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Mass Karma

This won’t be the last.

Just after the Orlando tragedy, this reality remains pretty much unacknowledged, as cause-seekers focus on security and ISIS and the specific mental instability of Omar Mateen, who, as the world knows, took 49 precious lives and injured 53 others at the nightclub Pulse in the early hours of June 12.

Was it terrorism? Was it a hate crime? Apparently there’s a media obsession with categorizing murder. No, this was faux-war, as all our mass killings are, waged by an army of one or two or a few. And it won’t be the last. Mass killings are part of the social fabric – still shocking, still horrifying, but becoming more and more . . . “normal.”

Tighter security won’t stop them. Destroying ISIS won’t stop them. Banning immigrants won’t stop them. Maybe nothing will – though I don’t believe that. I do believe in karma, which is to say, the idea that what goes around comes around. If we act with violence, violence will come back to haunt us.

Only when the U.S. news media can put its murder stories in a context that includes inner reflection, rather than simply casting about for some external evil to blame – e.g., the killer had a Muslim name, so it must be terrorism – do we have, I believe, a hope of transcending the violent culture we’ve created.

There’s nothing particularly mysterious about this. What goes around usually comes back around in fairly obvious ways. For instance, the day after the killings, Rachel Maddow spent part of her show on MSNBC discussing how Mateen’s fantasy ISIS connection seemingly fit in with the terror organization’s global game plan, quoting an ISIS social media post to its followers in the West:

“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European, especially the spiteful and filthy French or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever, from the disbelievers waging war, kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”

Maddow described this as a tactical change for ISIS: “Stay where you are in the West and commit attacks there. Kill civilians in your home country.” She also talked about how the U.S. is at war with ISIS and has been “dropping bombs on ISIS targets” in Iraq and Syria since the summer of 2014. She made this point coolly, matter-of-factly, giving no hint that she understood that bombs cause a lot of carnage, often killing everyone in the vicinity, including children. Outrage and grief only entered her voice when her reporting turned to ISIS, because . . . my God, what they were promoting was sick beyond belief.

However, their tactical change also struck me as brilliant, in that they had found a way to “drop bombs on Western targets” without having an air force. This was, you might say, improvised shock and awe, borrowing a phrase from the U.S. war machine, which launched a shock-and-awe bombing campaign in Iraq in 2003. The term comes from a 1996 publication by Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance:

“The intent here,” they wrote, “is to impose a regime of Shock and Awe through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives.”

In March of 2003, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq – a.k.a, the Big Mistake – with some 1,700 air sorties over the country that killed thousands of Iraqis. Out of this monstrous mistake, and all that followed, ISIS eventually emerged, and started striking back. This sort of karma is so obvious; you have to make a serious effort not to notice it.

But the hell Mateen unleashed at the Orlando nightclub hardly reduces to something this simple. His fantasy connection to ISIS may have been no more than a fragment, at best, of his motivation. Like every mass killer, he was deeply, deeply troubled and seething with social grievances – in his case, homophobia, likely permeated with self-hatred.

The only way to protect ourselves from such a person before he’s committed a crime is to create a surveillance-saturated, endlessly suspicious – and, of course, increasingly fortified and armed – social structure, which probably won’t work anyway, but will surely poison our social bedrock, which is trust.

And as long as the only way we attempt to understand mass murder is on his (or her) own terms, independent of all social context, we will fail to prevent the next one, and the one after that.

The starting place, I think, is to understand that committing mass murder is psychologically the same as waging war. The murders are not personal. The killer is employing what’s known as the “principle of social substitutability” — substituting a particular group of people for a general wrong.

“The rampage shooters see themselves as moralistic punishers striking against deep injustice,” Peter Turchin explains in his essay “Canaries in a Coalmine.” “. . . it is usually a group, an organization, an institution, or the whole society that are held responsible by the killer.

“On the battlefield,” he wrote, “you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you’ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform . . . Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable.”

Under official circumstances, we glorify this sort of behavior. And this glory permeates the American social structure, creating a sort of standing permission for every troubled individual – every potential army of one – to wage war against a self-perceived wrong. Added to this standing permission is the dumbfounding availability of automatic weapons – and suddenly mass murders happen every couple of months.

Throw in one further irony. Mateen had worked for nine years as a security guard at G4S, the largest security firm in the world, which at one time had charge of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo. As The Atlantic noted, he was part of the security system that’s supposed to protect the public from . . . people like him.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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