Serial killer Ted Bundy.
More gun massacres, more rounds of self-serving platitudes trumpeting the “real issue” of mental illness – anything to dodge taking on the biggest gun industry, and gun culture, in the world.
Mental illness? There is surely an abundance of psychological disorders in the United States, as in any country, but it is worth asking what such an obsession in the land of cherished “gun freedoms” might conceivably produce. One possibility: a national crusade, staffed by an army of psychiatrists, therapists, computer programmers, intelligence operatives, and law-enforcement agents, to weed out potential violent criminals in an adult population of some 270 million. Rather preposterous, of course. Could any mighty corps of experts, no matter how numerous and well-trained, hope to identify, monitor, predict, and control violent behavior in a society where many “indicators” of such behavior would surely be located within a “normal” range. A related question: could yet another program of mass surveillance, information-gathering, and social intrusions do anything beyond reinforcing an already repressive system of corporate-state power.
While the mental-health narrative applied to the phenomenon of gun massacres appears to have a certain validity – after all, the shooters must be crazy – it cannot be taken seriously either as ideological discourse or political strategy. Yet the narrative has gathered exceptional mainstream credibility, repeated sacredly by politicians and the media in every post-massacre commentary. Proposals for wider background checks in gun sales (a good idea, with severe limits) seem driven by the notion that, eventually, such checks will reveal (and defeat) the next Charles Manson, Timothy McVeigh, or Christopher Harper-Mercer (the Oregon shooter). Aside from ignoring the ridiculously easy access to a thriving black market in weapons of every type, these fantasies assume that a huge assemblage of professional experts might somehow identify precursors of the next murderous outburst, enabling public intervention in ways not yet made clear. There have been nearly 300 episodes of mass killings in the U.S. during 2015 alone – none predicted, and none even remotely suspected.
We know that an elaborate, high-tech surveillance order already exists, where details of people’s daily lives – phone conversations, personal movements, Internet transactions, banking activities, email transmissions, household purchases – are on full display, perfectly accessible to government and corporate entities. Continuously-refined modes of information collection now contribute to vast data banks that can be used to monitor workplace behavior (as with Telematics), political activity, and drug or “terror”-related operations. Driven by the wars on drugs and terrorism, combined with routine imperatives of the warfare state, the DEA, NSA, CIA, and kindred federal agencies rely on intrusive snooping technology for “data mining” across the social landscape. If we add to this a sprawling “mental health” apparatus, charged with gathering information on the psychological traits (and history) of countless adult Americans, these authoritarian and repressive tendencies can only further expand.
Any such project, however, is destined to collapse before it starts. The problem with gun violence is that its morbid symptoms will generally appear quite reasonable within a system that venerates, even celebrates the most gruesome spectacles of killing. Rampage murders, horrendous as they are, actually constitute just a small part of a much deeper complex of forces at work. At the same time, the prevalence in American society of personal alienation in the form of powerlessness, anger, hatred, and (for many) racism – frequent source of violent outbursts – tends to elicit little surprise, much less outrage. One underlying cause of this alienation is a harsh neoliberal corporate-state order that routinely generates pervasive material suffering, social dislocation, and psychological despair – worsening conditions that ensure violence in its many expressions (well beyond the gun assaults) will be an increasingly “normal” part of American everyday life.
In most rampage killings, the closest observers – friends, relatives, teachers, authorities – appear largely clueless about supposedly obvious indicators of extreme violence.
…After the recent outburst at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, President Obama – expressing disgust over weak gun laws — spoke passionately about the imperative of ending the perpetual cycle of violence. Yet Obama, at that moment, was presiding over the biggest killing machine the world has ever known. In fact, the same week the Oregon gunman went on his rampage American planes were bombing a large hospital facility operated by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 22 doctors and patients (including several children), wounding dozens more – at a site where GPS coordinates had long been familiar to U.S. military planners. The evidence, still being gathered, points to yet another in a long history of U.S. war crimes.
What the mental-health fixation lacks is any semblance of historical or social context. Given the persistence of U.S. imperialism and militarism — and mounting fascination with combat and guns in a society transfigured by its warfare state — Washington remains a thriving center of global violence: repeated armed interventions abroad have found their domestic parallel in the world’s largest prison system, a deepening gun culture, home-bred terrorism, police atrocities, and a media culture filled with spectacles of warfare and bloodshed. There is of course little new in all this – just its increasing scope and dystopic consequences. The Pentagon exerts a crucial influence on foreign policy, of course, but also on domestic politics, the economy, culture, media, and daily life. In a society where guns are so popular and fiercely embraced that deadly shootings take on the aura of normalcy, episodes of civic violence, including rampage killings and serial murders, are likewise destined to appear “normal”.
…According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there were 33,000 deaths by firearms in the U.S. during 2013: 11, 200 homicides, 21,200 suicides, 500 accidents. Comparable overall figures for Japan are less than 200, for Germany, Italy, and France less than 150. Could all of these countries have that many fewer cases of “mental illness” than the U.S.? In fact what differentiates the others from the U.S. are two stubborn realities – far weaker military systems, and much stricter gun-control laws (personal firearms being essentially outlawed). There are an estimated 90 firearms for every 100 Americans, accounting for fully 41 percent of all privately-held weapons worldwide. Of course the NRA and its rabid supporters argue that such linkage is a liberal fiction, that gun violence is primarily traceable to mental disorders, having nothing to do with the wide availability of guns. Unfortunately, while massacres like the recent ones in South Carolina and Oregon are virtually unheard of outside the U.S. (beyond cartel-ridden Mexico), they have become regular horror shows in a nation of cherished “gun freedoms”.
…For the past several years polling data has revealed that the vast majority of Americans want tougher gun controls – beyond enhanced background checks and bans on military-grade weapons or limits to high-powered magazines. Yet today, in the wake of repeated gun massacres (not to mention other types of carnage), Congress is no closer to passing real weapons legislation than at any time in the recent past. Nothing has happened, and nothing is likely to happen. Even the shocking 2012 Newtown, Connecticut massacre of school children failed to generate any mainstream political action: even a tepid bill requiring modest background checks on gun sales fell short in the Senate, thanks to full-scale mobilization by the gun lobby. Sadly, the U.S. is the only country in the world where gun regulations are so fiercely opposed.
At the end of World War II the Army Air Force crews that brought atomic destruction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 defenseless civilians, were comprised of highly-competent, even-tempered military personnel strongly dedicated to their work Most wound up emotionally detached from the horrors they had wrought. Said Paul W. Tibbetts, Jr., pilot of the Enola Gay that bombed Hiroshima: “I never lost a night’s sleep over it.” He was later praised as a war hero. Such was the prevalent American attitude, starting with President Truman, as U.S. planes had already torched another 66 Japanese cities in spring and summer of 1945, when outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. Such aerial terrorism, the victims mainly civilian, would set the norm for postwar American military action – from Korea to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Panama, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There would be few moral, psychological, or political barriers to decades of unrestrained technological savagery. Could a society in which this kind of savagery had for so long been routinized, legitimated, and treated as spectacle not possibly bear the most fearsome domestic consequences?