Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mass gun violence is a bigger problem than "lone crazies"

The Texas A&M shooting yesterday was the third mass shooting event in the last month.

It's a mistake to dismiss such incidents as unimportant because overall criminal violence has decreased in recent years or because, say, automobile accidents cause more deaths. The effect of an incident of either random mass killing or the kind of politically/racially-motivated mass murder the the Sikh Temple killing almost surely was are more far-reaching and long-lasting that a killing in a domestic dispute or in an armed robbery gone bad or a death in a car crash. Even multiple killing in a street gang war don't have the same affect, destructive and disruptive as they are.

Our political culture has evolved - or degenerated - to the point that the mainstream discussion about such incidents is reduced to a question of retaliatory justice against individual perpetrators (part of the governing through crime phenomenon) and a public reassertion of the virtues of mass ownership of guns and ammunition. The NRA promotion of the notion of individual vigilante justice has proven in practice to be worse than a non-starter. Given the current availability of weapons, any crime problems that can be solved by such availability can be presumed to be solved.

But the vigilante solution may soon move to a new stage. I share Cenk Uygur's concern that we, the US in general, may have reached some kind of tipping point, where mass shootings proliferate (as they are based on the last month's experience!) and where vigilante wannabes could start magnifying the level of violence by opening up on each other in public places because some incident is in progress or because they think such an incident is in progress. How anyone thinks that introducing such a West West dystopian fantasy into an urban society like the United States is a good idea is hard to fathom. But that's what's beginning to happen.

Not so very long ago, it was common to recognize that larger events like depressions and wars heightened social tensions in a way that could have disruptive effects on a large scale. Between the "governing through crime" phenomenon, the Ayn Randish veneration of sociopathic egoism that is becoming increasingly a part of the dominant neoliberal narrative and the embrace of those attitudes as the Will Of God by millions of conservative Christian in America and their leaders, even a leader like Barack Obama is afraid to talk about the social dimensions of even as serious a problem as mass gun murders.

The depression is creating conditions that maximize the possibilities of such incidents occurring: high unemployment, economic pressures, family tensions, foreclosures, debts that became much harder for consumers to escape with the "Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005", evictions. The triggering event for the Texas A&M shooter was being served an eviction notice. Acting out against scapegoat groups (blacks, immigrants, Sikhs, Muslims, liberal Congresswomen) becomes more likely.

Meanwhile, over the last three decades or so, we've been sometimes slowly and sometimes rapidly stripping down the public infrastructure that an urban society has to have to minimize the incidents of mass murder like those of the last three weeks. When we talk about cutting "gubment", as Republicans always do and Democrats too often do as well, at the local level that primarily means first responders like cops and firefighters and teachers. It also means state and local programs and facilities to deal with mental health issues, it means social workers and counselors. We know that a child growing up in a violent home environment is more likely to become a violent adult. We know that children that fall badly behind in school are also more likely to become antisocial in some way or another. Getting a family with young children past a domestic violence situation won't prevent an Aurora type incident tomorrow. But it reduces the chances of it 10 or 15 years down the road.

As an old friend of mine, Karen Franklin, pointed out two massacres ago, Aurora massacre: To speak or not to speak? In the news 07/22/2012, mass shooters suffer from some kind of massive disappointment in themselves with which they obviously cope in a horribly destructive way. She quotes psychiatrist Michael Welner: "This is why mass shooting are invariably, invariably carried out by people who have had high self esteem." As Karen also noted in a BBC World interview at the time, since virtually all mass shooters are male, there is a particular issue at work in the culture about men's expectations and self-image of themselves that takes deadly form in mass shooters.

Speaking of her field of forensic psychology, she writes:

Our field is positioned to help the public separate the wheat from the chaff. We can discuss the complex admixture of entitlement, alienation and despair that contributes to these catastrophic explosions. Equally important, we can remind the public that such rampages are rare and unpredictable, and that knee-jerk, "memorial crime control" responses are unwarranted and potentially dangerous. ...

But we should also recognize the limitations of our discipline’s micro focus on the individual, and encourage the public to grapple with the larger issues raised by this cultural affliction of the late-20th and early 21st century. ...

The larger error is not for informed professionals to respond -- cautiously, of course -- to media inquiries but, rather, for the public to settle for facile explanations, in which calling someone crazy or disturbed is mistaken for understanding what is going on.
There are no easy explanations or solutions for these incidents, in other words. And each one has its individual features. But those realities are no excuse for everybody pretending there aren't larger societal problems at work here, as well.


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