The usual explanations of a rampage such as the recent Aurora, Colorado, massacre focus on the killer’s baffling motives and access to weapons. The murderer may have been enraged, depressed, mad for attention, paranoid, or otherwise mentally ill. We now know that the Columbine killer Eric Harris was in the grip of rage, while Dylan Klebold was seriously depressed. Workers who “go postal” often act out revenge. Almost half of the rampage killers in one study had shown symptoms of mental illness.(1) More than a few are suicidal.
While such explanations are often reasonable, they overlook a basic question. Whatever the motive, why does it take the predictable form of an indiscriminate assault with guns blazing? Why this model and not another?
Yes, American life is saturated with guns and heroic stories about guns. Assault rifles, the personal equivalent of weapons of mass destruction, are readily available. And in the most extravagantly militarized country in history, about half of rampage killers have had military training – far more than ordinary murderers. Headline news and movies provide lavish models to follow.
But why pull the trigger?
When spectacular aggression becomes familiar, inhibitions weaken. The unthinkable becomes more thinkable. Most rampage killings have a copycat quality. The Columbine killers were aiming for record-breaking infamy that would compel Hollywood’s and the world’s awe. In their desperate self-involvement, they were competing for heroic celebrity. If you’re depressed or aggrieved or frightened of your own insanity, the wish to be a “big man” can be irresistible. It shows up in the fascination with Hitler and Satan and messianic heroes. They’re superhuman masters of life and death. In shooting Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Loughner imagined he was saving the nation. Even if the violence ends in suicide, death in a blaze of glory can seem more alluring than an unhappy, insignificant life. Spectacular death leaves a memorable mark on the world. Even in lunatic failure, Hitler has achieved a sort of immortality.
What these behaviors have in common is the berserk belief that if you free yourself of all inhibitions, you can get access to amazing powers. Running amok, you feel pumped up, free of taboos and doubts, indifferent to pain and death. In throwing off controls, you risk suicidal chaos. Yet, abandon can generate an emergency nervous system rush that feels superhuman.
Conventional wisdom imagines berserk fury to be out of control. But in fact, as copycat rampages demonstrate, you can manipulate the fantasies and physiology. Like James Holmes in Aurora, the Columbine killers were on the edge of control, but also cunningly planning record-breaking devastation.
It turns out that berserk abandon is not some rogue pathology. In fact, it is all around us today. When bungee jumpers plunge into a chasm, they are role-playing at suicide. They throw off almost all inhibitions and controls, and their calculated abandon is a form of play death and rebirth. Rebounding, the jumpers feel more keenly alive and fearless. Pumped up to emergency levels, the nervous system reinforces a conviction of resources beyond humdrum everyday limits. The jumpers are calculating the edge of abandon.
Countless American movies are fantasies of abandon. At the climax of thrillers, bullets and bodies fly, but the hero emerges unscathed to claim the girl and a fertile future of more life. When this plot gets boring, the quest for more thrilling extremes becomes self-intoxicating. In an age of digital effects, the studios’ competition to develop ever-more convincing mayhem becomes part of a movie’s story and a selling point.
This is berserk style.
Since the Vietnam War, and even more so since 9/11, Americans have been cultivating berserk style. Voices routinely pump up “crisis” and do-or-die urgency. Propaganda warned that we faced imminent death from terrorists and Saddam Hussein, and Washington recklessly trusted “shock and awe” firepower and torture to eliminate the threat. This is a high-noon gunfighter mentality. In its deregulated speculation, Wall Street also exploited abandon. Armed with derivatives, bankers took extraordinary risks, endangering global finance. Criminal corporations such as Enron wildly overreach, indifferent to the lives they destroy. Projecting a debt crisis, uncompromising politicians threaten to shut down government.
The same dynamics appear on a personal level in binge behavior from drug use to gambling. The allure of abandon promises to turn anxiety and depression into adrenalized potency. This is the psychology behind much rant broadcasting, whose goal is not to inform but to put down opponents. The shows excite bracing rage that counteracts feelings of exasperated helplessness, depression and anxiety. Believing liberals were “ruining” the country, the unemployed truck driver Jim Adkisson opened fire on a “liberal” church congregation.(2) Similarly, sometimes with divine sanction, fantasies of heroic rescue have led anti-abortion crusaders to murder doctors.
Underlying all such berserk righteousness is survival anxiety. Soldiers run amok facing literal death. But social death can be just as powerful. To lose face, lose hope and to lose your mind to mental illness can also be a form of death.
You can see death anxiety behind the struggle over health insurance, in fantasies about “death panels.” A Tea Party rally audience “Cheered [the] Idea of Letting Uninsured patients Die” (ABC News,13 September11). The fear and hostility assume that health care means “survival of the fittest” and a do-or-die fight for life. What’s striking is the berserk quality of the behavior. In both examples, people focused on fears of death and victimization, and in reaction, fantasized about aggression. Berserk style makes “take no prisoners” thinking seem natural and even heroic. Fanaticism becomes bracing intoxication.
Outbursts such as the Tea Party cries of “Let him die” make clear that the berserker’s motivation is latent in everyday life. The health care protest had the audience fired up about survival, and as if the sick are a threat to the healthy, ordinary people showed no mercy, like soldiers run amok. They were oblivious to the reality that “Let him die” is actually a call for many deaths, not one.
Berserk style converts flight to fight. Problem solving and even justice matter less than implacable will. Asked about the possibility that the governor of Texas may have presided over the execution of an innocent man, a focus group respondent retorted, “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”
More than just macho, such thinking is icily callous toward others. It shows up as gun sales surge “in the US in the wake of the Colorado massacre as buyers express fears that politicians may use the shootings to seek new restrictions on owning weapons” (AP, 25 July 12). The purchasers want to be able to kill in a pinch. Never mind that data shows that guns bought for self-defense are likely to kill the wrong people. The fantasy is that in the midst of mayhem, on the edge of control, the righteous gun owner will magically triumph over death.
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