Trying to understand random violence

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesA man goes to the doctor because he is worried about a possibly malignant tumor on his neck. Two weeks later he goes back, concerned about another growth on his spine. Two more weeks and he again goes to the doctor to ask about a lesion in his mouth. Each time the doctor examines him carefully, conducts tests, and consults with colleagues. But each time, the physicians concern themselves mainly with the question of why the lesions appear where they do. Why has the tumor appeared on the neck rather than on the liver? Why on the spine and not in the brain? The patient can't help feeling that they are neglecting the more important question: why are tumors appearing in the first place?

Listening to some of the news coverage following the mass shooting in Las Vegas on October 1st, when Stephen Paddock opened fire from a hotel window on the audience at an outdoor concert, killing 58 and injuring over 500, I felt rather like this patient. Reports on NPR would typically begin: "Police still don't know why Stephen Paddock opened fire on…….." Of course, it is legitimate and important to ask why this particular individual suddenly committed mass murder, just as it's worth asking why tumors appear where they do. Establishing correlations between acts of random violence and elements in the perpetrator's life story, situation, or psychological profile could possibly help us anticipate and thereby forestall future tragedies. But we also need to ask the more fundamental question. Why are lesions appearing on the body? Why are spree killings much more common in the US than in other countries?

First, it is worth establishing a few facts. According to a CNN report, there were 90 mass shootings in the US between 1966 and 2012. These are shootings that kill more than four people but don't include gang violence or incidents involving several family members. They include such spree killings as those at the Orlando night club (June 2016, 49 killed), Sandy Hook (Dec. 2014, 27 killed), and Virginia Tech (April 2007, 32 killed). In the rest of the world during this period, there were 292 incidents of this sort. And compared to other economically developed countries, the US is a total outlier. So although violent crime has declined significantly in the US over the last 20 years, the question still remains: why are there are so many more spree shootings in the US than in other countries?

There is no single explanation. And there is no simple explanation. In discussions of this question people are often tempted to identify one factor as the cause. But that is a mistake. The question has to do with probabilities. Why is a spree shooting so many times more likely to occur in the US than in Canada, or Germany, or Japan? The answer, in my view, lies in a confluence of many factors. Taken individually, few are unique to the US, and none of them really explain the phenomenon in question; but taken together, they perhaps make it more comprehensible.

One could write a book on each of these factors. In fact, books have been written on each. Obviously, they aren't all of equal weight. But together they add up to a state of affairs where spree killings become more likely. Here are some of the most important.

· A history of violence that is not state-sanctioned. Few other modernized countries have anything like the wild west in their recent history on their own soil.

· The celebration of violence. This is especially evident in video games, in TV shows, and films. Blockbuster movies from early John Wayne to today's Superheroes typically involve some individual or group solving a problem by violence. In many cases the film is little more than a delivery system for a sustained shoot out.

· Militarism. The US armed forces are more in the news, are closer to politicians, and are more venerated than in other democratic countries.

· Individualism. American culture loves to celebrate the myth of the tough, determined individual who singlehandedly achieves his goals (and yes–it's usually a man), whether it be Clint Eastwood out for revenge, or Mark Zuckerberg creating Facebook.

· The cult of the thrill. People achieving tranquil contentment doesn't make good copy or good entertainment. So we regularly hear people describe some experience, often one accompanied by great risk, such as an extreme sport, or participating in a military action, as a moment when they felt really, truly alive. For the sake of such moments, we learn, they are willing to risk or even sacrifice everything.

· A highly competitive culture. Capitalism is based on competition, and as Marx pointed out, the character of the economic system percolates throughout a society's culture. Donald Trump gives voice to the basic assumption underlying the accompanying ideology: there are winners, and there are losers–and if you're not one, then you're the other.

· The cult of celebrity. The two main kinds of winning are fame and fortune. For someone who can't see his way to either but who has absorbed the values of the celebrity culture, a desperate substitute for fame is infamy. Mass media and social media have perhaps inflamed the desire for fame–which is itself a hypertrophied form of the more or less universal desire for respect.

· The ideology of meritocracy. This is the view that each individual pretty much deserves to be where they are in the socio-economic hierarchy. If they're at the top it's because they are smart and worked hard. If they're lower down, that must be because they are either lazy, dumb, or both. This myth pervades American culture. Consequently, those occupying the lower rungs inevitably feel looked down upon, which fosters resentment. And if they have internalized the ideology, their self-respect will be threatened.

· Inequality. Many studies have documented the growing economic inequality in the US over the past 30 years, with the top 1% pocketing an increasing share of the country's wealth. One can reasonably expect this to breed resentment, and not just against the "haves," but also against the system that so clearly favours the rich.

· Feelings of powerlessness. The basic value underlying a democratic political system is that of autonomy. A country is more democratic the more the people genuinely exercise self-determination. By this standard, American democracy is decidedly unhealthy. Money dominates politics; lobbyists exercise huge influence; districts are shamelessly gerrymandered; candidates and parties can win the most votes and still not gain power; politicians in Washington are far more concerned with being re-elected than with doing what is right or representing their constituents. As a result, millions feel helpless.

· Loneliness. Robert Purtnam's Bowling Alone is perhaps the best-known study of the breakdown of community bonds in many parts of America. Spree killers are often isolated figures, with few friends or social commitments.

· A poor health care system. Many–some would say all–spree killers are mentally ill. It is reasonably to suppose that if everyone suffering from mental illness could rely on being treated promptly and free of charge, more of those who need treatment would get it.

· Changing sex roles. Virtually all mass shooters are men. One factor feeding the confusion, bitterness and resentment that sometimes expresses itself in acts of violence may well be the declining authority and status of men in relation to women that has taken place over the past century, both in the family and in the public sphere.

· The death of God. In general, the US is more religious than other modernized countries. For all that, church going has declined in America too, and for an increasing number of people religion is less central to their lives and to their view of life. The point here isn't that non-believers are more likely to be killers because they aren't afraid of hell–although that may possibly be true. The deeper point is that in the largely secular, materialistic, hedonistic culture that has arisen, many people feel the lack of any profound purpose or meaning to life. Some are comfortable with this. Some feel it as vague sort of discomfort preventing them from achieving contentment. And in some, that vague discontentment can become something more desperate.

· The fetishism of guns. It's a fine thing to be a genuine collector, whether of stamps, fossils, or historically interesting weaponry. But the people who assemble frightening arsenals, who believe that the second amendment protects the right to own virtually any kind of weapon (so much for original intent!), who expect, absurdly, that government agents will soon be knocking on the door to take away their hunting rifles, and who fantasize about the delicious moment when they will actually put their guns to use in protecting their property and their family, are not really collectors. They are gun fetishists. And through the NRA, and the politicians who kowtow to the NRA, they obstruct the passage of sensible gun control laws.

· The lack of sensible gun control. Last but not least. The gun fetishists are perfectly right when they point out that some particular proposed measure (e.g. tighter background checks) would not have prevented some particular killing. But that is no reason not to do something about the number and type of guns in circulation, the capacity of magazines, the ease with which even disturbed individuals can acquire weapons, and so on. To say it again, we are dealing with probabilities. Eliminating gun violence in any foreseeable future is not feasible. But reducing its likelihood is.

These are some of the factors that in my view help explain why random shootings are more common in the US than in other countries. Readers can no doubt think of others. Many of these factors overlap and are interlinked.

Critics may say about any of them: You're telling me that there are more mass shootings in America because of factor X? Then how do you account for the fact that factor X is just as true of country Y where they don't have this problem? But this criticism misrepresents my argument. No one factor by itself constitutes an explanation, and taken in isolation they may even seem to have little to do with spree killings. But they are like the ingredients in gunpowder. By themselves they are not volatile, but when combined they become potentially explosive.