The following thoughts were first written while in Colombia when the Virginia Tech shooting occurred (4/16/07). They suffer somewhat from my diffuse, rambling state of mind at the time.
Obviously the circumstances surrounding each shooting are vastly different, but they share similar aspects in that both shooters were maladjusted, emotionally unstable ethnic minorities with deep anger issues. (They also both had absurdly easy access to high-powered assault weapons, but that’s a separate issue.) While we know more about Omar Mateen’s motivations than we ever did about Seung-Hui Cho’s, the following thoughts address the broader phenomenon of mass shootings.
My original intent was explanation, but I freely acknowledge that much of my argument is anecdotal and overly theoretical. There’s not much hard evidence below, it’s more an attempt to piece facts together into an explanation using logic and intuition. Obviously I still believe it has some value (and I still personally agree with most of the sentiments), or I wouldn’t have taken the time to publish it almost a decade after the fact.
One of my greatest frustrations in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting was how the vast majority of people I discussed it with had eagerly swallowed the “But what happened in those 2 hours?” bullshit that every screaming media outlet was force-feeding us: There were two hours in between the first killing and the massacre, so how had Cho been allowed to continue? And more importantly for them: Who failed in catching him?
But the ‘problem’ of no one being prepared enough for a 30-person massacre was discussed as if the entire event were some predictable thing that should have been avoided; as if a huge security flaw had to be fixed immediately; as if every mentally unstable kid in America was now going to target VTU and must be stopped at all costs. They were going to fire the President/Chancellor and the head of security, reorganize the campus police and install metal detectors, and all of it would be a pathetic and pointless reaction to an isolated event that was completely impossible to predict and will never, ever happen again in the same way.*
When are we going to learn to start fighting these events at their roots rather than reacting in such a pointless, reflexive way? The same thing happened with 9-11, then the shoe-bomber, and then with the gatorade bombers in London. Respectively, we increased airport security, started banning lighters and matches, and then went to the ridiculous length of banning toothpaste. We always react to these events as if someone’s going to try the exact same thing over again. But really what the government is doing is trying to convince its citizens to feel safer, to convince us that they’re are doing something to actively combat the threat, that they’ve got everything under control.
In reality, outside of superficial propaganda there is nothing beyond gun control that our government can say or do that will reassure us. Otherwise these events are completely unpredictable and unpreventable, period. The sooner we learn that and accept it, the sooner we can start working on an actual solution, and not just one of the pretty PR types which amounts to little more than pathetically trying to bandage a gunshot wound with a tissue: it won’t help, there’s a good chance it will increase the bleeding, and it’ll only make an idiot feel better.
What we should be doing is figuring out a way to alleviate the feeling of social isolation – and, in the case of terrorism, the hatred of America throughout the Middle-East – that leads to these random psychotic episodes. The media and the politicians can offer their delayed, ham-fisted reactions to these concrete manifestations of psychic discontent until we’re all living in a police state, but it’s not going to improve anything except their control of us ordinary citizens.
This discussion relates to a broader difference in violence I noticed during my travels in Latin America, a difference between U.S. violence and that which occurs south of our border. In Latin America, you don’t truly feel safe as a white foreigner who is obviously from a more developed country. There’s the constant threat of robbery and physical violence, mainly due to your obvious wealth amidst such extreme poverty. For example, in my time there I had no nice clothes or jewelry and was actually dirty and raggedy by Latino standards, but I was already wealthier than 90% of the people I encountered just by virtue of being there (via a plane ticket comparable in price to their annual salaries). But even with the frequent threat of robbery and opportunistic violence, I could still understand the motivations for such crime and thus be better prepared. I could avoid most of the situations in which I would have been an obvious target.
In the U.S., on the other hand, there is no predicting the violence. It’s of a completely unpredictable nature. We’ve built an impressively tight security net and isolated opportunistic violence into small ‘problem areas’ (i.e., ghettos, often inhabited by minorities), all of which we wealthier white folks know not to visit. The problem of need-based crime is relatively non-existent. This is the privilege of living in a functioning 1st-world society.
The trade-off, unfortunately, is that we have to live with the constant low-grade anxiety that someone is going to snap and go on a killing spree at work or school, or maybe kidnap our child to fulfill their sick sexual fantasies, or simply start sniping people randomly for the sheer pleasure of it. All of these types of crimes are inherently unpredictable. The chief difference in violence between the two regions, then, is between logical and illogical crimes. Underdeveloped countries have a predictable amount of both while more developed countries like Europe and of course the U.S. have a disproportionate amount of the latter.
My background in psychology leads me to guess that the root cause is some psychological need that’s going widely unfulfilled in our much wealthier societies. My own personal bias compels me to blame our culture of capitalism and rabid individualism, a sink-or-swim game in which some players have 5-lb. weights on their ankles.
What options are left to people who feel constantly abused by the system and have no one to turn to for support? By what social norms or moral duties is a person bound when he has no loved ones to reinforce them, to gently chide him for his transgressions? What is a person to use as a moral compass when he almost literally lives in a vacuum? A small cramped apartment by himself, with his only company the TV, or a cat, or his thoughts?
I would argue that no other society has de-emphasized family and community as much as we have. And the results are visible in the horrendous mental health record, in our suicide rates, and in the amount of Prozac sold.**
Perhaps Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs is an appropriate explanation tool. According to his theory, self-actualization – the fulfillment of a person as a complete human being – is the pinnacle of human motivation. But it’s only possible after one satisfies all of the needs below it in the hierarchy. Immediately below self-actualization is the need for esteem, both self-esteem and respect from others, usually through achievement. In other words, it’s necessary to feel good about yourself and your achievements before you can self-actualize. Necessary before one achieves esteem is the fulfillment of love and belonging, through family, friendship and romantic love or sexual intimacy. Before love comes safety: security of body, health, family and property. At the most basic level are one’s physiological needs such as air, food, water, sleep, and clothing.
It was pretty logical really, taking Colombia and the U.S. as the two sample countries. In Colombia, a place in which almost ½ the population was struggling on one of the first two levels of the pyramid (safe food and water, clothing, shelter, and physical security), the vast majority of the crime seemed to be of the opportunistic variety: violent criminals stealing in an effort to obtain money and take care of these basic needs. To be sure, drugs, alcohol, and La Violencia played a large role and almost certainly augmented the desperation in which these unfortunates were already mired.
In the U.S., on the other hand, probably 75% of the people never struggled with the needs of those first two levels. The quarter who did were more-or-less isolated in certain parts of certain cities where the majority never visited, relatively negating the occurrence of crimes of desperation.
The rest of the population, in the meantime, was quietly struggling with the next two levels: those of community, family, and romantic support, and also of self-respect. Perhaps the random acts of violence in the U.S. and other developed countries were nothing more than the drastic eruptions of people who significantly lacked fulfillment in the upper levels of need. The higher stages of Esteem and Love/Belonging were in many ways proving to be more difficult and stressful than the basic levels. Consequently they were more precarious, with greater potential for explosion.
This was because outwardly, the individual possessed most of what he could possibly want materially: a decent job and apartment, a nice car, phone, cable TV and his gaming system of choice, with enough extra money to hang out at a bar on the weekends. He should have been happy, and everyone believed this. More importantly, he believed this because he was told from the day he was born that this constituted “success.” He had been told by parents, friends, his school, the TV, movies, magazines, newspapers and perhaps above all by advertising. He had fulfilled his basic needs.
But that is where all of our indoctrination leaves off. It completely excises the latter stages of human development, which Maslow thought were the most important. Such ideas have no business in a culture founded on materialism and consumerism.
The result is that when our hypothetical individual reached this stage of “success” – as determined by western society – and still didn’t feel happy, still felt a void that there was something important missing, he was confused because no one had ever told him that there was something more. This confusion could easily become despair. What could be wrong with him that he had everything he could possibly want but still wasn’t satisfied? There must have been something wrong with him — according to his culture, this life that he was living was, for normal people, the pinnacle of existence.
The main problem, of course, was that there was a huge gulf between what he thought he wanted – inculcated by his social indoctrination – and what he actually truly wanted and needed in his soul. And it never occured to him that other people might feel the same way, because he could see with his own eyes that Bob at work or Jane at the gym were perfectly happy. What he couldn’t see was that they too might be quietly struggling with the same problem, and that they equally believed that he was truly happy. They too might be quietly seething with a burning envy.
This was because at all costs it is necessary to pretend like we are happy, even if we aren’t. Because the worst shame is for people to know you’re unhappy; which means you’re “depressed.” And everyone knows that’s just pathetic. How humiliating that would be for people to think you depressed! What right did you even have to own all of these beautiful objects and still not be happy, you miserable ingrate?
When he didn’t have close friends or family or a girlfriend to whom he could confess this inner turmoil, or perhaps when he was simply too invested in his manhood to be able to reveal any emotional weakness, this disgruntled person continued with his confusion which had now become despair. This began to make him jaded and bitter, and he began to notice every little injustice and transgression he had to endure. He had essentially lost the ability to notice the small miracles that occurred around him every moment: the song that came on the radio right after he had just been thinking about it, the person that got up out of the subway seat right when he thought he’d collapse from exhaustion, the smile he got from the old lady as he held the door open for her. According to the culture in which he was so thoroughly enmeshed, the culture he secretly hated without knowing it, there were no miracles other than those furnished by technology.
His remaining friends, in turn, became slowly alienated by this new bitterness. One night, after too many drinks and a rally of insults directed at the wrong entity, he found that he suddenly had nobody left to insult – they had all left him. His work, already suffering, became too poor to justify keeping him on. His quiet desperation had become visible, his struggle with the upper levels of Maslow’s pyramid had threatened his ability to fulfill the basic needs of the bottom levels. It was at this point that he walked into the office one day with a 9mm or a 12-gauge or an assault rifle and opened fire randomly and fatally. In hindsight, all his coworkers saw the warning signs: he had been enduring what no man could sanely endure. But they were too preoccupied with their own struggles to reach out to him.
Our culture teaches that every person, through hard work and a little bit of ingenuity, can succeed, and that they don’t need anyone’s help. Indeed, needing someone’s help when you are struggling is almost the definition of weakness in U.S. culture. But everyone knows a drowning man often takes with him those in closest proximity.
A lot of people in Latin America think their northern neighbor is the greatest country in the world. I don’t know how to explain to them the truth, and I’m not even sure it’s possible. How do you explain to someone who has comparatively nothing that having lots of really neat things isn’t all that great after all, that it can actually be harmful to your overall well-being? There’s no way to do it; it’s only a realization that you can arrive at after having everything you ever wanted and still feeling unsatisfied.
As I stated in the intro, these thoughts are not entirely applicable to the Orlando shooting. Clearly Mateen had more complex motives than just a general despair — for one his deeply embedded homophobia and own alleged homosexuality. But I think the general profile might have a lot of truth to it, and certainly the discrepancies in violence between developed and undeveloped regions is plain to see. These kinds of psychotic massacres simply don’t occur in undeveloped countries — if they happen they’re always due to blatantly political or economic motivations. Isn’t it time we started examining why a little more closely?
If a person is floundering they are likely to reach out to anything for salvation. That can be radical Islam, or anti-semitism, or white supremacy, or fundamental Christianity. The specifics of each case don’t necessarily invalidate my proposition that our very society plays a huge, under-acknowledged role. And if you combine despairing people with easy access to high-powered weapons, you’re basically inviting these massacres. It would be nice to rescind that invitation for a change. . .
* Retrospective aside: This is one of the chief areas that the two shootings differ. Not many people are playing the blame game about the proceedings of the Orlando massacre itself. The most irrational are instead wasting their time screaming about ISIS, as if they somehow organized the attack when it’s obvious to everyone that Mateen was just invoking their name to try and add legitimacy to his cause. More rational folks are wondering why on earth anyone, especially someone with mental health problems, a history of domestic abuse, and a past FBI investigation against him for concerns about terrorism, was able to walk into a gun store and leave with an AR-15.
**“Prozac” here stands for any pharmaceutical drug designed to make you feel better, whether it be an anti-depressant, a tranquilizer, anti-anxiety, a muscle relaxer, or an actual narcotic pain-killer. The point is that there is a huge and largely unstated self-medication epidemic in the U.S., supported by doctors and pharmaceutical companies alike and mostly unquestioned by consumers. Numbers from 2013 suggest that about 25% of people in the U.S. take some psychiatric drug – 1/5 adults and 1/10 children. Link