American Mass Murder: A Toxic Cultural Brew
One of the recurring questions in Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine is why Canada, America’s “friendly” neighbor to the north, has among the highest rates and ease of gun ownership in the world, yet has much lower rates of gun violence than the United States. Moore travels to several major southern Canadian cities asking random citizens and local law enforcement officials their opinions. His conclusion, and one of the most powerful arguments of the movie, is that it’s not the mere existence of guns, but the socioeconomic, cultural, and political context in which guns exist, that are primary determinants of the levels and kinds of gun violence in a society.
According to Moore’s interviewees, Americans are both pumped full of fear by their political elites and media, and too quick to assume that violence is the appropriate response to a dispute. “They’re afraid more easily,” one person explained. “They don’t stop and think,” said another, assessing Americans’ supposed proclivity to shoot first and ask questions later.
Such views might help explain the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and other more spontaneous acts of gun violence. But James Eagan Holmes, the alleged Aurora killer, apparently spent months methodically planning his crime. He didn’t just “snap” and go on a killing spree in response to a perceived threat or insult.
What’s more, there seems to have been no political, ideological or economic motive behind his actions. He is not a member of an oppressed group seeking revenge against the dominant society; nor is he some 1970s-style bourgeois radical (or the fin-de-siècle al-Qaida equivalent) acting in perceived solidarity with the oppressed masses. However terrorized were his victims, the shooting is not an act of political terrorism.
Whatever psychological diagnosis ultimately gets pinned to him, Holmes and the act that will forever define him—as he hoped it would—were the products of a peculiarly American set of cultural experiences, values, and motivation, which hold the key to understanding how and the United States seems to produce such a disproportionate number of people who engage in acts of seemingly senseless mass murder.
Locating the Violence
Americans are certainly no more prone to extreme violence than other cultures. In Syria today the leadership and tens of thousands of government soldiers have little compunction about kill many times the number of people Holmes killed every day merely to retain their political and economic power. The same can be said of most dictators, and many of the violent movements who oppose them.
War, civil conflict, and the violence routinely deployed by those in power to remain so have produced unspeakable brutality in the last half-century, from Latin America across the global south to Southeast Asia. The four years of World War II produced three times the number killed in all the violent conflicts since. As a recent collection of family photos of SS guards, “Laughing at Auschwitz,” documents, people engaged in the most unspeakable horrors can lead seemingly “normal” lives, celebrating Christmas with family, drinking with friends and co-workers at the world’s most infamous charnel house as if it was an automobile plant.
The point being, the human proclivity towards unfathomable cruelty and violence knows no racial, national, religious, or historical boundaries. But most of the violence described above was motivated by some sort of comprehensible political, ideological or economic motivation and thus “rational,” even if we might oppose the reasons used to justify it.
One of the paradoxes of the modern world is precisely that we try to carve out boundaries between legitimate or at least politically and morally comprehensible—and more to the point, sanctioned or at least excusable—violence from violence that is “totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct,” as one of the most famous lines from Apocalypse Now puts it.
Cinematic anti-heroes like Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz, or The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s Batman (as whom James Holmes allegedly dressed during his rampage) are powerful precisely because they call into question the supposed boundary between legitimate, comprehensible, and even sanctioned violence that is understood as necessary to achieving and maintaining social and political order, and nihilistic, “irrational” violence that threatens it. We judge them insane and terminate them with “extreme prejudice” not because their violence is so qualitatively different from that sanctioned by the state, but rather because it is so uncomfortably close.
Is there any wonder that many post-9/11 mass murderers, including Holmes, dressed in military style clothing, as if they’re acting out a first-person shooter game in real life. How sane is it to create a culture that is so caught up in war that a staggering 7 percent of GDP, $1 trillion, is spent on it even as tens of thousands of people—that’s several thousands times the number Holmes killed—die each year from lack of affordable health care and the country’s infrastructure rots? And where the structural violence of an economic system based on rank greed and amorality is fully supported by at least half the population?
It’s not surprising that people who suffer from some form of mental illness or psycho-social disorders resort to military-style violence when they finally break from whatever bonds still connect them to society. It’s literally programmed into our cultural DNA, today more than ever before. In fact, it’s surprising that it doesn’t happen more often.
Certainly the methodical murder of so many people seems insane to “normal” people, exponentially more so to the victims. But how different do the members of an Afghan wedding party whose loved ones have just been blown to smithereens by a U.S. drone feel? How about the parents of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who died during the sanctions regime? Can they make any more sense of that than we can of this?
Are Americans as a society ultimately that much more sane than James Holmes? How many innocent civilians die each year in its name? And not just in foreign conflict. Two days after Holmes’ massacre, fourteen people, most probably undocumented migrant laborers from Mexico and other Central American countries, were killed when the pick-up truck into which they were crowded careened off a road and crashed into a tree. Can a country that so depends on cheap foreign labor yet criminalizes and dehumanizes these laborers, spends billions of dollars to build walls to (sort of) keep them out, and forces them to risk—and so often, lose—their lives merely to get to their jobs be considered sane or even morally competent? If you look at rates of obesity, prescription addictions, or the willingness to continue with policies that manifestly harm the majority of people supporting them, is the country not committing a collective crime against itself and the world around it?
Thriving on Chaos
Or do people like Holmes serve as a wake-up call to the society-wide psychological disturbance of the equilibrium between empathy and unchecked individualism and selfishness, the two contradictory impulses that have, depending on their balance, produced and destroyed countless civilizations before ours? Indeed, the American success story has depended more than most on a strategy of creative destruction, of encouraging the kind of reckless risk-taking and disregard for consequences that are at the heart of entrepreneurial capitalism.
America’s history as a settler colonial enterprise turned global empire, whose expansion and development depended on the murder and dispossession of millions of native people and the enslavement of even more Africans, has made it one of the greatest examples of the benefits and consequences of the impulse to creative destruction. When it has been tempered by a concern for the common good, it enabled an unprecedented level of prosperity across society; when it is bereft of any concern for society at large, it produces precisely the predicament in which the United States presently finds itself.
“Thriving on Chaos” is how business management guru Tom Peters described this strategy twenty-five years ago, as neoliberalism was being cemented as the official political and economic ideology of the United States. Those who care to look can easily see the consequences of such chaos on workers, communities, and ecologies around the world. But for those who, like Holmes—or his fictional doppleganger The Joker—can’t turn chaos into “legitimate” profit or power, it can easily become its own end—the creativity becomes a means towards destruction, rather than the other way around.
And here is where we can return to Moore’s primary point in Bowling for Columbine: The reason gun violence is so much higher in the United States compared with its northern neighbor is precisely because Canadians are still willing to take care of their own, to provide adequate health care and other social services for the poor and working classes, to make the fuller dignity of people’s life of equal value to the pursuit of profit by the few.
Ironically, Moore’s argument is not that different than that of the gun lobby, which argues that issues like poverty, alcohol and drug abuse and endemic violence in the inner city are responsible for the epidemic of gun violence, not the mere availability of guns. If society “tackle[s] these issues… you’ll solve, to a large degree, the problems of violence in society. But they go ignored.”
Of course, as far as we know James Holmes was not the product of the inner city, or of an abusive, dysfunctional, or even criminal environment. He’s just a person who traveled the terrible path from slightly strange to insane, and because he lived in a culture where guns are readily available and gratuitous and amoral violence suffuses and is even celebrated across the culture, his insanity and complete disregard for others was expressed through mass violence.
In so doing, he offered Americans a glimpse of the darkest recesses of the cultural and economic logic of their society. Guns might kill people, and getting rid of them would certainly reduce the death toll. But as long as Americans suffuse their culture with violence at almost every level, there is no chance for meaningful gun reform, and young men like James Eagan Holmes will continue to turn their private mental illness into an occasion for cinematic murder and mayhem.