Paul Revere by Cyrus Dallin, North End, Boston



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Guns and Culture, Madness and Mass Murder by (O)CT(O)PUS of The Swash Zone


(Please note: This post is a revised and updated version of an earlier article.)

Columbine, VTech, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, hate crimes against Sikhs and Jews.  Since 2006, there have been 232 rampage killings, an average of one incident and five fatalities every two weeks. All too commonplace, mass murder can strike any community at anytime without warning and claim any victim at random (source).

Every massacre elicits sensationalized news accounts as reporters, pundits, and competing stakeholders assault our senses with hype, false hypotheses, and self-serving narratives. Every massacre prompts a search for clues to explain the unexplainable and incomprehensible. Perpetrators rarely live to disclose their delusions or their motives in detail; more often they take their secrets to the grave.

Years ago, I was researching delusional thoughts for a paper on mental illness. Where do delusional thoughts come from? Are there patterns or archetypes? Should rampage killings be considered impulsive acts, copycat crimes, or manifestations of hitherto more complex phenomena as yet unidentified?

We find examples of delusional thinking across a range of mental illnesses - dissociation, bipolar disorder, pervasive developmental disability disorders, the personality disorders, and schizophrenia, as examples. Delusions are expressions of inner conflicts, drives, and memories that can take many forms: Actual persons or historical events, personifications of painful emotions or traumatic memories, revenge personae, violence in mass media, or voices in the head – all born of our culture and made manifest in shocking crimes.

My research reveals this: Delusional thoughts are as much a reflection of culture as a descent into madness.  For lack of a better expression, I call these “cultural artifacts” because they rise to the surface - not merely as dark impulses from the subconscious mind - but from the Spirtius Mundi of culture surrounding us.  Simply stated, culture shapes the way disturbed persons perceive and respond to their delusions.

If you accept this finding - this influence of culture on delusional thinking - then perhaps you might approach these murderous rampages from another perspective.

How does social stress correlate with violent crime? How do we quantify and measure privation, depersonalization, and desperation - the kinds of torments that find a path of least resistance in disturbed persons?  Recently, one of our readers commented:
Poverty does not cause crime; it breeds despair. Mental illness does not cause crime; it removes inhibitions and the ability to control dark impulses. Guns do not cause crime; they enable people who despair to attain, if only for a moment, a feeling of control, of superiority over others. That the feelings of control and superiority often result in the taking of other's property, dignity, safety and, far too often, their lives is not the result that they dreamed of. It is the stuff of nightmares.
The incidence of mental illness is constant across all population groups – as constant as background radiation in the Universe. The rate of violent crime in the mentally ill population is no different than the rate of violent crime in the general population. Yet, America has a far higher prevalence rate of violent crime, death by accidental shooting, and suicide by self-inflicted gunshot than any nation in the world (source). Why? The ubiquity of guns in America is a cultural artifact.

Doubtless, easy access to arms correlates with higher incidence rates of violent crime.  Our nation has 50% of all guns in circulation worldwide and 30 times the murder rate compared with other industrialized nations. Undeniably, gun culture is the vestigial relic of a frontier mentality deeply imbedded in the American mythos – yet another cultural artifact.

Are rampage killings the only form violence perpetrated on the American public?  Hardly! Which is worse:

·      A crazed gunman who kills 20 children at a clip?  Or merchants who sell junk food to children and consign them to lives of obesity and diabetes;

·      Or the subliminal influence of violence in games marketed to children and represented as entertainment;

·      Or manufacturers of automatic weapons that appeal, not to legitimate sports enthusiasts, but to adult children reared on action toys who project their self-image of manhood through the barrel of a gun;

·      Or reckless speculators who crash investment markets - leaving millions of people in financial ruin;

·      Or a corporate CEO who orders massive layoffs - casting entire families into panic and debt – who then rewards himself with a multi-million dollar bonus.

Crimes of violence against people committed in the name of easy money, fast money, and free enterprise: These too have become cultural artifacts.

How often have we heard people in the news dismiss an alleged transgression with this claim: “No laws were broken.” How often have we thought to ourselves: The word ‘legal’ is not necessarily synonymous with the word 'ethical.'  Legal acts - all too often considered immoral and reprehensible - have become cultural artifacts.

During my parenthood years, I tried to teach my children the relationship between responsibility and freedom. Parents reward good behavior with confidence and trust - and punish misconduct with more supervision and less independence. A reasonable proposition for raising children, I thought. Yet, ours has become a society that fails to practice this relationship. Every public controversy, and every perceived loss of freedom (whether imagined or real), represents a failure of responsibility.

What preoccupies our thoughts after the nightly news? We hear about chicanery and corruption, inequality and injustice, abuse of our public institutions, the lies and deceptions of persons who aspire to positions of power and authority over us; of legislative deadlock and gridlock, and a public abused by political hacks and henchmen. How often has the public interest been held hostage by special interest groups and their lobbyists who hold our elected officials in thrall?  The legalization of what we used to call ‘bribery’ and ‘graft’ have now become cultural artifacts.

Reductio ad absurdum. After a weeklong silence following the Sandy Hook massacre, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA responded with this prescription: Fight fire with more firepower; place armed guards in every school; arm the good guys to neutralize the bad guys.  More guns!  Turn America into an armed fortress with self-appointed militias and vigilantes in every city and town.

LaPierre offers not an imaginary dystopia but a real one – like a bad Mad Max movie – creeping into our lives. Is the ubiquity of guns an acceptable vision for our children and future generations? If you understand the pervasive impact of ‘cultural artifacts’ on people, then LaPierre’s prescription for fighting fire with more firepower is akin to pouring more gasoline on a raging inferno.

We may talk about the dangers of easy access to automatic weapons; about loopholes in our system of background checks and bullet holes in our mental health establishment; about competing ideas of gun ownership versus public safety. Perhaps these controversies, grave as they are, overlook more fundamental questions.

In exploring these relationships between madness and culture, and gun violence versus the prerequisite need of society to secure public safety, I am reminded of the moral dilemmas posed by Stanley Kubrick in his dark and disturbing film, A Clockwork Orange.

It is the story of Alex, a punk, serial rapist, and murderer sentenced to prison.  Given a choice between serving time versus gaining his freedom by taking the 'cure,' Alex opts for the operant conditioning cure that turns him into a ‘clockwork’ man – neutered of all violent impulses, a dehumanized shadow of his former self. Powerless against former victims and fellow punks who savagely beat and torment him, Alex notes with sarcasm: “I was cured alright!” In this ironic turn of the story, we are left asking ourselves: “But can society be cured of its violent undercurrents?

We practice brinksmanship but not citizenship. We equate freedom with excess and excess with freedom. We facilitate overindulgence without moderation or self-restraint.   We covet freedom but spurn responsibility. With each passing year, we drive all standards of civility, community and accountability further into the wilderness. National conversations turn fractious and fragmented.  The high ideals of secular democracy no longer bind us together. Perhaps the madness in our midst reflects the accelerated grimace of a culture gone mad.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.  How will more guns or less guns keep us safe when we have fostered a culture of ruthless greed, rampant corruption, and remorseless sociopathy? Perhaps these incidents of gun violence are signs and symptoms of a society in crisis.

The time has come to talk about our broken statues and battered books – these cultural artifacts that crash in the mind. Perhaps we should start a national conversation at the very beginning by reaffirming those values of a democratic republic whose mission and purpose is to secure “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The price of civilization is never cheap. We demand the rights and privileges of full membership, but refuse to pay our dues.


Anonymous said...

Like the gun controls they have in Norway?

Rational Nation USA said...

Well written, certainly thought provoking, and certain to be attacked with the usual fervor from some on the right.

Everyone wants their rights and are adamant about them being protected. Many give little thought to the truth that with every right there is a corresponding responsibility. I wonder if those many realize that the surest way to preserve their rights is to act responsibilty.

You are correct, it is time to have that discussion, an honest discussion leaving the platitudes and hyperbole at the doorstep.

Let the dialogue begin...

okjimm said...

Kudos, RN. Spot on. Like my Daddy said, a walk to the store starts with putting on your shoes.

(O)CT(O)PUS said...

The NRA of my childhood was very different from the NRA of today. Growing up in a rural community and having a neighbor who took me hunting, I had an average interest in guns for a child of the times. The NRA I remember distributed literature on gun safety, marksmanship, and sportsmanship. BTW, did I mention “gun safety” and the responsible ownership of firearms!

During its history, the NRA supported the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first gun-control law passed in the U.S. Again in 1968, the NRA supported the Gun Control Act (also supported by gun manufacturers Colt and Smith & Wesson), which created a system of Federally licensed gun dealers and restrictions on categories and classes of firearms.

What changed? The “Cincinnati Revolution” of 1977 when a radical insurgency hijacked the organization and seized control. In due course, the NRA morphed into a lobbying and political advocacy group promoting the commercial self-interest of manufacturers and a radical legislative agenda of the insurgents. Now engaged in full-time lobbying, the NRA is less interested in promoting gun safety, marksmanship, or sportsmanship, but does publish a list of “public enemies” which includes the AARP, American Psychological Association, League of Women Voters, YMCA, United States Catholic Conference, Union of Hebrew Congregations, the United Methodist Church, and Kevin Costner (actor), as examples.

To be fair and even-handed, the NRA also publishes a “Friends of the NRA” list, which includes such prominent celebrities as Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Timothy McVeigh, and Jared Loughner.

Rational Nation USA said...

My recollection of an earlier NRA correlates my my own.

I hunted, target practiced and belonged to the NRA pre 1978.

Supporting the right to own firearms is fine, in so long as the people advocating this right and those promoting and owning firearms understand that responsibility for the safety of the general society MUST be of primary importance. AND, it rests with everyone who supports the right, sells firearms, or owns firearms. Expecting to enjoy all the rights with out bearing responsibility is juvenile, wrong, and as we are seeing VERY dangerous.

My movement toward accepting a UNIFIED national firearms regulatory policy has been driven by the lack of sensible common sense dialogue by the NRA and many politicians who either refuse to recognize we have a problem or simply decided to act unethically and do NOTHING about it.

Jerry Critter said...

The NRA today is not much more that the lobbying arm for the gun and ammunition manufacturing companies. Individual membership fees fund only a small part of their activities.

(O)CT(O)PUS said...

THIS STORY did not receive the media attention it deserved, and almost no mention within our respective blogging communities. I mention it here because this incident is becoming all too commonplace – with very dark and disturbing implications. Briefly:

A gun control activist group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, or MDA for short, held a membership meeting at the Blue Mesa Grill in Dallas, Texas on Saturday. Not a protest or a public rally, just a meeting over some Tex-Mex and beverages. Harmless enough. A group of moms, activated by last year’s gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, gathered to discuss ways to boost membership and popular support for gun control legislation.


Oh, and did I mention there were only four MDA members in the meeting? Yes, four moms who were gathered at a luncheon were confronted by 40 gunmen brandishing AR-style assault rifles

Here is an ANOTHER ACCOUNT of the same story:

The sudden appearance of about 40 armed men outside a Dallas-area restaurant this weekend was the latest confrontation between an open-carry gun-rights group and a mothers group advocating gun control that was meeting inside.

Chris Barton, the CFO of Blue Mesa Grill, said that the manager called 911 at 11:35 a.m., shortly after the armed group arrived.

"When the manager called, he told them (the police dispatcher) what was going on," Barton said. "They said that if they are having a peaceful demonstration, they are within their legal rights

Now consider the actions of Oathkeepers and other lawless militias terrorizing a ranching community in Nevada. Same tactic, different controversy.

Is this the dystopian future of America wrought by new Open Carry laws? Any controversy in any village or town across the land settled by armed hoodlums and thugs? Democracy via bullying and intimidation, democracy by brinksmanship at the barrel of a gun, democracy via insurgency and insurrection?

This not democracy but a form of neo-fascism wrought by extremists and sanctioned by the NRA. This is not the kind of future I want for my family and future generations.