The liberals and the conservatives have their stock “solutions”. For the liberals, stopping terrorist random shootings is a matter of more gun control, especially of assault weapons. These same liberals, however, can not explain how they will get some 5 to 8.2 million assault weapons out of the hands of well over 5 million owners. As for the right wing gun-nuts, who claim that the solution is to put a gun in the hands of nearly everybody so that anybody can shoot one of these random shooters on sight: They claim that denying one the right to own an assault weapon is denial of “our freedom”. These hypocrites care not a bit about a person’s freedom to marry whoever they want, about a woman’s freedom to live free of sexual harassment, a person of color’s freedom to live free of racism, or a worker’s freedom to build a strong union. Next, they’ll be discovering freedom also means the right to own tanks, bazookas and RPG’s!
The only change that a ban on assault weapons could make (and given their numbers in the US, such a ban is impossible) would be that the numbers killed in each such random shooting would probably decrease. But it would not lower the number of these incidents. To accomplish that, we have to start by looking at the cause, which is rooted in the mood and consciousness in US society in general.
Increase since 1980s
Some dispute whether there has been an increase. They are wrong.
According to a study compiled by Mother Jones magazine, from 1982 to 2011 there was a mass shooting* every 172 days. From 2011 to 2014 there was one every 64 days on average. As of Nov. 17 of 2017, there have been 13 such shootings, meaning one every 24.7 days. The same study also shows a steady increase since the 1980s.
Increased fear and distrust
Part of the cause goes back to the general level of fear and distrust that has been sown in the US, going all the way back to the Reagan years of the 1980s, when the campaign against “violent criminals” really got under way. Both Republicans and Democrats stoked the flames, increasing racism and the social tensions in general. At the same time, the cult of the individual was encouraged. The only thing that matters is one’s own individual career. Everybody should aim to be an “entrepreneur”.
An extreme example of that was a young guy hanging out at a community college in Oakland back around that time. When offered a socialist newspaper, he replied “I ain’t interested in that shit. I sell drugs. I’m an entrepreneur.”
Get Ahead. Leave the next guy lying in the gutter. That was the theme. The idea of joining together to change conditions was nearly buried. Along side of that, racial divisions were increased.
Anti-social behavior legitimized
Another aspect of this campaign was to legitimize anti-social behavior. In the decades leading up to the 1980s, under the pressure of the holdovers from the movements of the 1960s into the early 70s, at least the corporate chiefs had to pretend to have concern for society as a whole. The American Business Roundtable, for example, claimed in 1981 that businesses have a “responsibility to the society of which it is a part.” In the following years the memory of the movement faded and the crisis of capitalism became more acute. Then, anything that corporate heads did to increase profits became openly legitimate. As one writer put it, “corporate leaders who wiped out people’s pension funds need not feel bad about this.”
This became the general theme in the United States. Be concerned for yourself and yourself alone – exactly what narcissism is.
Narcissism is defined as “excessive self-love”. The same study that defined it that way also found that “narcissists were exceptionally aggressive toward anyone who attacked or offended them.” Another study found that “part of the problem is that narcissists tend to lack empathy, which is the ability to vicariously experience another person’s perspective or emotions.” It also found that “collectively we seem to be getting more narcissistic.”
That is an exact description of corporate CEO’s and their types. If complete lack of concern for the social consequences of one’s actions, if complete lack of empathy for those harmed is okay for the CEO’s, then it’s okay for the ordinary person, except that they don’t have the economic and political power that the CEO’s do. So it must be expressed in a different way.
9/11 and war fever
Then along came 9/11. Ever since then, we have been in a war time mode. This means increased level of violent rhetoric and normalization of bloodshed and killing. Obama, for instance, frequently used to announce plans to “capture or kill” different Islamic fundamentalist leaders. The fact that the drone killings regularly involved killing bystanders was either denied or justified by the unfeeling term “collateral damage”. Taking a child’s life sounded as meaningless as breaking a window pane.
In most wars, this heightened blood lust is destroyed when the body bags start coming back home, but in this 15-year war the deaths of US soldiers were relatively few and far between, so the inhuman sentiment continued to flourish.
Trump ratcheted it up, first with his violent rhetoric during his election campaign and more recently with comments such as his threat against North Korea of “fire and fury” and destruction “the likes of which the world has never seen”. While the mainstream capitalist media criticized these threats as being unpresidential, the immense human suffering Trump was threatening went without comment.
In addition, Trump’s campaign and his presence as president has further legitimized the general level of unfocused anger in US society. It has also brought narcissism out of the closet. If it’s okay for the president, it’s okay for his legion of supporters, and bear in mind that lack of empathy – caring about others – is an inherent part of narcissism.
This general level of lack of empathy, distrust and unfocused aggression and violent undertones in US society has led to increased alienation and actual loneliness. One study found that 72% of Americans experience loneliness, many on a regular basis. Another study found that the average American spends less than 24 hours per year participating in social events.
Finally, added into these anti-social attitudes, is the obsession with guns. In part this stems from the traditions established by the Westward expansion of early US capitalism, including its mass slaughter of the Native Americans. It also serves as a substitute for courage on the part of gun-obsessed workers, who tend to kiss up to the boss at work and then swagger around with their loaded guns off the job.
So, you have a volatile brew: Mass narcissism and repression of natural empathy, increased loneliness and alienation, legitimization of taking of human life, and a gun obsession. It’s inevitable that some will snap under these conditions. In fact, as long as the social pressures continue and as long as people continue to feel isolated and alienated, we can expect to see a further increase in this sort of violence.
This combination also sharply decreases a sense of solidarity within the working class, which thereby serves to make working class organizing more difficult. On the other hand, the lack of a working class movement helps strengthen the feelings of isolation and alienation. The United States is not alone in this turmoil. What is the difference between these random and often mass shootings and the violence unleashed by the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, or that unleashed by the Buddhist hierarchy against the Rohingya in Myanmar?
This is what capitalism has to offer – social chaos.
But we should not be overly obsessed with this phenomenon. People still reach out to complete strangers in a thousand little daily interactions. There is a heightened awareness of the injustices of “the system”. The support for socialism is at an all time high since the end of WW II. The contradiction between these developments – increased social awareness vs. increased isolation, violence, and legitimization of sociopathic behavior – cannot last forever. Something has to snap.