You might not think that mass shootings and the climate crisis are related problems. In truth, they appear to be symptomatic of the same underlying disease that has rotted American culture from the inside out, and now threatens the future of all life on the planet.
By now, everyone is quite familiar with the nauseating cycle we repeat every time there is a new mass shooting. Shock and horror, sensationalized news coverage focused on “how could this happen here?” and “what could motivate such a despicable action?” Next, the focus turns to the victims and their families, with an expression of moral outrage. If it is horrific enough, the President himself voices his sympathy, and maybe visits the aggrieved. Then the media turns to the problem with easy access to guns and mental illness, prompting a predictably polarized debate about gun control. After a few days, the media moves on to the latest celebrity gossip, natural disaster, or intractable war news, and everyone goes quiet… until the next shooting.
If we are so familiar with this cycle that it has actually become as routine as it is ineffective in processing our felt grief, why do we repeat it every time? Is this not the very definition of mental illness – repeating ineffectual behavior over and over while expecting a different outcome? The better question is this: why does the introspective analysis stop at the expression of polarized views about firearms? Is there really no underlying issue here beside firearms and their easy availability to mentally disturbed individuals?
In truth, the gun issue is an easy chimera that allows us to avoid looking in the mirror. It is much easier for us to imagine that this is an unfortunate political or regulatory issue than it is to ask what our own complicity in this ongoing, slow motion slaughter of innocents might be. Think about this. We are a country of approximately 300 million people with approximately 300 million firearms – a third of which are concealable handguns. Each one of these guns is made for one purpose only – to kill as quickly and effectively as possible. The idea that some magical regulatory scheme, short of confiscation, will somehow prevent guns from being used to kill people is laughable, regardless of what you think of the NRA. Similarly, mentally ill individuals are responsible for less than 5% of the 30,000+ gunned down in the U.S. every year.
Now let’s look at this issue more objectively. America seems to stand alone among the developed countries of the world when it comes to mass shootings and senseless gun violence. For example, from 2009-2013, there were 38 fatal shooting rampages in the U.S. The next closest country was Germany, with 3 over that same period. Adam Lankford, an associate professor at the University of Alabama Department of Criminal Justice, studied mass shootings (minimum 4 fatalities) around the world from 1966 to 2012, and found we accounted for 31% of all mass shooters (with only 5% of the global population).
After the Charleston shootings, President Obama noted that “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries… with this kind of frequency.” While Mr. Obama called for a ‘reckoning’, this is the same man who meets every Tuesday in the Oval Office to go over his ‘kill list’ and was compelled to go on national television to brag about killing Osama bin Laden rather than bringing him before the world’s criminal court. Why doesn’t our president go on national television every time one of our drones kills innocent women and children overseas? Could the ‘American exceptionalism’ he brashly promotes have something to do with the idea that violence is the solution to our problems?
The truth we do not seem capable of owning up to is that we are the most violent culture in the history of modern human civilization. Not only that, but as borne out by our obsessive ritualization of mass shootings through the dissociative news media cycle referenced above, we are actually deeply traumatized by our own violent history. It is for this reason that we repeat the same behaviors over and over – in much the same way that an individual who has been traumatized by violence in their own past will subconsciously engage in patterned behaviors in their personal relationships that have the effect of recreating the circumstances of their original trauma. As Mark Epstein, M.D., notes in his provocative book The Trauma of Everyday Life (Penguin Books, 2013), in the prototypical case of PTSD, a “person becomes fearful or anxious or aggressive but does not know why.”
This could be an apt description of American culture, painfully on display in our collective response to mass shootings. We are becoming increasingly anxious and aggressive as a culture, but we seem clueless as to the underlying reasons. As Epstein points out in such cases, the key to unlocking this kind of psychological infirmity is to acknowledge that “the breakdown has already happened,” and developing awareness of the factors that led to that breakdown. In the myth of the Fisher King, which inspired T.S. Elliot’s epic poem The Wasteland, the entire kingdom is morose and in decline because the king has an open wound that will not heal. Redemption becomes possible only when the Knight Perceval turns to the king, knowing full well how the wound was suffered, and poses the question “What ails thee?” He was not asking about the wound, but instead inquiring into the kingdom’s psyche.
If we really wanted to effectively address the senseless violence that plagues our culture, we would begin with a national conversation about cultural trauma. While it began as a theory in social psychology, it has recently been proven through genetics that cultural trauma is passed on from one generation to the next. Not only that, but the longer it goes unaddressed, let alone resolved, the more of a problem it becomes. If you do not believe that we, as a nation, are still traumatized by the brother-against-brother extreme violence of the Civil War, take a good look at the symbolism and circumstances surrounding the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C.
There is no question that Indian Americans are still traumatized by the genocide carried out against them by our forebears, but what is perhaps less appreciated is the trauma passed on by the perpetrators of such inhumane campaigns. Just try to imagine what you might be like if your father was a Nazi soldier in one of the death camps. Do you think for a second that he would not pass on the emotional cauterization he had to undergo in order to participate in that kind of nightmare to you? Can you begin to see how you might then pass that on to your own children?
One of the classic symptoms of a traumatized individual is the inability to respond appropriately to highly charged emotional stimuli. Victims of unresolved childhood sexual trauma are often incapable of enjoying sexual intimacy as adults, often mutely dissociating from reality at such key moments. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, think of the many among us who are crippled by the effects of PTSD as a result of their willing participation (more often as perpetrators than victims) in the horror of war. How rational is their response to violent emotional outbursts directed at their loved ones? So is it any surprise that America itself, a culture traumatized by a genocidal past, by slavery and the ravages of Civil War, by the unimaginable horrors of dropping nuclear bombs on hundreds of thousands of women, children, and elderly (and, by the way, more American citizens were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki than in the World Trade Towers), by the gunning down of JFK, MLK, and RFK in rather quick succession, and most recently by 9-11, is incapable of doing anything rational in response to the latest mass shooting of school children or other unsuspecting victims who were just going about their daily routine?
And what other issue does American seem to stand alone among the developed countries of the world in its relative incapacity to act? The Climate Crisis. Once again, we exhibit all the telltale symptoms of trauma. No country is more responsible for the climate crisis than we are, and no country is less responsive to the urgency of the situation. Even President Obama talks about how the actions we are taking now are condemning our children to an uninhabitable planet – while at the same time he brags about having turned America into the #1 producer of oil and gas in the world, and approves opening the fragile Arctic Ocean up to deep-water drilling just weeks ahead of visiting Alaska to highlight the insanity of that regulatory action.
This is nearly a perfect expression of just how deeply troubled we have become as a culture. What could be more sociopathic than being told repeatedly by the best scientists in the world that the heat engine of our economic growth is ensuring the demise of ourselves and all higher life forms on the planet, and yet continuing not only to tune up that engine, but to hold political debates over who is best qualified to keep it running? Just as school shooters turn weapons on our children, and drones kill innocent children as well, because of the 40-year lag time involved in climate mayhem, we are just as effectively firing missiles at our own grandchildren that will hit their mark with deadly accuracy and ruthless efficiency in the foreseeable future.
The root trauma that underlies our inability to respond appropriately to the climate crisis overlaps with, but is more complex than, the trauma of our violent past. It is the trauma of a child that has been prematurely separated from its mother. In this case, we are that child, and our mother is Earth – the natural world. This trauma reached its climax when we assumed control over the forces of nature herself by splitting the atom and creating a “controlled” chain reaction in the religiously named “Trinity Test” in 1945. As the future Pulitzer Prize winning poet/playwright William Agee noted on the back page of TIME magazine in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima: “With the controlled splitting of the atom, humanity, already profoundly perplexed and disunified, was brought inescapably into a new age in which all thoughts and things were split – and far from controlled… [creating] a bottomless wound in the living conscience of the [human] race.”
After the war, we proceeded to create an artificial world apart from nature, the modern-day suburb, and created artificial means of food production as well: ‘better living through chemistry.’ We replaced natural materials like wood with plastics, and in the process of insulating ourselves from the natural world, we seem to have lost touch with our own human nature.
It is for this reason that Pope Francis is so prescient in his observation that the climate crisis is calling on us to remember “what it means to be human.” These problems do not lend themselves to easy solutions. The transition we need to make from a traumatized culture to a non-violent, non-pathological country that is capable of leading the civilized world into a sustainable future – just as we have led it into a destructive global economy – is not unlike the immense challenge that faced South Africa after the fall of Apartheid.
Indeed, the American Dream has devolved into a kind of cultural Apartheid, with materialism in place of racial supremacy, and the relatively undeveloped countries of the world serving as the repressed minority. It is most unfortunate that this comes at the very time our political system is so broken, and there is such a vacuum of real leadership in this country. Because what we really could use to get the transition to a newer, healthier country going would be a national truth and reconciliation process that allowed us a public forum to process our collective trauma and suppressed grief (manifesting as anger, violence, inaction, ‘bargaining,’ and scapegoating) over the violence we’ve done to, and continue to perpetuate against, ourselves, Indian Americans, Blacks and Hispanics, wildlife (wolves, bison, etc.), farm animals, and the land itself. As Naomi Klein (author of This Changes Everything) says, “our response to climate change could be one that systematically attempts to heal the wounds of colonialism and slavery.” It isn’t enough just to respond to the climate crisis, we must transform ourselves and our way of life in the bargain. Even scientists recognize this, conceding that in order to avoid mass extinction, we must change not only how society operates but also how we view our relation to the natural world. As Erle Ellis, an expert on the Anthropocene with the University of Maryland, says: “Humans must move on from the view that we are somehow separate from nature (or that nature somehow exists separate from us)…” This shift in consciousness begins with acknowledging that we are a traumatized culture, and agreeing that we would like to pass on a more peaceful, nurturing, and life-affirming world to our children.
Zhiwa Woodbury is an ecopsychologist and author of the forthcoming book CLIMATE SENSE: Changing the Way We Think & Feel About Our Climate in Crisis. He blogs at Heal the Planet!, and you can follow him on Facebook at Planetary Hospice.