Fraad reflects on the pervasiveness of mass shootings by white and Asian men and reviews some of the features that distinguish the US from other developed countries that may contribute to exceptional US gun violence.
Twenty-seven people were shot to death in lovely suburban Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. Newtown was the most dramatic of the mass shootings of 2012, a year in which 151 Americans were victims of the phenomenon.
A mass shooting is defined as a one in which at least four people were indiscriminately shot and injured or killed in a public place.
Why destroy the lives of strangers? Where does such murderous rage come from?
In order to try to engage that question we can begin by looking at the common traits of the murderers. Being male is something all but one shared, and being white – or Asian, in the case of two – is also something shared. That is a remarkable fact hidden in plain sight.
It is all the more remarkable because the race and gender of the perpetrators was not discussed. Surely, if all of the mass killers were African-American that would have been noticed. If all those people were killed by white women or immigrants, that too would have been a topic of discussion, to say the least. Somehow the fact that the killers were white men seemed unremarkable. That is a clue to consider.
What could make US white males so angry?
American white men and Asian men have lost the family wage and with it their hegemonic positions in what was once secure employment. The have simultaneously lost their dominant positions in intimate and family life. The key figure in the economic and social disempowerment of US workers was Ronald Reagan, who began his presidency by firing the mass of striking air traffic controllers and destroying their union. With the destruction of the Air Traffic Controllers Union, Reagan shot his first round into the body of labor. The chance to negotiate union wages and job conditions was gravely wounded. More shots followed.
Mass killings became a new phenomenon in the 1980s when Reagan’s platform of disempowerment of white, male workers, began. Asian men had at that point also been largely included in the hegemonic gender.
It was the US Post Office workers who put mass killing on the American map. In 1986 the phrase, “going postal” was born when a postal worker named Patrick Sherrill fired 50 shots on his job site. He murdered 15 postal workers and wounded more. The first man Sherrill shot to death was his supervisor. Sherrill’s second murder victim was the grandson of Reagan’s hero, the football star Knute Rockne, who was the topic of Reagan’s most famous movie Knute Rockne, All American. This was described brilliantly by Mark Ames, in Going Postal, a powerful and neglected book.
Reagan’s “reforms” included changing the time-honored practice of promoting experienced postal workers to supervisory positions from within the ranks of the postal workers union. Instead, supervisors without experience in the postal system were recruited. They were characterized by harassment to produce greater productivity and a generally adversarial relationship to workers. Under Reagan, the postal system was changed from a social service into a supposedly self-sufficient or profitable business.
Reagan began the process of destroying the safe secure jobs that created middle-class families. He began a trend that has continued since, a trend of lowering real white male wages. Male wages have remained flat since the 1970s. White male mass killings have grown exponentially. Flat real wages wiped out the chance that a man’s family wage could support his family. Millions of women were pushed out of the home and into the labor force. Women benefitted with independence, but also suffered with divorce and poverty. White and Asian men have lost their dominant position at work and at home. The rage of American white men may well have something to do with their humiliation and loss of dominance.
Four-fifths of the jobs lost in our current recession have been male jobs in manufacturing, construction and big-ticket sales. The decisions to export American jobs were based solely on corporate profit regardless of the extensive social and personal damages those decisions produced. Within capitalism that is how decisions are made.
With most jobs transported overseas for cheap labor, the labor market became based on those social services that are not exportable. The huge shift to a service economy privileged women who dominate the growth sectors in lower-paid health and food service industries. Women’s skills in personal relationships, emotional labor, compromise and negotiation work better in a service economy, where aggression is unwelcome. Now, a majority of managerial positions as well as most professional positions are held by US women. Traditional males are dispossessed.
Industries stepped in to offer a refuge for men’s wounded pride. Four profitable refuges emerged. Two of those relate to the phenomenon of the mass massacre. The wealthiest refuge for young men is the US military, a $711,000,000,000 industry that has grown by 81 percent since 2001. All of the above figures have their origin in SIPRI (The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). The military is the one sector in which the US has world hegemony. We have a bigger military sector than the other 13 most-armed nations combined.
Ubiquitous photos of children in villages reduced to rubble by our glorious military might testify to US war power. Fully 176 Pakistani children have been killed by our drone strikes in 2012 alone. Close to a million Iraqi children have been killed since the US invasion of 2003.
US killing is not restricted to war zones. The latest US figures show that 5,740 US children and teens were killed by guns in 2008 and 2009, the latest year for which numbers are available.
The military has the vast funds to buy our airspace, and advertise its ethos of armed force as a solution to national security problems. It advertises male might with guns as power. Ubiquitous military recruitment ads present young, muscular men called “strategic warriors keeping us safe”. There are no mass ads promoting kindness and negotiating skills. No one is buying expensive space for that.
Closely related is our very lucrative private gun industry. As the Washington Post glibly noted , “The US gun industry has been one of the brightest spots in the US economy in recent years, even through the recent downturn. This year, it racked up $11.7 billion in sales and $992 million in profits.” There is no equal time for peaceful solutions to either our national and international struggles nor the pain of fruitless searches for family-waged work.
The next most profitable refuge for wounded manhood is killer media, films, game boys and violent video games like the one on which Newtown killer Adam Lanza spent his days. Video games alone net $16 billion annually. Eighth-grade boys in America spend an average of 23 hours a week playing video games. Young US men in college spend 16 hours a week. Programs for young people in which they play sports and learn educational, recreational and interpersonal skills are cut to ribbons while the market provides violent, and very instructive killer entertainment.
How would this analysis apply to school shootings which are a relatively new male phenomenon? School shootings were put on the map by two very intelligent students at Columbine University who killed 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves in 1999. In Newtown in 2012, a similarly intelligent 20-year-old former student, Adam Lanza, shot and killed 26 elementary school students, teachers, a guidance counselor and the principal as well as himself and his mother.
They are joined by a nursing student at Oikos University, who killed seven schoolmates and administrators, as well as himself. Although the circumstances of each case differed, all of these mass killers saw no future or hope outside of revenge and death in a blaze of glory. The nursing student who killed seven saw that he was cheated by his expensive for-profit nursing program and would be saddled with debt he could not pay, and shame that he borrowed scarce money from his aged father. School debt now outstrips mortgage debt in the US. Jobs dwindle and debt soars. The future looks grim for millions. PhDs are on food stamps. The Columbine High School killers were gifted students who fit nowhere and had nothing but a glorious death to look forward to.
The men involved in mass killings are all described as mentally ill. Their mental illness somehow serves as an explanation of mass killing. Mass killers are presented as radically different from other American males, but are they? Mental illness is a question of degree, not of kind. It is disturbed people who act out readily available aspects of their culture processed through distorted personal meaning systems. The use of guns to solve to national, international and interpersonal problems is very much a part of US culture.
Leader in Untreated Mental Illness
The fact that the US leads the developed world in untreated mental illness is another contributor to mass killing.
Adam Lanza of Newtown had his own story. He was identified as a child, and then an adolescent, who had serious mental problems. He was also diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Asperger Syndrome alone would not be a massive problem. Since dependent children have so much in common with chattel, Lanza’s mother could legally withdraw him from school, provide no help or treatment and isolate him at home where all day he played violent video shooting games in a windowless basement with no other contact but his mother. His only outings were to a shooting range with his mother. No one was allowed into the home. Adam’s basement location was home to his survivalist mother’s gun collection which included the assault weapon and pistol he used to shoot her in the face and kill 26 others. He was abandoned to his family as children are.
Fully five children each day are abused to death in America. We lead the developed world in child abuse.
The overwhelming numbers of child murders are committed by the child’s family, to which they are abandoned.
I believe that Lanza murdered little children because he was murdering the child in himself. When children are cruelly treated, they do not necessarily hate their parents. Instead they hate their childhood needs that keep them dependent on the savage adults that surround them. Lanza hated his mother – but also his childlike dependence on her absolute power over him.
Adam Lanza points a finger at another barbaric aspect of American life. Here we assume that any and everyone capable of the biological act of conception is automatically capable of the exclusive 24-hour care of an utterly vulnerable life. There is no direct profit to be made from saving children’s lives. As American’s lives increasingly deteriorate, children increasingly die of neglect and abuse. Child deaths are mounting.
Mass murders beam a spotlight on the rage of American’s dispossessed, our workingmen and our children who see no future. Profitable refuges for male despair are sold in war and related killing. We have limited mass progressive movements and no socialist power blocks to address American pain and direct it toward the corporate military powers that rule our lives. All other developed nations have mass movements and socialist power blocks to create hope, and a focus that makes anger into a socially progressive force. Here, we hold out big money refuges in the military, violent media and NRA machismo. Maybe that is why we have more than 35 times more gun deaths than any of our developed counterparts?
It is time to respond to our initial question: Where does the murderous rage come from? Why does the US lead the world in mass killings? Some have blamed popular violent video games of the type Adam Lanza watched almost continuously. However, Japan, to name just one major industrialized society, allows books, films and video games whose violence is at least on a par with what is seen in the US. Yet only in America do we see so many mass shootings.
A key difference between Japan and the US is that Japan has maintained a strong social safety net. Even with their 20-year recession, there is not the pervasive feeling of hopelessness that there is in America, nor has Japan abandoned men, nor is there a hopelessness that is all the more noticeable because of the centuries-old optimism that existed beforehand in America, and which is exacerbated because acknowledgement of its loss is censored.
There is a social problem in America that extends beyond video games. Video games feed a sense that violence is a way to recapture male power and return men’s future.
Guns are a second culprit. However, guns alone cannot explain mass murder. Canada is a society in which private guns are permitted and massively owned. According to the UN, Canada has the third largest number of gun owners after the US and Norway. Neither Canadians nor Norwegians experience mass murder as an ongoing phenomenon.
Neither Canada, nor Norway has out-sourced its jobs to China. Neither has a mass of raging, dispossessed men living in a society that defines itself as one in which upward mobility is promised by the American dream. Neither country has seen its educated youth plunged into debt and on food stamps. Canada and Norway have vast viable socialist movements for political, social and economic equality for all.
Some have attributed our mass murders to random disturbed people. Although it is true we have a disastrous system of mental health care, there are some disturbed people in every nation in the world. We are the world leaders in mass killing. Emotionally disturbed, angry American men express their rage in a culturally available American form, gun violence.
There is an additional factor. America is the only wealthy Western democracy that abandons its children to families with no qualifications but conception. Our children are abandoned to the worst rate of poverty and governmental neglect among developed nations. Lost men and boys look for their power in the American way, through violence.
The blind rage of mass killings is a wake-up call. We have to look at the interaction of all the conditions of existence that combine to generate America’s mass killings. At present, the US is home to a vast group of predominantly white, dispossessed, enraged men. We have a political system that permits vast money at the top to hijack our politics and culture with unlimited “gifts.” Our airwaves are sold to the highest bidder. We have powerful lobbies that sell US militarism and gun ownership as refuges for dispossessed men. We have profit churning mass media with films, videos, and advertisements pushing violence as a solution to problems from intimate life to international relations. We have a dysfunctional public mental health care system. We have limited mass positive political and social movements, and no socialist power blocks to capture and channel rage at the grotesque inequality that dominates our nation and denies our young men.
We need to create a socially organized, positive Left voice for hope, equality and change. We cannot let big money decide our future. Our lives might depend on it.