Mass murders like the massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday give us pause. Long pause. What is causing all of these atrocities? In this case, the murderer had a history of domestic violence.
There certainly is a connection between domestic violence and gun violence. Could that connection help us understand the violence?
Or there are extraordinary weapons like the bump stocks Stephen Paddock used to kill 58 people in Las Vegas a few weeks prior.
Is it the easy availability of rapid-fire military-grade armaments that lead to mass murders?
Do we need laws restricting gun possession by perpetrators of domestic violence, and laws restricting the purchase and ownership of military grade rapid-fire weapons? Of course we do. But there is something else about the Texas church massacre that deserves attention. Vengeance. The shooter did not have a rational target, and like most mass murderers killed randomly. But he was clearly acting out of vengeance, as was Stephen Paddock and others.
Vengeance is a quintessential human sentiment. It is one of our capacities, just as generosity and forgiveness are human capacities.
It’s much easier to draft laws prohibiting certain gun sales, such as giving guns to men who beat women, than it is to come to grips with the social problem of vengeance. I have arrived at a very simple formulation about vengeance and problems like gun violence. A backdrop of heightened vengeance in our mass culture is almost a prerequisite for large scale gun violence. I’d better explain. I will begin with a parallel in sexual assault within women’s prisons – stay with me, the relevance will become apparent. Generally, in men’s prisons rape is prisoner-on-prisoner, but in women’s facilities it is more often staff who perpetrate sexual abuse and rape. When I testify as a psychiatric expert witness in court on behalf of women who have been sexually abused by staff, I point out that the sexual abuse would not be so pervasive absent a culture of misogyny in the women’s prisons. Women prisoners, some of whom are older than officers, are regularly called “girls” and are disrespected at every turn. They are searched frequently by male officers who linger over their breasts and crotch. The misogyny is so commonplace it becomes “normalized,” and women feel that unless they are actually raped there is no use reporting the daily sexual harassment. This culture of misogyny is a necessary backdrop for the actual rapes and serious sexual abuse that occur all too often.
Similarly, where it is quite obvious how much vengeance is a part of the picture when a man picks up military weapons and opens fire on a crowd – he is getting back for some past episode that sticks in his craw even if his targets are not rationally connected to those who previously did him harm – but we rarely give a thought to the way a culture of heightened vengeance constitutes the necessary backdrop. Vengeance is a quintessential human sentiment. It is one of our capacities, just as generosity and forgiveness are human capacities. But certain experiences bring vengeance to the fore, for example unfair treatment at work, gross disrespect, the murder of a loved one, or the very high-profile murder of someone else’s child. We have the impulse to kill the murderer in revenge, or in more legal fashion, we may feel driven to seek the worst punishment possible in court, even death. In other words, the pervasiveness of vengeance in our mass culture and the media varies with historical events and the times. I think it’s clear that mass murders, though they remain relatively infrequent occurrences, are on the upswing. Could the upswing have something to do with the fact that vengeance is increasingly prominent in our social interactions and sensibilities today? We have a President who brags about groping women. We have hate crimes on the rise, with less and less effort from the federal government to do anything about their causes. We have openly anti-immigrant, xenophobic and homophobic statements emanating from the President and other leaders in Washington. All of this fuels a culture permeated by vengeance. I often feel I am even seeing it on the freeway. During more friendly and less vengeful times, if I near an exit and need to change lanes the drivers in that lane will slow and let me pass, but today they seem more often to speed up and cut me off, even when they know it means I will miss my exit. This is a very subtle form of vengeance, but it is one tiny reflection of increased vengeance in our culture, and there are many others. It is not only immigrants who are suffering in our vengeful society, there is simply less kindness around; for example there is little will in government to consign funds for programs disadvantaged people need to keep their heads above water. Our President is so vengeful that when a politician criticizes him he ups the ante in crude counter-attacks, and after a mass murder he immediately calls for the murderer to be executed. Of course he errs by disrespecting the separation of branches in our federal government, but also the reflex call for state-sponsored murder of the murderer feeds the general sense of vengeance in our culture today.
For more thoughts on an American way of death:
The Guardian of 6 November 2017: “The heartbreaking stupidity of America’s gun laws” by Richard Wolffe
The New York Times of 6 November 2017: “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer” by Max Fisher and Josh Keller