail in 1961, but also recognized that he would be a tough nut to crack.
More recent attempts to explain horrors of this kind are dangerously shallow. They argue, for instance, that mass shootings can be fully explained by the killers’ deranged mental states. While those who commit such heinous crimes are obviously of unsound mind, it is a mistake to psychologize their actions in a way that removes any possibility for social explanations.
Yet, it is not coincidental that media commentators resort to such forms of explanation. Our age can be characterized by a social vision in which our world is essentially composed of atomized, self-sufficient individuals who are connected to one another primarily through our personal choices as consumers in the market. Margaret Thatcher’s dictum, “there is no such thing as society,” was a prophetic description of the dominant way we imagine the world we now inhabit. Thus it is unsurprising that journalists largely ignore social explanations for mass violence.
Yet if we look at what mass killers actually have been saying about what they’re doing and why, their actions actually seem to call for just such an explanation.
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Mingdong Chen, who stabbed (not shot) his cousin’s wife and her four children to death in Brooklyn last Saturday, is reported to have been unemployed after being repeatedly fired from a number of restaurant jobs. According to Police Chief Philip Banks III, “[Chen] made a very soft comment that since he came to this country, everybody seems to be doing better than him.” While we don’t know the circumstances that led Chen to be fired, we do know that competition for jobs, even in the low-paying restaurant industry, is fierce and that immigrants and workers of color are at a considerable disadvantage in the industry.
Paul Ciancia, who shot 7 people at LAX on Friday, reportedly held strong anti-government views. He penned a note saying that he “wanted to kill TSA and pigs.” While it appears likely that Ciancia was suffering from some kind of psychotic break, these days he is far from the only American holding fantasies of an overweening, menacing government and adopting a politics of anti-government extremism in response.
If we listen to these killers, we see that it would be a mistake to diagnose their actions based on their individual psychology alone.
The Greeks, particularly Plato, held that the psyche of citizens mirrors the political community in which they are embedded and visa versa. Individual citizens, after all, are raised within that community and their actions go on to shape it for future generations. If we take that view on board, then the psychosis that drives mass killers might be seen as a reflection – however distorted it may be – of the illness found in our collective political life.
And it would be vain to deny that we live in a very sick political climate. Last week, we cut food support to our poorest citizens. This week, the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House will deliberate about how much further pain should be doled out on those same communities. Add to this the fact that unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans will run out by year end unless Congress takes action. Yet, despite the strong connection between hunger, joblessness, and violence, few are willing to suggest that political decisions of this kind impact mass killings. We attempt to address the problem through Thatcher’s lens, by focusing on the individual.
It hasn’t always been this way. The 1965 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended, in addition to increased resources for addressing youth crime and better technologies for policing, a guaranteed minimum income.* Even more astonishing is the fact that the commission’s recommendations were approved unanimously, including by Lewis F. Powell, arguably a father of the corporate take-over of our political system who helped ensure that Thatcher’s words would come to describe our current reality.
That Lewis F. Powell would sign off on a proposal recommending we provide a guaranteed income to citizens in order to prevent violent crime says something about just how extreme societal disintegration has been over the last 50 years.
If ordinary citizens, members of the news media, and politicians in Washington want to stop mass killings, they had better take off the blinders and start thinking differently.
* [Jeffries, John. Justice Lewis F. Powell. New York: Fordham University Press, 2001, p. 211-214.]