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The Great “Mental Illness” Hoax: Rampage Killings and the Gun Culture

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More gun massacres, more rounds of self-serving platitudes trumpeting the “real issue” of mental illness – anything to dodge taking on the biggest gun industry, and gun culture, in the world.

Mental illness? There is surely an abundance of psychological disorders in the United States, as in any country, but it is worth asking what such an obsession in the land of cherished “gun freedoms” might conceivably produce.   One possibility: a national crusade, staffed by an army of psychiatrists, therapists, computer programmers, intelligence operatives, and law-enforcement agents, to weed out potential violent criminals in an adult population of some 270 million. Rather preposterous, of course. Could any mighty corps of experts, no matter how numerous and well-trained, hope to identify, monitor, predict, and control violent behavior in a society where many “indicators” of such behavior would surely be located within a “normal” range. A related question: could yet another program of mass surveillance, information-gathering, and social intrusions do anything beyond reinforcing an already repressive system of corporate-state power.

While the mental-health narrative applied to the phenomenon of gun massacres appears to have a certain validity – after all, the shooters must be crazy – it cannot be taken seriously either as ideological discourse or political strategy. Yet the narrative has gathered exceptional mainstream credibility, repeated sacredly by politicians and the media in every post-massacre commentary. Proposals for wider background checks in gun sales (a good idea, with severe limits) seem driven by the notion that, eventually, such checks will reveal (and defeat) the next Charles Manson, Timothy McVeigh, or Christopher Harper-Mercer (the Oregon shooter).  Aside from ignoring the ridiculously easy access to a thriving black market in weapons of every type, these fantasies assume that a huge assemblage of professional experts might somehow identify precursors of the next murderous outburst, enabling public intervention in ways not yet made clear.   There have been nearly 300 episodes of mass killings in the U.S. during 2015 alone – none predicted, and none even remotely suspected.

We know that an elaborate, high-tech surveillance order already exists, where details of people’s daily lives – phone conversations, personal movements, Internet transactions, banking activities, email transmissions, household purchases – are on full display, perfectly accessible to government and corporate entities.   Continuously-refined modes of information collection now contribute to vast data banks that can be used to monitor workplace behavior (as with Telematics), political activity, and drug or “terror”-related operations. Driven by the wars on drugs and terrorism, combined with routine imperatives of the warfare state, the DEA, NSA, CIA, and kindred federal agencies rely on intrusive snooping technology for “data mining” across the social landscape. If we add to this a sprawling “mental health” apparatus, charged with gathering information on the psychological traits (and history) of countless adult Americans, these authoritarian and repressive tendencies can only further expand.

Any such project, however, is destined to collapse before it starts.   The problem with gun violence is that its morbid symptoms will generally appear quite reasonable within a system that venerates, even celebrates the most gruesome spectacles of killing. Rampage murders, horrendous as they are, actually constitute just a small part of a much deeper complex of forces at work. At the same time, the prevalence in American society of personal alienation in the form of powerlessness, anger, hatred, and (for many) racism – frequent source of violent outbursts – tends to elicit little surprise, much less outrage.  One underlying cause of this alienation is a harsh neoliberal corporate-state order that routinely generates pervasive material suffering, social dislocation, and psychological despair – worsening conditions that ensure violence in its many expressions (well beyond the gun assaults) will be an increasingly “normal” part of American everyday life.

In most rampage killings, the closest observers – friends, relatives, teachers, authorities – appear largely clueless about supposedly obvious indicators of extreme violence. Take the well-known instance of Columbine: two seemingly normal white middle-class teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went on a high-school shooting spree, killing 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. Both had accessed neo-Nazi websites, listened to heavy-metal music, played violent video games, and were drawn to movies like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Apparently no one, including the parents, thought (or even knew) much of this – and furthermore, who would be especially alarmed over such episodes of teenage angst or even rage. Although Harris and Klebold lived a somewhat “normal” middle-class existence, their homes were not far from a Lockheed-Martin plant (where many locals worked) and they easily purchased firearms at such outlets as Wal-Mart. Nothing in the cozy suburb of Columbine seemed especially worrisome, and nothing evoked concern from friends, classmates, or relatives: the rampage took everyone by surprise.

After the recent outburst at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, President Obama – expressing disgust over weak gun laws — spoke passionately about the imperative of ending the perpetual cycle of violence. Yet Obama, at that moment, was presiding over the biggest killing machine the world has ever known. In fact, the same week the Oregon gunman went on his rampage American planes were bombing a large hospital facility operated by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 22 doctors and patients (including several children), wounding dozens more – at a site where GPS coordinates had long been familiar to U.S. military planners. The evidence, still being gathered, points to yet another in a long history of U.S. war crimes.

What the mental-health fixation lacks is any semblance of historical or social context. Given the persistence of U.S. imperialism and militarism — and mounting fascination with combat and guns in a society transfigured by its warfare state — Washington remains a thriving center of global violence: repeated armed interventions abroad have found their domestic parallel in the world’s largest prison system, a deepening gun culture, home-bred terrorism, police atrocities, and a media culture filled with spectacles of warfare and bloodshed. There is of course little new in all this – just its increasing scope and dystopic consequences. The Pentagon exerts a crucial influence on foreign policy, of course, but also on domestic politics, the economy, culture, media, and daily life. In a society where guns are so popular and fiercely embraced that deadly shootings take on the aura of normalcy, episodes of civic violence, including rampage killings and serial murders, are likewise destined to appear “normal”.

Historical experience suggests that ordinary people, especially when empowered by military or police training, can suddenly turn to murderous violence – often with little or no warning. The targets are often anonymous and defenseless – a pattern well known to U.S. military operations, with their legacy of unrestrained battlefield violence — attacks on civilian populations, use of WMD, free-fire zones, wanton massacres, saturation bombing, torture of prisoners. These forms of savagery have been typically planned, or at least sanctioned, at the summits of power.

The warfare state helps reproduce an environment in which the psychology of mass killing merges with the “ordinary”. Though ritually denounced within the political and media establishments – that is, when attributed to the nefarious behavior of other countries – violence in American history has recognized few, if any, political or ethical boundaries, and even these are further eroded when the violence is fueled, as is so often the case, by national chauvinism or racism.

The Pentagon system itself is comprised, top to bottom, of more than two million “ordinary” folks just going about their daily jobs, scarcely troubled by the deadly results of their work. Of course the war managers and their lieutenants usually have good educations, elevated cultural tastes, good manners, perhaps even good intentions. The nuclear-scientific elite, among other sectors of the military complex, fully believes it is saving the world from tyranny, or something perhaps more frightening. Few observable psychopaths here – no Hannibal Lecters, Jeffrey Dahmers, or even Captain Queegs.   Not even a noteworthy presence of xenophobic right wingers, as the corridors of the Pentagon, NSA, CIA, and DEA are traversed by a good many well-educated liberals.

Still, the most savage of killers ought to be stealthily located and intercepted before they have the opportunity to carry out their bloody deeds. Well, not exactly. Even the Nazi architects of genocide were not especially identifiable in appearance and demeanor.  Hannah Arendt’s well-known depiction in Eichmann in Jerusalem seems appropriate here: the most hardened Nazis, including those put on trial, came across not as savage monsters but as strikingly normal. “The trouble with [Adolf} Eichmann was that precisely so many [ordinary Germans] were like him and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were . . . . terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Many were simply “doing their jobs” (like soldiers in combat) as ordinary bureaucrats, following the orders of superiors.

Joseph Persico, writing in Nuremberg, embellished Arendt’s conclusions. Few of the Nazi defendants (all elites) in 1946 came across as violent psychopaths: some, including Albert Speer and Julius Strecher, could easily have been mistaken for business executives or history professors at Heidelberg or Marburg. Indeed there were no raving Nazis from central casting, nothing close to what is portrayed in Lucchino Visconti’s misleading 1969 film The Damned.   Concluded Persico: “It would be hard to pick out most of these men as war criminals from a gathering of Rotarians or accountants.”   Speer, one of Hitler’s trusted lieutenants, was so genteel and so favored by the Americans that he was granted leniency (a 20-year sentence, instead of death).

That was of course dictatorial Germany, but what about the more open and fluid societies of North America?   Surely those with pronounced fascistic or violent tendencies could be routinely detected and weeded out? Again, not exactly. In Theodor Adorno’s classic (early 1950s) study, The Authoritarian Personality, it turns out that it was precisely the stable, respectable middle or working-class American family – with its tight patriarchal structure – that was found to be a site of extreme right wing ideology, including xenophobia, racism, and of course authoritarianism.   Geographical locale of this research – Los Angeles, otherwise home to those uplifting 1950s family sit-coms like “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriett”.

What, then, about the more recent era of serial killers and rampage murders (beginning with Richard Speck’s homicidal spree in the mid-1960s) that would soon draw sensational attention from the media?   The late Ann Rule, prolific true-crime author and long a prominent American expert on criminal behavior, wrote in The Stranger Beside Me that she was caught totally off-guard when learning her close friend and co-worker (indeed confidant), none other than Ted Bundy, was at that very time on the road to becoming one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. Hardly a maniacal sicko, Bundy had (or adopted) an altogether different persona: that of an intelligent, suave, hard-working law student, while going about the gruesome work of stalking and murdering young women. Had any mental-health experts sought to engage Bundy (impossible in any case), they would have gone home empty-handed, as Bundy would have easily outsmarted his inquisitors – a skill often expertly honed by psychopaths.

The many thousands of murders reported yearly in the American media generally bring forth a predictable response from neighbors, friends, relatives: the charges must be mistaken. It simply had to be someone else! One is prompted to ask: could any battery of mental-health experts have been able to detect behavioral traits that were always invisible to those in close daily contact?   In some mass-killing episodes, of course, signs of violent behavior might well be obvious, possibly in the form of threats made in public, angry outbursts, or troublesome social-media postings. Still, whether these might be actual warning signs requiring public intervention, or just common indicators of personal alienation or disgust (familiar social-media fare), would be virtually impossible to determine? As mentioned, no record of predictions regarding homicidal violence exists.

The Oregon shooter was said to harbor racist anger against blacks, Hispanics, and others, yet this hardly distinguishes him from large sectors of the American population.   If every racist or misanthrope were apprehended, jails and mental facilities would be unbearably overcrowded with potential offenders. In fact the locals in Oregon, as elsewhere, saw nothing out of the ordinary, one recalling Harper-Mercer as an “awkward boy” slow to respond to others, adding: “He really didn’t have a personality that was memorable.” He had Asperger’s Syndrome, but that is emphatically not linked to violent behavior. An actress in Roseburg was quoted as saying, “for us, he was just another guy who worked on the set”. This is a small community, yet the shooter was reported to have led a rather nondescript life – nothing that would call attention, much less fright.

Long experience with rampage killings shows that “ordinary” people can snap at a moment’s notice, especially where powerful drugs are implicated. One such case was that of Army Sergeant Robert Bales, who killed 16 defenseless Afghan civilians, including nine children, during an alcohol and drug-fueled outburst at a village in Kandahar province in March 2012. A decorated veteran with eleven years in service, Bales was facing combined marital and financial problems as well as stress from time spent in combat zones. He was said to have no history of mental disorders and had passed extensive psychological screening in order to become a sniper. While anger in Bates was obviously building, as it had for thousands of soldiers in the field and many thousands more veterans, there would be little unusual or alarming about that, and clearly no indication of a massacre to come. He “just snapped”, according to soldiers close to the scene. One cohort, a major, said that it was unfathomable that a competent, savvy army veteran like Bates could have done the killings. Bates’ defense attorney, Emma Scanlan, blamed the easy availability of prescription drugs in the military: the sergeant had reportedly been taking large quantities of (legal, widely-distributed) steroids at the time of the killings.

Any understanding of murder sprees in the U.S. must deal with the broadening gun culture and, by extension, a warfare state that carries out, legitimates, and celebrates large-scale violence on a daily basis.   For many decades this country has been a center of weapons production, trade, deployment, and use on a world scale. Mental illness – however defined, measured, and identified – enters the picture overwhelmingly within this social context, rarely as an isolated psychological disorder.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there were 33,000 deaths by firearms in the U.S. during 2013: 11, 200 homicides, 21,200 suicides, 500 accidents.   Comparable overall figures for Japan are less than 200, for Germany, Italy, and France less than 150.   Could all of these countries have that many fewer cases of “mental illness” than the U.S.? In fact what differentiates the others from the U.S. are two stubborn realities – far weaker military systems, and much stricter gun-control laws (personal firearms being essentially outlawed).   There are an estimated 90 firearms for every 100 Americans, accounting for fully 41 percent of all privately-held weapons worldwide. Of course the NRA and its rabid supporters argue that such linkage is a liberal fiction, that gun violence is primarily traceable to mental disorders, having nothing to do with the wide availability of guns. Unfortunately, while massacres like the recent ones in South Carolina and Oregon are virtually unheard of outside the U.S. (beyond cartel-ridden Mexico), they have become regular horror shows in a nation of cherished “gun freedoms”.

While 90 Americans are killed daily by firearms, large and small, the criminally-profitable gun industry reaps more than $12 billion in annual revenues. None of the Republican candidates for president has said anything meaningful about mass shootings, the weapons culture, or social policies that could effectively address the deadly plague of gun violence. Their mantra is that everything revolves around “mental health”, since “normal” folks never commit violent crimes.   Only marginally better, Democrats often admit the need for some gun legislation but offer few solutions beyond a call for more diligent background checks and (for some) restrictions on the sale of assault weapons.

For the past several years polling data has revealed that the vast majority of Americans want tougher gun controls – beyond enhanced background checks and bans on military-grade weapons or limits to high-powered magazines. Yet today, in the wake of repeated gun massacres (not to mention other types of carnage), Congress is no closer to passing real weapons legislation than at any time in the recent past. Nothing has happened, and nothing is likely to happen.   Even the shocking 2012 Newtown, Connecticut massacre of school children failed to generate any mainstream political action: even a tepid bill requiring modest background checks on gun sales fell short in the Senate, thanks to full-scale mobilization by the gun lobby.   Sadly, the U.S. is the only country in the world where gun regulations are so fiercely opposed.

At the end of World War II the Army Air Force crews that brought atomic destruction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 defenseless civilians, were comprised of highly-competent, even-tempered military personnel strongly dedicated to their work Most wound up emotionally detached from the horrors they had wrought.  Said Paul W. Tibbetts, Jr., pilot of the Enola Gay that bombed Hiroshima: “I never lost a night’s sleep over it.”   He was later praised as a war hero.   Such was the prevalent American attitude, starting with President Truman, as U.S. planes had already torched another 66 Japanese cities in spring and summer of 1945, when outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. Such aerial terrorism, the victims mainly civilian, would set the norm for postwar American military action – from Korea to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Panama, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There would be few moral, psychological, or political barriers to decades of unrestrained technological savagery. Could a society in which this kind of savagery had for so long been routinized, legitimated, and treated as spectacle not possibly bear the most fearsome domestic consequences?

Carl Boggs is the author of The Hollywood War Machine, with Tom Pollard (second edition, forthcoming), and Drugs, Power, and Politics, both published by Paradigm.     

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