In my last article, I discussed the topic of what motivates the mass murders that are unfortunately occurring increasingly frequently in today’s world. Now I would like to shift the focus to comparing these mass shootings to other forms of pathological behavior that are present today and to discussing the common denominator among them. To summarize, I have concluded that modern mass shootings are at least partly based on the growing numbness in certain individuals as a result of living lives that have been made too frictionless and too mediated from modern technology. Obviously, although numbness is a pervasive problem among all of us in today’s world, only a very small number of us turn into violent mass shooters. So the growing numbness affects the rest of us in many different other ways, creating or contributing to other psychopathologies.
For instance, all the different kinds of addictions that lead to many people joining 12 step programs. One of these addictions has received a lot of coverage in the press in recent years, because it is so pernicious and so lethal. I’m talking about the opioid epidemic that is killing so many people. Whereas a mass shooting is a vehicle by which a numb person can feel alive by creating a lot of abrasive friction in the external world, an opioid addiction is a way for a numb person to feel alive by generating a lot of abrasive friction directly inside of himself. The person generates abrasive friction through internal events rather than through external events. On one level, an opioid addiction is safer and less explosive than a mass shooting. A person doesn’t usually die the first time he takes an opioid, whereas a person committing a mass shooting has a very good chance of being killed by police, assuming he doesn’t kill himself first. In comparison to a mass shooter, the opioid user is able to stretch out his self-destruction, is able to stretch out the period of time that he feels the abrasive friction that pulls him out of his numbness. In truth, the opioid user does not even conceive of himself as killing himself in the long run, but instead just desperately being able to enjoy the abrasive friction from the kicks he experiences for as long as possible. The mass shooter knows he has very little chance of surviving the shooting and frequently has contingency plans for killing himself in the event he senses he has no way out of the shooting.
Still a third kind of solution for generating abrasive friction in order to pull a person out of numbness is that of supporting and identifying with an authoritarian leader like Trump. This is perhaps the safest of the three situations under discussion so far. A person can go to political rallies and, most of the time, will not be directly impacted by violence. On the other hand, there are so many benefits to getting involved in authoritarian politics, particularly with a leader like Trump. The fact that Trump is constantly shifting his opinions on different issues and making surprise provocative statements creates a lot of vicious abrasive friction that can stimulate a numb person to life without creating any significant personal danger. In his identification with Trump, a numb person can experience Trump’s abrasive random comments and actions as if he was directly involved with them himself. The numb person becomes a safe observer of Trump’s intensity and a vicarious participant. The numb person psychologically merges with Trump and mentally feels the action.
Of course, sometimes a person can combine two of these solutions to deal with his numbness during the same period of time. The mass shooter in El Paso was a big supporter of Trump and considered himself aligned with the white nationalist movement. Obviously, his identification with Trump and white nationalism did not indicate a desire for vicarious aggression to pull himself out of his numbness. In this case, the identification with Trump and white nationalism served instead to embolden him in his plans to kill Mexicans. The killer found inspiration in the mass murder of Muslims in New Zealand. Mexicans and Muslims are two groups that Trump has verbally attacked repeatedly.
The mass shooter in Dayton had cocaine, alcohol and an anti-depressant in his system when he carried out his attack. No, there was no opioid present, but all these other drugs certainly had the effect of freeing and bolstering his psyche, pulling him physically out of his numbness temporarily in order to be able to carry out the explosive anti-numbness action of the mass shooting. In this case, abrasive friction was generated internally in order to be able to perform an action that was going to generate even more abrasive friction in the external world.
Finally the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2018 showing there was an incredible correlation between communities in the U.S. with high opioid use and communities with the highest support for Trump. Obviously, the high of the opioids reinforced the high obtained from supporting Trump. The abrasive kicks from the opioids helped people to enter the abrasive kicks-filled world of Trump’s mind and philosophy. In a way, both can be viewed as incredibly destructive addictions.
But underneath the abrasive friction that underlies all three of these different human behaviors is the numbness that is created as a result of the frictionlessness and mediation that are such an intrinsic part of the experiential vacuum that is found in modern technological society. As long as people feel this pathological numbness, they will continue to search out pathological forms of behavior to fight it. And it doesn’t always have to be Trump, opioids and mass shootings. Defeat Trump in his reelection and some Americans will search out and find some other random authoritarian leader to support. Make it difficult to obtain opioids, and there are so many other drugs which people can start using, as the Dayton shooter could have attested to, if he had survived. Make it difficult to obtain guns, and people will eventually find other means to kill. If we want to get rid of all these problems, we can’t just deal with the symptoms they present. We also have to deal with the causes.
© 2019 Laurence Mesirow