While it may appear to be the case, it is not a coincidence that only two weeks and two days after James Holmes committed mass murder in Aurora, Colorado, another mass murder erupted in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Police investigating the crime have remarked that the death of the killer, Wade Page, will very likely prevent them from discovering his motive. But would learning Page’s Nazi-inspired motive really shed much light on the incident? Even if it somehow did, though, it is unlikely that the discovery of Page’s motive would contribute to our understanding of the wider phenomenon of mass murders. Because mass murders are not strictly individual but social problems, an individual’s motives are not adequate to explain them. Rather, one must consider the larger social picture.
Two days after this most recent mass murder in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, another mass murderer, Jared Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 13 in Tucson, Arizona, last year, was back in the news when it was learned that a plea arrangement had been reached in his prosecution. This group of events – attributed by some to mere chance – may reasonably lead others to wonder whether we are seeing more mass murders than we usually see. That is, are we seeing more mass murders than normal? And, if so, how many mass-murders is normal?
Because other countries have comparable levels of gun ownership, but nothing close to the rates of gun-related murders, it seems unlikely that chance explains the prevalence of gun violence in the U.S. But even if, for the sake of argument, these mass murders simply were the random acts of maniacs, one must give a little thought to the conditions which produce so many murderous random acts of maniacs. What seems to be a more persuasive explanation is that these murders are symptomatic of systematic pressures and forces and the damage they wield. Although obvious, it nevertheless ought to be pointed out that as living organisms people can only handle a certain amount of pressure, or stress, before they break down in some way. Also well known is the fact that the economic and technological pressures and stresses people are experiencing today, among others, are historically unprecedented both in their intensities and in their pervasiveness. Indeed, the intensification of these social pressures and forces is indistinct from the transformation of diffused forms of violence into concentrated violence.
Among the most persistent of these pressures are those attending work. Exacerbating the pressures and forces attending the widespread unemployment that is part of the new economy – compromising the stability of even those who have jobs – people across the job spectrum are working significantly more hours for considerably less pay. Factoring in rising costs of housing, education, transportation, etc., we see that people are experiencing far more pressures compared to the recent past, while at the same time seeing the reduction of those supports (income, rest, etc.) that allowed them to sustain these pressures. As a result, these pressures become more intense, concentrated, and destructive.
To understand the dynamic at play, it is important to mention that for its entire history until the mid-1970s the United States experienced a labor shortage. As such, throughout U.S. history wages for workers generally steadily increased. One result of this was that people began to believe that this was just the way things were for working people in America. Beginning in the 1970s, however, four significant socio-historical shifts led to the end of these rising incomes. In addition to the rise of automated production, the introduction of computers, and the entry of women into the workforce, much of the European and Asian world became economic competitors of the United States. Beginning in the mid-1970s, this historic labor shortage finally came to an end. Consequently, the perennially rising incomes that U.S. workers enjoyed flat-lined. The costs of living – and their attendant pressures – however, continued to rise. Finance and credit ballooned to cover this gap. Recently, however, this bubble burst, leaving all but the wealthy with even less support than before while exposed to considerably more pressures.
It ought to be noted that not all workers in the U.S. enjoyed this privileged rising income equally. In many respects these incomes were contingent on income inequality, imperialism, and the ideologies that help reproduce these. People of color and women, for example, historically experienced regular discrimination, and grew more or less accustomed to this unfair treatment – not to mention people abroad, toiling under merciless conditions for corporate profit (from which the US working class directly benefited). For many white men, however, who as children were taught the story of the U.S. as the land of opportunity, the recent switch to this new economic reality of having little, if any, future came less as an already well-established fact of life than as an enraging novelty.
In addition to attributing this most recent mass murder in Wisconsin to mere chance, people will point out that Wade Page was a racist. And though he undoubtedly was, this still explains little, for racists are very common, but very few commit even regular murder, let alone mass murder. Although the FBI is classifying the murders as an act of terrorism, this classification also does little to explain what unfolded. It’s classification as a hate crime, however, may bring more light to the analysis, as the categories of hate and rage enjoy a considerable degree of overlap. Indeed, when the phenomenon of decreasing incomes and unemployment is coupled with the fact that white men, whatever their income, historically received a supplement, or bonus, accorded in the form of white supremacist ideologies (the value of which, in the age of Obama, is also depreciatory), it is not that surprising to see that virtually all mass murderers are young, white men.
And while it is relevant that Wade Page was unemployed and had recently lost his home, it must be noted that the economic pressures discussed above comprise only one part of the picture. The forces and pressures attending a sped-up, high-tech world of instantaneous communications, as well as the pressures accompanying an increasingly polluted ecosystem – one that is taxing, more and more, people’s immunological resistances – not to mention the pressures of never-ending wars, are stressing our collective psyche to its breaking point. Indeed, it is a tragic irony that while Jared Loughner sits in a courthouse in Arizona, confessing his guilt for his own mass murder, that very same court is administering the persecution of scapegoated immigrants – that is, it is distributing/concentrating pressures according to the same scapegoating, racist logic that the killer Wade Page employed.
Of course, most people do not crack from these pressures; most react to the pressures of work, etc., by getting more and more depressed. Indeed, it is not just another coincidence that the little relief people find from these pressures – which shouldn’t be confused with support – is derived from pharmaceuticals. Nor is it a coincidence that anti-depressants are the most highly prescribed drugs in the country. Unsurprisingly, in other fully industrialized countries, where people enjoy between six and eight weeks of vacation annually as a matter of law, there is less stress, less depression, and less murder. In the U.S., by contrast, people are getting less and less rest. Consequently, the pressures increase. That these destructive forces and pressures are systematic, and are integral to the process of profit and wealth extraction and concentration, is not discussed by those who seek to explain these mass murders through appeals to chance, or to morality. Whether this is intentional or not is open to conjecture. What is beyond doubt, however, is the fact that we are living in a world of increasing pressures and diminishing supports – of the concentration of diffused forms of violence. What is also beyond dispute is the fact that more and more people are growing depressed in this country – and, as our economic model spreads, throughout the world. Not all become merely depressed, however. More and more are being driven into murderous rage.