Misdiagnosing the Culture of Violence

“We are more than governed through an imagined, improved, state of affairs.  We are subjugated in the present by a concern for achieving this better future, leaving us blind to the naturalizations of the capricious dominations and violence that come with security, amounting to an open war on the possible.”

–Ronjon Paul Datta in Anti-Security

A gunman entering a Newtown, Connecticut school and killing 20 children and six adults after killing his own mother has captured almost everyone’s attention in the U.S.  As people try to make sense of this act of mass violence, questions arise with no clear answers: What kind of person does something like this?  Why have these types of mass killings become so common?  What can be done to prevent horrific acts like this in the future?  It is hard enough trying to trace the origins of, and propose viable solutions to, more easily understood problems.  With an event like this, that difficulty is compounded.  However, it is clear that the “solutions” that have been emerging in the last few days lack both practical understanding of some essential causes of crimes such as this and foresight about problems likely to emerge from these solutions.  In our political culture atrocities and crises become exploitable opportunities leading to legislation that usually ends up punitively targeting completely different populations while atrocities like Newtown, Virginia Tech, and Columbine keep happening as we invest unending faith in the government in responding to any matter framed as a “security issue.”

Mass killings have gone from extremely rare (a couple every decade until 1980) to common (a couple every year since 2000).  It should not be surprising that at the intersections of guns and the law – against a backdrop of a culture of violence and widespread personal anguish and alienation – all that government agencies and the media can muster are narrow discussions of gun control and mental health care.  These discussions are taking place upon an imposed political and historical blank slate that ignores histories of racist gun control and persistent psychiatric abuses of vulnerable populations, and poses solutions to mass killings being prescribed before we determine their causes.  These prescribed solutions have predictable “side effects” that many seem more than ready to swallow without reading the label.  If we actually care about addressing the symptoms of what is an exponential increase in mass killings over the last thirty years, we will need to shed some light on the blind spots of the gun control debate and peek inside the closet where we have hidden the history of the treatment of the mentally ill.  The kids who died last week – for no reason whatsoever – deserve that we have a grown up debate about this.

When G.I. Joe Comes Home to Roost

“War is the health of the State.” – Randolph Bourne (1918)

“Do as I say, not as I do.” – unknown hypocrite

American culture is a violent culture; it has always been a violent culture.  There is a smorgasbord of partial explanations for why this is.  I will address gun control and mental health below, but the culture of violence in which they are embedded consistently evades serious discussion.  A sick society produces sick people.  A society in which many forms of violence are valorized will produce many incarnations of violence that are not.  This does not excuse the killer’s actions, or rationalize his motivations, but it is an honest assessment of factors which produce such behavior and which legislation and medicalization will not succeed in muffling.

Limiting “violent media” made CNN’s list of 10 solutions, but conspicuously absent was any mention of the violent state. The state educates the society it governs, not merely in a paternalistic or ideological sense, but by example, through its behavior.  It is an indicator of our humanity, and not a slight to these 20 dead children, to ask, “Why is it only the unwarranted killing of young and mostly white American children that merits our outrage?”  There is a direct connection between what is done to others in our name in other parts of the world (or in many parts of this country) and our tacit complicity with those “other” atrocities , and what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.  The massacre in Panjwai, Afghanistan this past March left 7 civilian adults and 9 children dead, killed by the U.S. Army.  For an attack that numerous witnesses and press reports indicate involved as many as twenty soldiers, Sergeant Robert Bales, currently awaiting a verdict, was the only person punished or charged.  This is but the latest of many war crimes –Haditha and Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and the continued and intensified drone bombings and soldiers killing civilians for fun, collecting their fingers as souvenirs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In a classic study of the relationship between war and violence within war-making societies, Dane Archer uses historical, cross-national data to demonstrate how war making produces significant and consistent elevations in homicide rates among ordinary citizens.  The legitimation and sanctioning of murder, atrocities and the targeting of civilians in war causes an increase in murder at home.  I am not trying to suggest that the fact that the shooter was dressed in camouflage indicates he was directly emulating Sergeant Bales, but we live in a violent culture that certainly does not begin and end with violent video games and Quentin Tarantino movies.  Dehumanization of others (real people who bleed, not computerized images on a screen) creates the ability to do monstrous things like kill twenty kids, whether it is in an Iraqi prison or a Colorado movie theater, in an Afghan village or a Connecticut elementary school. Criminalizing all those labeled as mentally ill or (attempting) to make guns harder to get will not change that basic universal precursor to all atrocious acts – that of seeing other people as not worthy of life.

Gun Control:  Profiling the “Angry White Man” or a New Wave of Targeting the “Usual Suspects” (of Color)?

The knee-jerk, liberal reaction for more gun control is plagued by the same inability to understand the fundamental nature of the problem at hand coupled with a perpetual, short-sighted faith in the inherent justness of well-meaning legislation.  The state does not solve social crises, the state uses social crises to reinforce a range of social relationships and control certain populations.  The history of gun legislation in the last century and a half is one of black criminalization.  From the Black Codes that barred freed slaves from owning guns, to the criminalization of open-carry in California targeting the Black Panthers, to more modern mandatory sentences for gun possession and gun enhancements primarily utilized against blacks and Latinos, gun laws (like most criminal law) have a significant and measurable racial bias in application.  Blacks are over five times more likely to be arrested for gun possession than whites.  In the context of mass shootings, white people commit 77% of all mass murders in the U.S.  In keeping with the U.S. commitment to racial profiling and the new federal policing brand “Smart on Crime,” why is there no clarion call for the targeted enforcement of existing gun law on those who commit the overwhelming majority of these crimes, specifically white, middle-class men with ages ranging from young adult to middle-aged?

One might argue that this is a cynical way to view the government, or that the inherent racial bias in the application of criminal law is somehow a side issue when discussing criminal law.  A common response in the gun control debate is that “simply getting guns off the street and placing restrictions on legal purchase” will surely help mitigate atrocities like the one that took place last week.  That would be all well and good if more than a fraction of guns used in the commission of a crime were bought from legitimate gun sellers.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that less than 15% of gun purchases made by people currently convicted of weapons charges were bought from some form of legitimate dealer (i.e. gun show, dealer, store, pawn shop) – the most common place people got guns from was family members.  Bearing in mind many of these young, white mass shooters got their guns through their families, what statistical indicators do we have that criminalization in the suburbs (as if that is going to happen) will actually limit the physical availability of guns?  The government can’t regulate what they do not currently control.  This is not to be brazen about the fact that we live in a society saturated with guns and violence, and ideally things would not be this way.  But half-baked solutions to half-understood problems and a populous that gets their marching orders from either FoxNews or CNN does not have a long history of creating logical political policy or just social outcomes.

“We’ve Got a Pill for That:” Medicalization as Social Placebo

The other major node in the discussion of causes and solutions pertaining to the massacre in Newtown is an ill-defined push for “more mental health care.”  As with criminal law, psychiatry reform has been a long series of often well-meaning demands that do not address the root of the problem and have no vision of justice let alone a plan to achieve it.  In a country that sees an estimated 45,000 people die every year due to lack of healthcare, and in the context of Obama’s meager healthcare bill watered down even further before being signed into law, this call for more mental health care is puzzling.  A call for preventative mental health treatments in the context of a major criminal act, and the obvious further pathologizing of those labeled mentally ill in this process, should raise some serious concerns.  Psychiatry, like the law, reproduces social inequality (racegendersexuality) and is designed to control and manage rather than create just outcomes.  Psychiatric abuse did not end when the “Nurse Ratcheds” of the world had to find a new job; ask the hundreds of thousands of kids misdiagnosed with ADHD and pumped full of drugs like Ritalin in the last twenty years. Indeed, poorly tested and easily approved psychiatric medications themselves should be considered as a potential causal factor in mass killings, rather than a solution, as numerous mass killers in the last decade have had psychiatric medications in their system and many of these drugs have poorly studied violent side effects.  In trying to formulate tailored solutions to the problem of mass murder, the government’s ability to regulate prescription drugs that contribute to violent behavior far exceeds it ability to control guns.  The fact that challenging the damage done to our society by pharmaceutical corporations is an unthinkable thought in this debate, while opening the door to even more widespread over-medication of our youth is common sense, indicates the extent to which we have a very limited vision of what security means.

Looking back to the 1960s, well-meaning reforms in the sphere of psychiatry have a sordid history as well.  In the 1950s, at the height of the institutionalization of those determined to be mentally ill, there were over 500,000 people in mental hospitals.  Rightfully, people pushed to have almost all of these institutions closed because they were inhumane and, for most patients, unnecessary, remnants of a eugenicist past that should be left behind.  Even in the heyday of Keynesianism – in the years right before Nixon would put forward a healthcare bill that would make him look like Hugo Chavez in relation to Barack Obama – the foresight, funds and coordination to ensure successful reentry and social support for the deinstitutionalized was not provided.  Those days of (still spotty) social welfare have been replaced by carceral neoliberalism, where the mentally ill are more than likely to be sleeping on the streets or incarcerated.  Human Rights Watch estimates that there are 1.25 million people with diagnosed mental illnesses currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails.  In this context – where hundreds of thousands of people carrying the label of mentally ill have gone from one abominable institution to another, and the events precipitating this concern with the mentally ill just happen to be mass murders – what exactly are the mental health services we are going to make available to every maladjusted kid that we pathologize into a ticking time-bomb?

From mental institutions to decarceration to homelessness and re-incarceration in jail and prison: this is loosely the arch of government mental health policy.  Why exactly are progressive people calling for “mental health care” in this context? People who need and want mental health care should have access to it.  But, as with gun control: does that solve the problem?  What else might that lead to?  Is the issue simply serious mental illness?

Just as more government regulation of firearms makes little sense when the overwhelming majority of guns used in crimes are not legitimately sold, the further profiling, medicalization and criminalization of those diagnosed as severely mentally ill also misses the mark, before even introducing questions of social justice into either discussion.  In a statistical study of the predictors of mass killers cited by Psychology Today, the most significant predictor of someone becoming a mass killer is drug and alcohol abuse.  Those simply diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, with no serious drug abuse, show no greater likelihood of mass violence than the general population.  So are we to intensify gun control, profile more troubled kids as threats to society, and restart prohibition while we are at it so when these types of atrocities keep happening we can say we did all that we could?  Admittedly it is hard to solve a problem whose causes most people cannot fathom, but demanding more legislation, surveillance, medicalization and criminalization both creates unjust “side effects” and fails to properly diagnose the problem or seriously evaluate what might be necessary to mitigate it.

Before asking the government or psychiatry to solve this problem with more of their failed policies and practices, we may want to examine an entire population whose healthcare is the purview of the federal government, a population that has higher than normal rates of mental illness, gun ownership, and experiences with violence – U.S. veterans.  While veterans have their own particular sets of problems around violence and mental health, the government also has a long history of failing to deal with these mental health issues. (How many decades did it take for veterans to receive recognition of PTSD?).  Why should we expect them to fare better with our children, most of whom can only be diagnosed with major mental illnesses because of diagnostic changes in the DSM that emerged in the Ritalin-era? Before we hand our kids over to federally-funded school psychologists we may want to take a look at how the government has fared in its treatment of veterans – a group of scarred, at-risk members of our society almost wholly under government mental health oversight.

In the first six months of this year there was an average of one suicide per day among activity-duty military.  Among male veterans aged 17-60, the rate of deaths by suicide is almost three times higher than the general population (20% compared with 7% of the population as a whole).  The homicide rate among veterans also went up 89% in the six years after the invasion of Afghanistan when compared with the six years prior.  The government perpetuates atrocities all over the world, reproducing a culture of violence that glorifies or rationalizes killing civilians: that, literally, is the textbook definition of a sociopath.  Veterans left with trauma from what they have seen and been a part of are met with V.A. psychiatry and medications, with the poor outcomes noted above.

Like taking a second medication solely to counteract the side effects of the original prescription, calls for gun control and medicalization are failing to diagnose the underlying disease behind the symptoms.  Our inability to imagine and fight for a healthy, truly secure and just society, and our knee-jerk reaction to expect the government to “solve the problem” – as if there were a simple solution, as if the government would be inclined to solve a problem rather than exploit it, as if they were even capable of solving it if they were so inclined – is the extent to which these types of atrocities continue to happen as we create new state-sponsored atrocities through our good intentions.

Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist, who has done research in the intersections of criminology and mental health, and is currently writing a dissertation about counter-insurgency against Occupy Oakland.  He can be reached at mikeking0101(at)gmail.com.

Mike King is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Bridgewater State University.  His work has recently been featured in Race & Class and the edited volume Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.  His book (tentatively titled) When Riot Cops are Not Enough: The Repression of Occupy Oakland will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2016.  He can be reached at mikeking0101 (at) gmail.com.