07/31/2012 08:59 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

Beyond the Evil of Mass Murder

According to George Will on This Week (7/22), echoing other writers over the weekend following the Aurora shooting, the shooter is simply evil. His actions lie outside of society. He even discredited in advance the sociologists who will try to explain them as socially motivated in some way, and therefore correctable, inviting a response from the real evil for conservatives: the government. Until something is testable, he urged, it exists in a vacuum.

It's interesting that he uttered these words before there was even the opportunity, by sociologists or investigative reporters, to search for links the accused shooter may have to the larger universe of social and political motives.

An editor at Reason magazine interviewed the day after the shooting by Liz Wahl of RT (7/20) knew already as well that the accused was merely an evil person acting alone, and government controls could have done nothing to prevent the atrocity. Hence we don't need any more gun control. Wahl kept citing the fact that mass shootings appear to be an epidemic here, where we have very weak gun control laws, and asked him why it wouldn't be wise to at least make it more difficult for potential perps to get weapons, especially the assault variety and the extras that are hardly necessary for the monthly deer hunt. He could only keep repeating, however, that violent crime is down and therefore government will only make matters worse if it interferes with the right of citizens to purchase weapons, especially since the bad guys will always get them anyway.

Unfortunately they were talking apples and oranges; mass killings versus mere acts of violence. The former have increased, suggesting, as Wahl did, that we've passed beyond evil, a moral problem, to a social one. If so, wouldn't it be wise to shape -- socialize! -- different mentalities and possibly prevent the next mass killing, so that we don't have to unwrap the same ole sappy script again and apologize to victims? We wouldn't even have to embrace the strict European model all in one swoop, merely begin to approach the problem more pragmatically, in a way suggested by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Has fundamentalist mystification found such a sinecure in our society that all things are either/or?

Even our supreme commander of the most reasonable rhetoric echoes these sentiments. He performed his role well as assuager-in-chief to victims, as he should, though how different his tack from the 2008 campaign offering! Now all we need is to enforce laws already on the books and be the most warm-hearted, peace-loving people that we always knew we were.

The problem is that once we're captured by the discourse of evil, a debate can't get started. Lone, evil gunmen never have big coherent motives, or a politics. They always act through dark distorted glasses outside of society's values or somebody's box.

Why do we have more evil people than places that limit access to weapons? We also have so many more people behind bars than other advanced -- and some not so advanced -- industrial countries. Does this jive with President Obama's claims? How can a society that is inherently peaceful have so many violent people hidden away, or on their way to the Big House? Are we becoming less civilized? Can we accept this level of barbarity, merely ignore or deny it, and still be exceptional, be all we can be? How many criminal actions need to accumulate to produce a criminal society?

If so many perps are fitting this profile, there might be a pattern. If the sociologists can't find if they belong to the same political party, or voted in similar ways in elections, or were involved at some point in the same or similar organizations, then so be it. Most Americans are not political anyway, but ratifiers of choices made by politicians. Extreme alienation is often expressed through violent or irrational outbursts with no apparent politics attached.

How are seemingly normal persons transformed into evil people? Perps always seem to start out as the boy next door before wacking the neighbors. When they blow away unknown or innocent people we're definitely in another universe. A quite common spectacle of a crime in L.A. is the male, frustrated due to some reversal, often job-related, who wipes out his family before doing in himself. Media interviews almost universally attest to the perps' normality. Did society urge them to do their deeds? Is the lab of everyday life producing perverse Pavlovian circuits that confuse normality with abnormality, good with evil, turning them into extreme evildoers?

There are the hyper-violent movies of course, always on the short list for cultural conservatives, that supposedly encourage the same in viewers, but the second amendment purism that they also surely embrace likely dwarfs this concern.

Copycatting, while too simple on its face, has been shown to be a factor in these mass killings. Copying inevitably forces perps out into the world where they learn to model the images and behaviors of others. And they can be voracious consumers of media, as we've also seen. Perhaps Mr. Will should have given the Batman scholars a chance to get back from sabbatical and weigh in before speaking. Or consulted -- government funded! -- studies on the twisted sentiments that stew around in pop culture and can impact behavior. If a discussion could at least get started, and the validity of thinking about how actions can be influenced by media and external influences accepted, policies in sync with conservative thinking could be crafted that produce results, i.e. make progress in reducing deaths!

Conservatives tout a rational free will outside of influence, and say they like to let things just happen freely, but this platitude often clashes with their control of behavior through private or public means. Rick Santorum offered examples aplenty in the Primary. There wouldn't have to be a takeover of Hollywood. But if this epidemic of mass violence is being conditioned by something in society, it makes sense that something can be done about it within society.

Evil doesn't surface packaged whole. It gets stoked by marketers who deliver violent anti-social sensations to audiences who learn to gorge on them. This fascination is a social fact. The media thrives on killing, but especially serial killings. Their motiveless and random nature engages consumers. Criminal minds that enact epic blowaways play with orgasm to get ratings.

It's impossible to ignore how the uncompromising, take-no-hostages political climate on the right, and the rhetorical incitement to reload, have at least amplified the aggression at large. And all of that is surely symptomatic of something amiss in society, a breakdown of civility certainly, a ravaging of the social fabric by those with only their own interests in mind absolutely, the emergence of a fundamentalist groupthink that kowtows to all-or-nothing abstractions, commandments that can't be violated: me and my guns are always first, the free market and filter-down mechanisms are greater than the god that gave them to us, government is the consummate evil.

The reverence for the right to buy and bear arms is such a firm priority that moral concern and responsibility for the victims of gunfire, whether individuals or a mass, is neutralized. Nothing can or should be done about them. These bearers are like religious fanatics with monstrous superegos whose conforming mindsets demand total obedience.

The reverence for the idea that one should buy one's own health insurance in the private system is so strong that its supporters lack remorse for those who die because they can't afford it. At a Primary rally Rick Perry asked the audience if those who lacked health insurance and had a terminal disease should be given free care or allowed to die. The crowd quickly affirmed the latter.

America has become a killing machine that appears to be outside of society; beyond critique. We accept unchallengeable abstractions, fictions, and look the other way as more die. Our wars have killed thousands and thousands of innocent civilians in distant lands, way beyond our fields and visual frames of reference. Drones drift into errant space and wipe out more untargeted innocents. But we barely flinch. We shock-and-awe em with techno-death and leave diplomacy to others. We unleash vigilantes in our streets to stand their ground against the unarmed victims of policies that themselves are killing people.

Like healthcare. Alan Grayson, representative from Florida, lost reelection in 2010 for saying that our healthcare policies, or lack of, were sentencing thousands and thousands of citizens, predominantly low income, to an early grave. This is the main reason, according to a recent study, why Americans are not living as long as they used to. Our longevity rate has slipped to 29th in the world.

Have the effects of our killing machine loosened moral restraints over time? More and more are copycatting what so many others have done, and getting reinforcement from official actions and cultural messages, seeing nothing wrong with staging for real the blow-em-away special effects from their favorite movie. They seem to express an angst that's harmlessly apolitical, merely evil. But it doesn't seem that they know how to articulate what's wrong; the malaise that's eating away at so many.

This can be socially meaningful, however. Good citizens are crying out for guidance in an imploding empire where things no longer seem to make sense. The more that confusion circulates, the more receptive citizens are to quick fixes. Victims of violence and confusion pass it all on to others, as we've learned, increasing the chance that evil can erupt through the actions of "normal" beings.

Obama reenacts confusion and disconnection through rhetoric that widely diverges from actual actions and policies that kill and maim. It was interesting very recently when he visited the site of the Colorado wildfires, expressing commendable sympathy for those who lost their homes in that tragedy. But he's never once visited sites where the foreclosure wildfires continue unabated, taking homes from millions and millions of innocent victims, burning up their dreams and leading some to their deaths, others to a living death. This is more than enough to make them seek happiness through a warm gun.

The moral lesson from this seems to be that we can't buck the abstraction of economic self-correction; we must let the banks become robo-enforcers to ward off some greater evil!
To understand the horror of these mass killings, and work toward preventing them in the future, we need to get beyond the limiting notion of evildoers and grasp how our society produces them. This will necessarily involve rooting out the killing machine.

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