With now near daily mass shootings in America,1 the focus of much national debate has once again pivoted toward gun control, and the role of mental illness in creating the mass murderer. The arguments have taken a predictably identitarian turn, focusing less on understanding why a human being would do such a thing and more on why such acts are not considered acts of domestic terrorism.
Recognizing these murders as “acts of domestic terrorism” may allow for more resources to be allocated to subsequent investigations but will contribute nothing toward our understanding of the mental processes that drive such a killer.
Identifying mass murderers as “disenfranchised white males” only plays into identitarian politics—that is, post WWII, far right ideology—and keeps the discussion skin deep. Branding these acts as “hate crimes” is also woefully inaccurate, unless the “hate” refers to the almost certain self-loathing of the perpetrator. Most mass murder victims are people wholly unknown to the murderer. Unlike crimes of passion, there is almost certainly no personal animosity between a mass murderer and his victim. These crimes are more analogous to video games. The killing is more metaphorical than fueled by any particular “hatred.” The murderers are racking up points more than anything, as many as possible before their own (expected) demise.
Stepping back a bit, with a critical and historical eye, mass murder was an anomaly until the 1990s, accelerating tremendously through the early 2000s until now. Weaponry has not really improved much during that span. The logical question is what happened during those years to spur such an increase in violence? Did mental illness explode? One may argue so, I suppose, as the rates of suicide have increased in dramatic step with these homicides during this same period, if in fact suicide is also an end result of purported mental illness.2 Or did “hate” explode?
Again, this would depend on one’s definition of hatred. Generally, people who kill in cold blood are not fueled by hatred of their victims, but more perhaps by self-hatred, or hatred of an ideal.3 Planned, well-executed mass murders cannot really be viewed as crimes of passion. If anything, these are more crimes of ambivalence, with the flesh and blood victim providing the same transient “rush” as the virtual-victim, again, in a video game.
I come back to the video game analogy on purpose. The World Wide Web came into existence in 1991. It gained international traction in 1993, erupting in infinite directions with absolutely no restriction or regulation. And although the “smart”-phone was invented in 1992, “social” media—the most massive collection of pornography, hatred, violence, and vitriol the world has ever known—was unleashed without restraint with the development of the “I”-phone in 2007.
No one had any idea what all this might do to the collective human psyche.
How did we get here?
In this context, much effort is being made now to demonize the mass murderer as a product of “white supremacist” “ideology,” somehow considered a “logical” extension of several hundred years of eroding “white privilege.” Of course, this contention, dubious as it is, only works for the “white” mass murderer. It does not account for the roughly 44% of mass murders committed by non-white people over the past 37 years.4 Frankly, these discussions of white nationalism and the like are red herrings, easy media fodder, and distractions from more profound considerations, in my opinion. Throw in a perpetrator’s supposed “mental illness” and “hate,” and the awkwardly proposed picture, though it may then be condensable to 144 characters or less, is utterly nonsensical.
The historical course of “eroding white privilege” is really the logical progression of the then neoliberal ideals come to fruition during the 18th century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, culminating in the American and French Revolutions. The grievance with monarchy at the time was, at its core, the middle class, the business class, desire for increasingly liberal economic policies, the desire to “spread the wealth” more from the kings, the government, to the people. This was a gradual process at first, co-occurring with social welfare laws designed to keep this burgeoning “capitalism” from spinning out of control.
Predictably, exploitation became the rule, and resistance to this generally dehumanizing process was stiff. The 19th and 20th centuries were obviously riddled with brutal conflicts over this single principle. The word “terrorist” first emerged during this revolutionary age, used to describe both right- and left-wing political extremists.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite communist states in the 1980s, neoliberal capitalism won the day. History ended in 1989, according to some,5 coinciding with the birth of virtual culture. And with this incredibly powerful new tool, really an economic doomsday device, capitalist forces in their most brutal, pure, and exploitative forms were suddenly unleashed without an ounce of forethought.
1. Gun Violence. https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting. Accessed January 8, 2020.
2. Center for Disease Control. Suicide rates rising across the U.S. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0607-suicide-prevention.html. Accessed January 8, 2020.
3. Lankford A. The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers. New York: St. Martin’s Press; 2013.
4. Follman M, Aronsen G, Pan D. US Mass Shootings, 1982-2019: Data From Mother Jones’ Investigation. Mother Jones. December 11, 2019. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data. Accessed January 8, 2020.
5. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, The Free Press, New York, 2006.
6. Han B-H. In the Swarm: Digital Prospects. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2017.
7. Hallie P. From cruelty to goodness. In: Sommers C, Sommers F, Editors. Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life. San Diego: Harcourt College Publishers; 1989: 9-24.
8. Reiner S. Death by Data: How Kafka’s The Trial Prefigured the Nightmare of the Modern Surveillance State. New Statesman. January 16, 2014. https://www.newstatesman.com/2014/01/death-data-how-kafkas-trial-prefigured-nightmare-modern-surveillance-state. Accessed January 8, 2020.