All over the US media there are discussions taking place, as one would expect, about the slaughter of 10 people in Buffalo, New York, by a young white supremacist in body armor with a rapid-fire weapon. I have heard no discussion about the phenomenon of mass shootings in general in the US compared to other countries, in this round of discussion. Lots of discussion about the many reasons for mass shootings to happen, without any explanation for what makes the US so exceptional in this regard, aside from implied explanations that can be very misleading, whether intentionally so or not.
As the pundits try to dissect the motivations of the killer in this massacre, we hear a lot about social media misinformation, Fox News propaganda, our country’s terrible history of racism, and the ongoing propagation of institutional racism today. We also hear about different gun laws, efforts at controlling the proliferation of assault weapons, the power of the gun lobby, and the sanctity of the Second Amendment. We hear about mental health, and the ongoing failure of the public health sector to basically exist in any meaningful form in this country, though they don’t put it that way.
It has been mentioned that the Buffalo massacre was the 200th mass shooting in the United States so far in 2022, and it’s only mid-May. What isn’t mentioned is that most of the other mass shootings involved men killing their families, or men targeting women. Misogyny is so endemic, it apparently doesn’t bear mentioning anymore, like the sun rising in the east.
One of the people that the Buffalo killer was inspired by, according to his online rantings, was the fascist mass murderer in Norway, Anders Breivik.
As horrific as Breivik’s murder spree of helpless young people confined to an island in the summer of 2011 was, the obvious question that I don’t hear the media asking at all is why was that massacre in Norway in 2011 so exceptional, whereas mass shootings in the US kill more people than were killed in Utoya about every two weeks, in a “normal” month.
I have personally been deeply affected by gun violence. Two of my best friends were shot to death, and these experiences were formative for me. My father and stepmother live down the street from Newtown, Connecticut. She sang at funerals of the children killed there at Sandy Hook Elementary.
I also spend a lot of time in Europe, in countries where very few people — especially people younger than my parents — have had any experience at all with gun violence. Despite the 2011 massacre there, one of those countries with very little gun violence is Norway. But why the comparative lack of mass shootings — or gun violence of any kind — there and elsewhere in Europe? What are the fundamental differences between these societies that cause the US to have such a vastly higher rate of mass shootings, homicides, and even suicides than any other countries (that aren’t having a civil war)?
There are a lot of things that make the US exceptional, but there are also a lot of things that the US has in common with the many other countries in the world that do not have a big problem with mass shootings or gun violence generally. I’d like to focus on a few of the similarities first.
When we hear about Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Charleston, El Paso — all massacres carried out by white supremacists who set out to kill people from a particular group — there is naturally discussion of how people develop these warped beliefs, how anyone becomes so troubled that they’d commit a massacre, what is it about our society that gave rise to people with these beliefs, and what is it that nurtures their ongoing hatred. All important questions with lots of important answers.
But when we take as a whole a collection of countries that haven’t had anything like this kind of rate of mass shootings or homicides, such as the EU, how would we answer the same sorts of questions about European societies, and what do we do with that information? To briefly attempt an overview here, in terms of history there is no question: Europe is where all the white supremacists came from in the first place. When my parents were young, the US was an apartheid state, by law, and Black people were commonly terrorized by racist police and lynch mobs. By contrast, in Europe when my parents were young, a Nazi regime was systematically gassing to death millions of people for being of the wrong race, religion, national origin, or political affiliation, among other things.
In all the countries occupied by the Nazis, there were local Nazis who worked with the occupiers. There was lots of resistance, sabotage, etc., but there was also lots of collaboration. There were, and are, loads of racists all over Europe. Since the defeat of fascism in Europe, far right parties and movements have persisted, and xenophobic, openly racist rightwing governments form on a regular basis historically and in recent years as well.
Although the welfare state is generally much more functional in Europe than in the US, if you travel around you will find in city after city ghetto after ghetto. They are decidedly in better shape than the abandoned, burned-out neighborhoods of St Louis or Trenton. But they are definitely ghettos, the people living in them feel like they live in a ghetto, and their governments pass laws they call things like “Ghetto Laws,” an ongoing source of tremendous pain and tension in Denmark right now.
In many other wealthy nations you will find ghettoized, racialized groups of people who are subjugated in many different ways. Oftentimes you’ll find similar percentages cropping up — like the percentage of Maori people in New Zealand society and the percentage of Maori inmates in New Zealand’s prisons is very similar to the percentages of Black people in US society at large, and in the prisons in the US, like around 15% of the population and 60% of the inmates or thereabouts.
We hear a lot about rightwing media bias, and proliferation of lies on social media, both being big problems. And they clearly are, but when we look across the Atlantic we will find many of the same corporations owning the media landscapes there, too, along with the same social media platforms being used by similar percentages of the populations of countries in Scandinavia, Germany, England, etc. They generally have better school systems, but their countries are also full of rightwing media tabloids and social media algorithms loaded with hate speech and disinformation.
With the extremely high rate of femicide in the US — five women per day in the US — once again, in Europe I see men and women interacting exactly like they do in the US. There are lots of nice, gentle people, and then there are angry, unhappy people. There are lots of happy-looking couples, and others who argue. There’s lots of alcoholism in Europe. Porn is extremely popular there, too. Sadly there is a lot of male violence against women there, just like here. But so many fewer femicides.
The argument could certainly be made that things are different in Europe with regards to the welfare state. That there’s generally a lower level of stress in a society where people are unlikely to end up living in a tent on the sidewalk, like so many thousands of people do in every city on the west coast of the US. On the other hand, a declining standard of living is a great source of stress for people who are experiencing it, and in the US this was one of the biggest factors determining whether a voter might vote for Trump in 2016. Regardless of the starting point, there are huge numbers of Europeans experiencing a declining standard of living, feeling very stressed about this, and voting for rightwing parties, just like in the US.
Another frequent talking point is the lack of adequate mental health care in the US. Sane people who support universal health care point to Europe as a place that has that, where things are better. While at this point there are some states, like Oregon, where coverage is en par with European societies, the health care situation may be one important distinction that makes the US special. But in terms of mental health care, by my personal observation, it’s sometimes not such an impressive difference. I know many people in England who had the option of not more than five sessions with a counselor before they would be told the NHS-funded counseling sessions had come to an end.
So if Europe is also a place full of stressed-out people with declining incomes, rising immigration, insufficient mental health care, a burgeoning far right, ghettoized, racialized minorities, lots of fascists and racists, along with lots of violent men who abuse their partners and others who are inclined to take their own lives, what is it that makes us have such higher rates of homicide, suicide, femicide, and especially mass shootings?
When the shooting ended in the Netherlands in May, 1945, and the last of the German troops occupying the country surrendered, the Dutch people had lived through years of violent repression, some of which was carried out against Dutch people by other Dutch people. The population was full of both underground antifascist fighters and organizers, as well as lots of informants and Nazi collaborators. This situation existed in Dutch society from top to bottom.
When the Dutch government-in-exile came back to power, their first priority was the disarming of society. The first thing they did was initiate a gun roundup. With society so polarized and so traumatized, the last thing the government wanted was the proliferation of deadly weapons.
I think of this often, ever since I read about it in a book about the last weeks of World War 2 in the Netherlands. I don’t know whether the US today is more or less polarized than the Netherlands is today, or was back in the immediate post-war period. But we have a hell of a lot more mass shootings and homicides here. And as far as I can tell, there is one — and only one — over-riding difference between the two cases that really matters: in the Netherlands, they took away the guns.