Fear and Loathing Unto Death: Extreme Individualism, Shredding the Social Fabric, and the Sandy Hook Massacre
By Dennis Loo (12/16/12)
Nancy Lanza appears to have embodied at least some of the attributes so highly touted by those who have the greatest fear of crime and who seek the comfort of very white, very rich communities, away from the big cities with all of their frightening heterogeneity, in big houses, on big lots, with lots of guns. The very things that she thought would protect her were her and her son’s undoing. Her stockpiling of weapons of protection and her enthusiastic training of her son Adam to use those weapons were not used against threatening strangers but instead turned on her and they made Adam’s psychotic break so very deadly, not just to her but to twenty-six others, including twenty children, in a school just two miles away, filled with the very people that Nancy Lanza regarded as her own. This is what makes Columbine and the Aurora Massacre resonate so much with the Sandy Hook Massacre.
Why is a parent who knows that her son is profoundly impaired socially, lacking in the most rudimentary skills of social interaction and empathy, who as a child had to be monitored constantly because he might do something harmful, teaching him how to use semi-automatic weapons?
Sandy Hook is but the latest and most dramatic example of chickens coming home to roost: what U.S. foreign policy has been with its horrid treatment of foreigners as aliens worthy of no respect and deserving of no due process has come home to haunt the homeland and even the most innocent and most putatively “American” of its people.
When domestic and foreign policy of the country are governed by over-the-top fear and loathing of the Other – detaining indefinitely and torturing people, based merely on suspicion, without due process, without benefit of charge, trial and conviction; assassinating people based again on no due process but the say so only of an unsupervised chief executive operating in secret sessions; worshipful celebration of all things military, conferring heroic status (including cinematically as in the new film Zero Dark Thirty which falsely and outrageously claims that torture lead to finding Osama Bin Laden) of those who are routinely engaged in carrying out war crimes against foreign populations of non-combatant men, women, and children whose only crimes are that they are living in their own countries in the midst of a foreign occupation and are therefore treated as “the enemy;” treating anyone who dares to question the propriety of these lawless acts as “traitors,” deserving of death and/or torture (e.g., Bradley Manning, Julian Assange); treating reason, science, evidence and facts as at best immaterial and at worst as beneath contempt and something to be derided and crushed; making scapegoating fashionable, elevating faith, superstition, crazy conspiracy talk and gut feelings above reason and dispassion; the ugliest manifestations of racism, misogyny, and anti-gay, anti-immigrant hatred stoked and unleashed in both public and private forums – then how long before these dreadful acts and ideas turn into internecine violence within the heartland, when these weapons of indiscriminate killing are used within the most putatively saintly and innocent of people and places? If you regard yourself as not subject to the rules and laws of others but above the law, when vigilantism becomes the ruling standard, then why should you not anticipate that these unleashed forces should eventually turn on you and yours?
As I wrote in the Preface to my book, Globalization and the Demolition of Society:
Using market forces and individualism as the organizers for economic and political affairs is a recipe for ever-expanding inequities and the shredding of the social fabric, leading inevitably to myriad disasters on the individual, regional, and global level. It will not do to attempt to mildly modify this [neoliberal/free market fundamentalist] invasion, gesturing and gesticulating at the margins. The response to this assault that is occurring on every conceivable level requires an equally comprehensive retort, an alternative vision for our society.
I am going to repost an article that I wrote after the Aurora Massacre because what I discuss in it has great relevance to this latest massacre:
Additional material added on 7/25/12; Update 7/27/12
James Holmes's actions in Aurora are a domestic, non-governmental figure's individual enactment of the same policies of terror that authorities have been using abroad.
We need to talk.
First, while stricter gun controls should be enacted and are long-overdue, and in particular the banning of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and while this latest murderous rampage underscores with excruciating drama the need for stronger gun laws, gun controls would not by themselves have kept guns and ammo out of the hands of Aurora’s mass murderer, James Holmes. While Mr. Holmes is apparently socially awkward and according to someone who was a fellow student at University of Colorado, a “little off,” this plus his clean criminal rap sheet (with only one speeding ticket) would not have been enough to bar his ownership of weapons.
There are far too many people with life stories like Holmes to realistically envision even stricter gun laws pertaining to them. Such signs of social disconnectedness might trigger the need for counseling at the very best (which would have, even if implemented, questionable usefulness). Preventive measures could only work reasonably in a society that was startlingly different than the one that we now have. That is to say, it would have to be a society in which the collective interest and welfare were paramount over the current principle that individual freedom – particularly to exploit others and to ignore others if it’s not in one’s own personal material (i.e., selfish) interest – are touted as the be all and end all of existence.
Second, the proximity of this mass killing spree to the Columbine massacre, within twenty miles, is not coincidental. Colorado (along with places like Arizona) are the destination and residence of choice for many who are part of white flight from urban areas. Columbine itself concentrates whites seeking “refuge” from minorities and urban areas, thinking that they were or are finding safe haven, when in fact the level of alienation, anti-intellectualism, and a Wild West vigilantism is palpable. One commenter “JQ” on The New York Times’ online edition describes the situation in Colorado as
There is a subculture in America that seems closer to the surface, seems to involve more of the population, in some places than in others. No place is immune, of course, but having lived for a long time in New England and now in Colorado, I have a vague sense of unease here, especially when I venture forth outside my enclave of highly educated affluence.
Partly it's an anti-intellectual culture. It's certainly a culture in which "shoot" is an early reaction to disagreement (see Denver police reaction to Occupy: automatic weapons!), in which the symbolic military combat vehicle is a popular model for SUVs and the ubiquitous pickup…
And it's a culture ruled by a pervasive sense of impotence -- economic impotence, a feeling of victimhood, and a sense of being [u]nable to do anything about it.
Third, and most importantly, these incidents of people “going postal” are intimately and directly related to the example being set by those in authority and by the forces of enmity, solitariness, and scapegoating that are at full volume over the last several decades in the U.S. and the world. This is in certain respects a distinctly U.S. problem in that these kinds of mass killing sprees are concentrated here, with ready access to and the celebration of the military and paramilitary gear that Holmes sported. But it is not exclusively American because it is larger than that. While the NRA is a major culprit in this they are not the exclusive perpetrator. In China, for example, there has been a spate of incidents involving middle-aged men who are so profoundly disaffected and abused that they have expressed their alienation by killing sprees of young Chinese children.
The most important parallel here is not between the depiction of violence and battles between good and evil present in contemporary mass entertainment such as the film “Dark Knight Rising.” There is a connection in a broad and diffuse sense and of course, Mr. Holmes did not choose his get-up and target venue coincidentally. But one can readily imagine a mass murderer choosing Disneyland instead. Playgrounds and day-care centers are where the incidents in China have been. The connection between filmic and video game presentations of violence are connected to these murderous rampages only in the sense that entertainment and individual and group behaviors are both reactions to and reflective of larger social, economic, political, and ideological forces.
No, the most important parallel or connection here and in the other “going postal” incidents is to the pervasive sense of anomie that we find in most of the world today. The dominant media organizations today such as NewsCorp (Fox News et al), the reactionary, scapegoating, violent conspiracy nut pundits who whip the more impressionable people up into a froth on a daily basis such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and the ruling political parties in virtually all countries (the Republicans and the Democrats here in the U.S.) who are neck deep in killing sprees (Obama’s kill list only the most well-known of these), and the scapegoating of immigrants, of minorities (George Zimmerman’s execution of Trayvon Martin being, according to Mr. Zimmerman, part of God’s plan, just as Dr. George Tiller’s murderer cites God’s plan as his motivation) and of women, the passing of laws and enacting policies that treat everyone as guilty until proven innocent, the government giving itself the power now to hold you indefinitely and drive you crazy or kill you merely on an accusation, economic policies that say you’re out of luck motherfucker if you’re not one of the 1%, the degradation of the meaning of truth, facts, science, and even seemingly simple things like good manners (many people now routinely yell on their cell phones and drive around at night with their high beams on as if to say, fuck you or simply because they don’t bother to check whether their actions are making driving conditions more hazardous for others because what matters now is Me, me, me, not you because you’re not me, are you?).
When I heard about Mr. Holmes’ killing spree in Aurora, Colorado what I first thought of was not Columbine or video games or the NRA. My first thought was how much this sounded and looked like what American soldiers led by Robert Bales did to villagers in Kandahar, Afghanistan on March 11, 2012. As I wrote at the time:
After murdering these innocents one by one, this U.S. soldier - many Afghan witnesses, including one whose father was killed, saw several U.S. soldiers involved in the attack - then covered his/their victims with a blanket and set them afire.
“This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said in a statement.
Yet another example of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Afghan people – one of a whole string of incidents that show the U.S. high regard for the people whose country it has been occupying for more than ten years in the longest war in U.S. history (not counting its wars on Native Americans).
The Marines who filmed their urinating on the corpses of dead Afghan fighters is another instance of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Afghan people.
The Korans deliberately burned by the U.S. in Afghanistan is still another illustration of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Afghan people.
The 2005 Haditha Massacre where at least two dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians were murdered by U.S. troops under the command of Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich who admitted that he had told his soldiers to “shoot first and ask questions later” is but more evidence of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Iraqi and Afghan people.
In return for his “exceptional character” Wuterich was convicted of “dereliction of duty.”
The U.S. policy of bombing large gatherings in Afghanistan, including wedding parties, is still another example of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Afghan people.
This is what liberation looks like, U.S. style.
To those who want to assert, as Mr. Obama and Mr. Panetta keep having to repeat, that these actions do not represent the attitudes and policies of their fine military machine, let’s note for the record and for accuracy’s sake that these wars were illegal, immoral, and unjust in the first place. These atrocities are merely the most publicized incidents of a policy; these are not aberrations. These are the results of the mentality and deliberate policies of this government, first under Bush and now under Obama.
As Cofer Black, Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, replied to the Russian official who was warning him that the U.S. plans to invade and occupy Afghanistan were going to lead to the same disastrous results as what happened to the Russians:
“We’re going to kill them,” he said. “We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.”
This is not some random, solitary bad apple speaking. This is the Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. This is a U. S. leader. This is their view of the Afghan people. This is an example of their mindset.
Aggressive war. Unjust and immoral occupation in which U.S. soldiers are routinely instructed by their superiors to “shoot first and ask questions later.” Free fire zones. Torture of innocents. Indefinite detention. Drone attacks. Breaking down Afghan civilians’ homes' doors in the dead of the night and then one by one, gunning down the families inside - men, women, and children - then covering their bodies with blankets and setting them afire.
These are not the actions of lone, mad, pathological individuals; this is U.S. policy. This is how empires behave and think.
Here is U.S. style liberation. Here is yet another fine example of the exceptional character of the U.S. military and U.S. government.
Obama, after the Aurora Massacre, issued a statement saying, "Such violence, such evil is senseless; it's beyond reason." Mitt Romney called it “a few moments of evil.”
It’s not senseless. It’s not a “few moments” of evil.
It is the acting out by individuals and groups of individuals who are following the example set by their leaders who are engaged in implementing and justifying malignant and frankly evil policies into the indefinite future.
When governmental policies justify raining death on wedding parties and innocents coming to the aid of those targeted, subjecting them to more drone attacks, because state terror offers our government the only conceivable way to "win" these unjust, illegal, and immoral wars;
When they institutionalize express violations of due process and continue the use of torture, sloughing off of jobs or homes for people, tossing people into the streets like so much rubbish because they are no longer as young or because companies can squeeze ever more profits off of fewer people;
When medicines or treatments that could save peoples’ lives are withheld because they are not as profitable as treating these individuals as mere ciphers and numbers on their accounting sheets, allowed to waste away, suffer excruciatingly, and die;
When countries’ leaders tell everyone in their nation that "our" nation’s lives are more precious than the lives of non-citizens, justifying killing others in the name of protecting (e.g., American) lives, then what’s the difference morally when an individual such as James Holmes decides that his life is more important than the lives of others in a theatre? How is our leaders' ultranationalism different in kind from Holmes' narcissism?
When individuals lose their connection to others, those isolated individuals are liable to lash out at others to establish their own lost presence, to affirm their "importance," and to prove their existence by anti-social, belligerent, and even violent means.
When nations are led by those who falsely claim that the nation is separate, apart, and superior, with no necessary inter-connection between nations, that this great nation may rape and plunder because that proves its Darwinian fitness, and when these authorities further ignorantly assert that those even within their nation-states are not all of a common fabric, where all rise and fall together, but instead winners and losers, with the winners entitled to treat the losers as objects to be exploited and discarded, and that this callousness even proves the virtue of this greatest of all nations, this freedom to be free of the inextricably intertwined, then the levees are breached and the floodwaters will follow.
It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that James Holmes's actions in Aurora are a domestic, non-governmental figure's individual enactment of the same policies of terror that authorities have been using abroad. It's shock and awe brought home.
(Even Holmes' rigging his apartment with trip wires and explosives are not just the actions of a lone paranoid; his apartment was also a microcosm of Fortress America: taking Herman Cain's suggestion seriously to electrify the border fences, adopting fully Arizona's seige mentality, and taking Obama's deporting more immigrants than Bush did and killing those who he has personally decided are enemies of the state to their logical conclusion.)
As I wrote in Globalization and the Demolition of Society,
Terror, whether state sponsored or anti-state in nature, represents the deliberate use of unbounded violence, including the use of torture and the deaths of innocents and many of one’s opponents. The indiscriminate use of violence upon others, indeed, is a necessary and inevitable component of terror. It is one of the sources of its efficacy (such as it is): one is supposed to surrender to those who use terror because one could easily be the next arbitrarily and capriciously chosen victim. (Emphasis added. Pp. 211-212.)
In other words, Holmes' decision to shoot at people at random in a theatre is not "senseless" at all; it is instead a graphic expression of terrorism's essence, both as used by anti-state terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and by our government in its use of state terror. The point of terrorism is that the victims of it be randomly and capriciously chosen. This terrible incident in Aurora, then, if people are to grasp its underlying meaning, must be to alert us to the profound connection between the example being set by our leaders and this individual "mad man" engaging in copy-cat acts of what his government is doing every single day.
If a society's leaders (e.g., its president and its corporate CEOs) and its leading institutions (e.g., its major media, Congress, Supreme Court) breach the rule of law, which is what began explicitly under Bush and has continued further under Obama - on the grounds of the "War on Terror," which will last indefinitely since it's a war on a tactic and you can't obliterate a tactic - claiming the right to carry out illegal, immoral, and unjust policies such as torture - then you have the following inevitable consequence:
Everyday people in the society, particularly those who are slightly unhinged, will begin to adopt the rationales and behaviors of those who lead their society and carry out acts of murder and mayhem. These individuals are, after all, merely following the lead of those in authority in committing acts of indiscriminate violence.
Obama announced yesterday that he was not going to pursue gun control in the wake of this mass killing/shooting. If ever there was a moment to seize an opportunity to use the outrage and pain of awful violence perpetrated against innocents, this would be it. But then, what can one reasonably expect from this man who has made his political career colluding with the powers-that-be and yielding most of the time without a real fight to the extreme right-wing's wishes, even while sounding invariably charming and disarming? The fact that this massacre can go unacted against other than through meaningless rhetorical platitudes by both major parties about the "senselessness" of it just underscores how much a mirror Holmes' actions are to the actions of these august leaders of our society and the daily killings that their actual policies reap.