Two in one day. Mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton within a period of twenty-four hours. They are happening more and more frequently now. And more and more people are crying out in the U.S. for stricter gun laws. As if stricter gun laws would be the only solution necessary to stop the epidemic of mass murder from growing. They will help but they are not enough. Gun control doesn’t deal with what motivates the shooters. People who want to kill will find a way with or without gun control. I want to emphasize that I am definitely in favor of stricter gun laws, because they might make it more difficult to carry out a mass attack. Although there are so many guns already on the streets of the United States. But until we try to understand the root causes of this homicidal behavior, we aren’t going to stop seemingly random mass homicidal violence.
This column has taken a different approach in dealing with the causes of this phenomenon. Basically, in the age of modern technology and growing resulting numbness, people increasingly feel a loss of agency in their lives. All the machines that are designed to make life more and more frictionless and more and more safely separated from dangerous situations are getting people into an experiential vacuum where they are unable to get the traction they need to make and preserve organic imprints, to feel fully alive and to prepare for death with a surrogate immortality. Just as television turns more and more people into couch potatoes, all the supposedly wonderful labor-saving devices are turning people into life potatoes. And developments like the Internet of Things are increasingly going to lead to psychological paralysis.
Different people develop different desperate means to pull themselves out of the numbness, the psychological paralysis. One approach is that of a mass shooting. If one is increasingly unable to do anything to add friction to one’s life processes, to the means in life, one can focus on bringing friction to one’s goals, one’s ends. One way to add friction is unfortunately to bring pain and death to random people. One can go to places where people are gathered: shopping centers, festivals, nightlife areas, places of worship, and schools and just start shooting. One way to add friction is to see people experiencing pain: bleeding, dying. A mass shooter knows he has left an abrasive mark on the world. And the intensity of feeling is elevated by the fact that the victims are innocent of major wrongdoing themselves, are vulnerable, unprepared to defend themselves, and exhibit genuine surprise that the shooting is happening. As numb as the shooter has been, he comes to life trying to kill as many people as he can, while the victims, those that are at least surviving temporarily, also come to life with a heightened state of alertness as they scream, plead, run, hide and sometimes actively try to defend themselves against this aggressor who seemingly came out of nowhere.
In terms of the process of shooting people, those guns that can kill the most people the quickest are also the guns that require the most frictionless movements to operate. Like with any mindless automatic machine, a shooter just continuously fires an assault rifle towards a vague target or targets. One is bound to hit each of one’s targets with one or more of the bullets fired. It is a continuous flow of bullets as opposed to defined discrete shots fired from a handgun or an ordinary rifle. In the case of a handgun or ordinary rifle, one has to aim more sharply, in order to make sure one has hit one’s target. It requires more skill, more friction. With a handgun or an ordinary rifle, one is more able to leave an imprint on one’s field of experience. So with one of these two weapons, one is now able to use the process of shooting to make a mark on one’s target for the outside world, because it requires more precise skill than the shooting of an assault rifle. With an assault rifle, it is just so much easier to kill so many people by spraying them with bullets. Which is why a shooter feels a need to kill so many people to leave a mark and prove his potency. It is a way of compensating for the lack of skill he is showing in simply mowing down people. It is a mark made as a result more of the capacity of the machine rather than a real organic imprint resulting from his skills and focus.
As people become more and more numb as a result of modern technology, they become more and more incapable of making and preserving the real organic imprints that they need to leave in order to feel alive and prepare for death. It becomes much easier just to make a big noisy splash with something like a big mass killing made by a big unfocused assault rifle. And with an assault rifle one needs less of a sense of personal agency in order to carry out one’s mission. Yet because an assault rifle operates almost automatically, a shooter will try to kill as many people as possible to make a mark with the quantity of targets if not with the quality of process.
Many, though not all of these mass killings, are based partly on ethnic hatred. For many years, the focus in the news media was on Islamic terrorism fighting against the so-called colonizing though now decadent and vulnerable Western world. Now the focus is increasingly on white nationalist terrorism which was certainly one of the foundational causes of the El Paso massacre and maybe also the Dayton massacre (7 of the 9 victims were African-American). The real question is why have radical Islam and white nationalism become activated to express themselves so aggressively in recent years? On one hand, both groups have experienced injections of the enemy into the lands where they live in recent years. Western soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. And let’s not forget the Jewish immigrants on lands claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians. For white nationalists, it is the recent transfer of large numbers of immigrants from the Third World into the countries of the West. To some white people, this represents not only genetic dilution, but also cultural dilution of who they are.
I have always felt that most things that occur in the world have multiple levels of causation. I have never tried to imply that the sensory distortion created by modern technology is the exclusive cause of everything bad that is occurring today. At least, I hope I haven’t given that impression. If anything, I feel that sensory distortion works in conjunction with other causes like ethnic hatred to amplify them. Why is it that ethnic hatred seems to have amplified its manifestations in recent years? As people become more and more numb as a result of living more frictionless and more mediated lives from modern technology, they search out potentially friction-creating phenomena in the external world to rub up against. One of these phenomena is the people who are physically and, more important, culturally very different from them. Focusing on these differences generates the abrasive emotional friction that gives them more traction to go on living. Focusing on these differences gives these ethnic haters a mission, a meaningful segment for their life narratives that at least, to some extent, pulls them out of their numbness. If ethnic hatred wasn’t available today as a life circumstance, some other human difference would be more focused on: hatred and attacks against women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities could increase. Or forms of self-hatred, self-destruction could increase: alcohol, recreational drugs, compulsive sex, compulsive gambling, overeating, hoarding. But in today’s world, for many people, they feel that if they didn’t have ethnic hatred, their lives would feel totally empty.
But the point is that situations that can potentially generate ethnic hatred today are quite abundant, not only in the U.S. but in other places in the world as well. In some situations, ethnic hatred is organized by the government as in China and Myanmar. And again, here as well, people use their targets of ethnic hatred to gain life traction and pull themselves out of their numbness.
One last point on this matter. Ethnic hatred is certainly not something that is the exclusive province of modern technological society. Obviously, ethnic hatred was quite prevalent during the time when traditional societies dominated the planet. Sensory distortion from technology was obviously not an issue at a time when people were more closely connected to their natural surroundings. Instead, the intense organic stimulation present in these more traditional surroundings generated the development of intense emotions in more tradition-oriented people. The kinds of stimuli were more within the range of what human nervous systems could more effectively absorb than the kinds of stimuli coming out of modern technological society. But it was still very intense. Lack of good protection against natural disasters, wild animals, poisonous plants and diseases as well as all the positive stimuli from beautiful scenery, sounds, scents and textures all played a role in stimulating intense emotions.
Anyway, whereas today people use their ethnic hatred as a contributory factor to pull themselves out of their numbness, in traditional more tribal societies, people used ethnic hatred to help channel their explosive passionate flowing blendable continual emotions. This way the intense emotions could be channeled out without the perpetrator exploding apart from expansive unfocused emotional expressions. In today’s mass shootings, the perpetrator is numb and uses his aggression to become emotional and feel alive. In traditional societies, ethnic hatred could be used to help channel one’s sense of agency. Today, ethnic hatred is used to help resuscitate one’s sense of agency and thus to bring one to life. It is unfortunate that people feel a need to use such a terrible state of mind, such a terrible attitude, such a terrible belief system in order to generate a sense of empowerment.
Now if we want to diminish these modern mass murders, gun control should hopefully help. Yet we have to also find a way of creating a better balance between technological stimuli and organic stimuli, between modern technological living environments and traditional natural living environments, between mediated experience and primary experience, and thus diminish the numbness and the loss of agency among people today.
(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow