There’s an old saying about what happens when ideas, um … copulate. This column is the byproduct of a comment by Dawie Coetzee on the Center for a Stateless Society working group email, and a subsequent exchange of tweets I had with @SugarKovalczyk. Dawie pointed out that such shootings tend to be carried out by people who feel “a loss of moral agency; that is, active and creative selfhood, self-authorship.”
Further, “such incidents are not, as a rule, impulsive, but are the culmination of long and careful planning. They are not ‘sparked’ by guns being at hand, for instance. The necessary means will be found: there is no effort too great to one expecting imminent death.”
This strengthened my belief that changing gun laws will probably have little effect on the incidence of mass shootings. Laws on paper are only effective, generally speaking, when people are already culturally predisposed to obey them, and in societies where the behavior they regulate wasn’t that much of a problem to begin with. If most mass shootings are long premeditated and intended as a demonstration of authentic selfhood by someone who feels robbed of moral agency, and if — as is almost certain — there will always be a thriving black market in firearms in the United States, I doubt waiting periods or restrictions on magazine capacity will make much difference.
So what will make a difference? Let’s get back to moral agency. The first thing that popped into my head when I read Dawie’s observation was an interview I heard on NPR years ago. A psychologist was talking about a statistical analysis of Palestinian suicide bombers on the West Bank. The one factor tying all of them together was that, as small children, they’d been traumatized by the sight of their fathers humiliated and powerless in the face of house-to-house raids by the IDF, and their mothers and siblings screaming facedown on the floor. They grew up with their very sense of self hinging on the need to assert their agency in the face of powerlessness by avenging this dishonor to their families.
Shortly afterward, @SugarKovalczyk brought to my attention the role loss of agency plays as a common thread in so many other forms of violence classed as “terror.” If we’re talking about perceived powerlessness and loss of moral agency, it’s hard to avoid noticing that so many shootings take place in — ahem — the workplace. Who’d have thought, in this age of cowboy CEOs, union-busting, downsizings, speedups, stagnant wages, micromanagement, management bullying and job insecurity, that workers would feel powerless?
And how many “terrorists” are being bred by urban police doing “show of force” jumpouts, or by cops kicking in doors, screaming “Down on the floor, m*****f*****s,” shooting pets, and reducing children to hysterics? Or by children witnessing their parents and siblings — or rescue workers — being murdered by drones on orders from a “Commander-in-Chief” ten thousand miles away?
It’s probably also relevant that these people decide to assert their agency after growing up in a culture where the “good guys” are violent predators (Die Hard, Dirty Harry and COPS). Or that America uses the “poverty draft” to send people into a machine that creates William Calleys and Lynndie Englands — and then brings them back home?
When you rob people of their self-respect and sense of control over their own lives, use them as means to your own ends, and treat them like garbage, don’t be surprised if you don’t like the destructive methods they choose to assert their sense of self. By all means let’s feel sympathy for the innocent victims when the worm turns — but let’s also never forget who set things in motion.
Want social peace? Disarm the cops and soldiers. Take away the power of bloodsucking CEOs — created by the same state that would regulate guns — over our very right to exist on the earth.
No justice, no peace. That’s not a threat or an apologetic. It’s a fact.
Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.