“’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”
—David Hume, 1711-1776 (A Treatise on Human Nature)
Most of us would agree that, on one level, random mass shootings don’t make any sense whatever, no matter which approach—clinical or sociological—we take to explain them. But on another level—the level on which rage, despair, hopelessness, and alienation reside—we might agree that mindless, random murder makes as much sense as anything else.
Existential philosophy of the early and mid-20th century maintained that the central problem facing Western Civilization was “abstraction.” Modern man had come to view the world as an abstract concept. Rather than the gritty, space-time, here-and-now entity we inhabit, they saw it as a “data point.” And by abstracting the world, we became desensitized to it. In a word, we allowed ourselves to become numb.
Indeed, Western Civilization has become so alienated from its existence, so removed from it, so detached, that existence itself is no longer capable of providing meaning. And, according to the theory, when people have become so detached that they lose their sense of “connectedness” with the world, they gradually become sociopathic.
This pathology manifests itself as self-destructiveness or violence. And let’s be clear. This theory is confined solely to advanced societies. People in poor, under-developed countries don’t go around committing random murders. They may kill other people—even butcher them—but the murders they commit tend to “make sense.”
I knew a fellow (“Jake”) who served thirty-three months in a medium security California penitentiary after being convicted of possession of PCP with intent to sell. The large amount of PCP (a Listerine bottle full of it), coupled with having previously been arrested for possession of marijuana and pills, led to the thirty-three months, a sentence his family lawyer considered excessive.
Perhaps to shock or impress us, Jake told a group of us that while he was incarcerated he had a cellmate (a “cellie”) who was serving time for murder. When we asked, predictably, if having a cellmate who was a murderer didn’t spook him, he replied that he wasn’t frightened at all. That was because he knew the “whole story.”
Jake’s cellie, a man in his early twenties, had a girlfriend whom he’d dated since high school. Even though he was still very much in love with her, and hoped that they’d eventually get married, she had apparently lost interest, because without warning, she abruptly announced that she was breaking up with him.
Making it worse, after she dumped him, she began dating another man—a guy the cellie vaguely knew (mainly by reputation), but whom he despised.
The cellie told Jake that he couldn’t get out his head the image of his girlfriend and this other guy engaging in sexual intercourse. It was eating away at him. Moreover, he said that one image in particular drove him absolutely berserk. He pictured her performing oral sex on this guy.
Inevitably, he attacked the man in a Denny’s parking lot, and beat him to death with a tire iron. Because Jake knew the circumstances that led to the murder, he said he had no reason to fear violence from him. The way he saw it, murder was a one-time deal for the cellie, and brutal or not, it was a crime that you could understand without having to try too hard.
Which brings us to Gore Vidal. Maybe Vidal was just trying to be his usual outrageous self, but he came at the question of American pathology from a slightly different angle. He identified the Declaration of Independence as the source of the problem. Vidal noted that we are the only country in history whose government charter makes reference to the “pursuit of happiness.”
No other country in the world has ever explicitly reminded its citizens of the fact that they are entitled to be happy. Not only entitled, but maybe even obligated. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And according to Vidal, because so many Americans are deeply unhappy, they feel that they have failed. Which results in more unhappiness. Which causes them to engage in pathological behavior. It’s only a theory.