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Thursday, 03 January 2013 09:05

The Social Context of Mass Murder

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ROBERT C. KOEHLER FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

Hey, loser!

And so the nail is driven in. This is isolation; this is the coffin. And there are so many ways of saying it.

The social context of being human has been shattered for far too many people, and one manifestation of this is the eerie rise in mass murders — seemingly senseless, impersonal rampages — over the last four or five decades. Since the 1960s, they have increased fourteenfold in the United States, far exceeding the rise in population, according to sociologist Peter Turchin, whose four-part essay, “Canariesin a Coal Mine,” ran at Social Evolution Forum shortly after the Newtown killings.

“The reason we should be worried about rampages,” he writes, “is because they are surface indicators of highly troubling negative trends working their way through deep levels of our society.”

In other words, groping for the motive of yet another lone nut with a gun is a sterile obsession. Why did Adam Lanza kill 27 people last month, including his mother and 20 small children? Why did William Spangler set a house on fire barely a week later, on Christmas Eve, then kill two of the volunteer firefighters who responded to it? Any personal motive we might learn of wouldn’t come close to filling the void of understanding these terrible acts tore open in the national consciousness. How are such things possible?

 “There are monsters in our midst,” cried Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, in his goofy press conference. His analysis had the depth of a videogame. Surely we can do better, but only if we begin looking at the social context of the mass murderer.

“Our most widespread and tragic mistake has been to imagine the suicidal mass murderer as someone who lives outside of society, the ultimate and perverted individualist,” Peter Alexander Meyers wrote last week at Huffington Post. “For, no matter how isolated we make him out to be, even the loneliest loner is a social type. Adam Lanza was not an alien, not a monster, nor a machine. He was one of us.”

Meyers added: “We share with him a social reality that is the common spring of both good and evil.”

So this is our task: to look for a motive not among the scattered remnants of an isolated soul’s despair, but to begin exploring the collective shadow of our social contract. What is it about the world we’ve created that allows us to produce not just an endless array of creature comforts and ultrasophisticated technology and so much else that we consume, love and take for granted, but also, in increasing numbers, mass killers? Could it really be true that such people as Adam Lanza, William Spangler, James Holmes, Jared Lee Loughner and Robert Bales are “canaries in the coal mine” — harbingers of a troubling trend that permeates all of society and is only going to get worse?

The defining characteristic of mass murder, as Turchin points out, is not that it’s senseless or random, but that the victims (at least some of them) were murdered for purely impersonal reasons. They had significance as symbols, not individuals. The killers, while no doubt triggered by personal problems and their own mental imbalance, are — like suicide bombers and any other terrorist — making an abstract point about what they perceive as a social or institutional wrong: attacking their workplace, their school, the government or anything else they see as responsible for their woes.

“The rampage shooters see themselves as moralistic punishers striking against deep injustice,” Turchin writes. “. . . it is usually a group, an organization, an institution, or the whole society that are held responsible by the killer.”

Turchin calls it the “principle of social substitutability” — substituting a particular group of people for a general wrong or malevolent “other.” And guess what? Such behavior is built into the structure of civilization itself.

“On the battlefield,” he writes, “you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you’ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. . . . Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable.”

That is to say, the definition and practice of war and the definition and practice of mass murder have eerie congruencies. Might this not be the source of the social poison? We divide and slice the human race; some people become the enemy, not in a personal but merely an abstract sense — “them” — and we lavish a staggering amount of our wealth and creativity on devising ways to kill them. When we call it war, it’s as familiar and wholesome as apple pie. When we call it mass murder, it’s not so nice.

But why are mass murders on the increase? A plethora of factors point to a society-wide descent into psychosis. These include, but are hardly limited to, spreading poverty and economic stagnation for the middle class; and the unraveling of the social safety net, including services for war vets. General social stress combines with people’s individual circumstances. And increasingly over the years, a belief in collective responsibility for one another has given way to hyper-individualism, jettisoning more and more people to their own devices. And anyone can get a gun.

The “losers” occasionally arm themselves and strike back.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.