The Enemy Within

By William Dowell,
January 2013
(This article originally appeared in
The Essential Edge)

Feeling the heat

During much of the Cold War, Americans thought of  Communism as the major threat to national security. After 9/11, it was Al Qaeda. Today, it is beginning to look as though an even greater threat, in terms of actual casualties, is coming from an uncontrolled  proliferation of assault weapons prepared to spread mayhem. On the average, more than 30,000 Americans die each year from gunshot wounds, roughly ten times more than those killed in the World Trade Center attack. Another 75,000 Americans areseriously wounded.

More Americans are being shot to death on American soil than died in Iraq, Afghanistan, or for that matter on any foreign battlefield. We are clearly doing more death and destruction to ourselves than any Middle Eastern extremist ever hoped to accomplish. Yet Washington remains powerless to stop the mayhem. In the current political climate, it is hard not to blame intimidation from the National Rifle Association and  ultra-conservative elements in the US Congress for the fact that the United States now counts nearly as many guns as people. An otherwise sane society has apparently put itself in harms waybecause of a mythical wild west notion that guns somehow promise safety.

The crazed murder of 20 primary school children in Newtown, Connecticut, and six of their teachers, by a 20-year old, who opened fire on his own mother first, is only one example of the insanity that is becoming increasingly common in the US.  Hours before Adam Lanza launched his shooting spree, police picked up an 18-year old student in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, who was planning to lure high schoolers into an auditorium in order to shoot as many as possible. 

The suspect, arrested when he tried to recruit other students, had previously been studying records of a similar assault against a high school in Columbine, Colorado.  The suspect allegedly planned to put explosives next to the auditorium doors to kill police when they tried to intervene.  He was turned into police by other students whom he had tried to recruit and threatened to kill if they didn't join him.  

The Bushmaster 223 assault rifle used in the
Newtown massacre

Less than a day after the Newtown massacre, police arrested a 60-year old man in Cedar Lake, Indiana, about 45 miles from Chicago.  The man had allegedly threatened to set fire to his wife and then launch an armed assault against a nearby elementary school.  When police searched the man's house, they found 47 guns and $100,000 worth of ammunition.  Obviously there is no geographic limit on this kind of thing. Would-be assassins can go on a rampage anywhere; as Anders Behring Breivik did when he killed 77 people in Norway.  What is different in America is not only the easy availability of guns but also a perverse fascination with what guns seem to represent.

The US is becoming  a society which spends more time these days immersed in virtual reality than it does with the real thing.  Much of contemporary virtual reality is made up of action films, TV serials and now computer games in which guns play a decisive role.  In fact, the real life that most  people actually live represents a  predictably tedious routine.   Far from a world of dramatic action, real life seems increasingly controlled by rules imposed by a social system that leaves little room for independent action.

Eric Fromm, a psychiatrist and author, pointed out in "Escape from Freedom,"that the attraction of films built around fictional super heroes is that they provide a cathartic emotional release from the sense that we have really lost control of our lives and that we cannot influence things around us.  Guns inevitably play a central role in empowering the individual to overcome the immediate fictional threat. It doesn't matter that hardly any of us will actually face that kind of threat in real life. it is the cathartic releasee that we get from imagining what would happen if we really did face the situation, and then seeing the problem instantly resolved that matters.

It is not hard to understand why children are fascinated by guns. Children sense that guns represent power at an age in which one feels especially vulnerable to the overwhelming power of adults.

The effect is exacerbated in America, which celebrates the frontier myth in which heroes, especially male ones, are supposed to be independent and courageous, but often cannot afford to be either--especially in a corporate dominated society in which the system usually wins.

If you take a few steps back and look at the message that comes through many Hollywood-style thriller movies, it is that the resolution of complex social issues usually leads to a  violent confrontation.  American pop culture, these days, shows little confidence in talk or understanding. 

As Hollywood portrays it, it is a cold world out there and whoever shoots first is likely to win.  In this scenario, there is myth of the gun. It is presented as a quick solution to one's problems, and one that leaves no room for argument.  The myth, as most soldiers who have been in combat know, is false. Guns rarely resolve anything in  a clean manner. 

But the gun lobby in the US isn't looking at a world that is real. It is instead living in a fantasy dream world in which the  gun is seen as empowering.  Normal people don't really think about guns that much.  But for those individuals who feel that society has somehow pass them by or cheated them, or simply disempowered, the gun seems to promise power.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who provided seminal insights into the Holocaust as well as the effects of war, fascism and  terrorism,  noted that many "true believers" who attach themselves to mass movements are "masochistic' personalities who suffer from  personal feelings of inferiority and insecurity.  These people derive a sense of power by attaching themselves to a movement or a person whom they feel has the power and validity that they lack themselves. 

Lifton also concluded that a perverse psychological reaction that emerges from combat is that seeing someone else die seems to create a reaffirmation of one's own sense of invincibility, especially in  traumatic situations that seem to push everything to the extreme.  Lifton suspected that this might be one of the emotional patterns that drives massacres during and after battles, that leads hopped up  terrorists to kill their hostages or in a final reductio ad absurdum leads to ethnic cleansing or Nazi-style death camps.

In situations such as the Newtown shooting or Columbine, there seems little doubt that a combination of social frustrations, an intense  desire to escape personal anonymity and an inability to exert power over one's own life are driving factors. 

As part of a group reporting project after Columbine, I scanned a number of teen-age chat groups on the Internet to sense their take on the situation.   I was surprised to find that a certain segment not only identified with the troubled kids who had shot their fellow students in cold blood, but also approved of the tactic.  "Finally, the bastards will notice us," one teen-ager wrote. 

The most obviously disturbed kids referred to themselves as "piss-ants." The underlying motive  was clearly a call by those unable to communicate to get others to listen. Extreme violence and public horror had become in the end the only way these individuals could see in the end to get the outside world to react and for a few brief moments to achieve personal existence.

The obvious approach to countering this aspect of the problem is  to invest  in public mental healthcare.  Ironically, just before the shooting, the American Association of Psychiatry had redefined Asperger's syndrome to be at the more functional end of the spectrum of autism.  The new definition makes it more difficult for parents of disturbed children to get meaningful help in a society that is already stressed to the limits.

But what is happening in America  cuts deeper than that.  Underlying our inability to deal rationally with the obvious is a readiness to exploit these psychological issues for political and financial profit.  Hollywood and the video game companies know that life is nothing like the scenarios of Comic book action heroes portrayed in Batman, James Bond or Mission Impossible films, but the cathartic effect of these films is presented as "good, clean fun" that happens to make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.  What is not considered here is the values that these films, and even more, video games, especially war and combat games, actually promote.

The bottom line here is is how we are being trained to think about complex social situations. Do we talk and listen to the other? Or do we blow him away because he is probably beyond redemption anyway? Are assassination and torture justified?  Everyone knows that the situations in the former TV series, "24" were completely unrealistic and in no way reflected real life, and yet the US Army discovered that young officers were beginning to pattern their own behavior after different aspects of the series.  When the TV series, Miami Vice was considered particularly hot, actual police in Miami began mimicking the show's style.

It's natural that to intensify the drama,  Hollywood accentuates the evil of its villains to justify eventually blowing them away. These villains have no redeeming features and the reasons for simply eliminating them are obvious, but is the way life really works? Is it successful for human relations?  Moreover, are these really the American values that our forefathers fought for? 

In contrast to the struggle to establish civilization, many Americans today  increasingly trust machines over people, and violence over diplomacy. Just look at what is happening with drone assassinations in Afghanistan, or the increased funding to the Pentagon while funding to the State Department is quietly cut. 

The American vision of the world that encourages this does not come from Washington, or increasingly even from real experience. It most often comes from a tiny screen, whether on a TV or increasingly a laptop or iPad.  It is a tiny window on the reality inside the home. We need to ask ourselves whether the reality it projects is real.

The most egregiously corrupting influence here is to be found in politics, and particularly in a kind of mindless populism.  A particularly virulent form of political conservatism targets those segments of American society that feel they are losing out to globalization and shifts in the American economy which is progressively moving from a mindless factory  production model to one which requires greater education and greater personal effort. 

Back in the 1970s a poster on New York buses and subways showed a computer circuit board under a bold headline: "What will you do when this takes your job?"  Someone had scrawled on it: "Blow it up!"  Anguish accompanies change, and it is relatively easy for politicians to exploit that anguish to win votes.  They do this by appealing to a largely mythical past that never really existed but makes an appealing fantasy.   The effects are seen in the current US Congress where the majority consists largely of representatives of small town communities that these days have a pretty bleak picture of the future. 

For many of these people, guns represent personal power at a time when they sense they are really losing power and that the future is somehow beyond their control.   Like a pre-epidemic virus that hasn't reached critical mass yet, this kind of thing has always existed to some degree in the US. The two factors skewed the picture today are the National Rifle Association and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News.   Fox news  finds it enormously profitable to play to populist sentiments and in doing so it becomes a force multiplier of an extreme conservative vision of reality.

In this fantasy-prone climate, the National Rifle Association has become a political force unto itself.  Its sole purpose seems to be the glorification of the gun as the essence of America.  With an annual budget estimated at around $200 million, the NRA spends two thirds of its lobbying efforts on defeating any politician who tries to place even reasonable limits on guns or ammunition.  The remaining third is devoted to electing those politicians who see the ownership of guns as inviolable.  The NRA's lobbying efforts have been successful enough in the past to make most  politicians want to steer clear of it.  Even Barack Obama ducked the issue before the last election. He was more than aware that a careless remark might tip the scales in favor of his opponent who came out strongly in favor of hunting.

Where the NRA's argument seems to break down is on the issue of assault weapons. These are rifles that are designed with the express purpose of killing human beings in combat.  They have large magazines that carry enough armor-piercing bullets to execute a mass murder in seconds. 

There is no reason for anyone not in the military or police to own one of these weapons. They are virtually useless for hunting and when it comes to personal protection, they are overkill, unless one expects to have to personally take on a battalion of enemy troops. Yet the NRA seems to think that possession of these tools of mayhem is good, clean fun, little more than a noisy form of recreation.  In the wide-open climate fostered by the NRA, gun fairs offer fanatics a chance to fire automatic weapons just for the sensation of power that it gives.  Ammunition is sold openly over the internet and gun stores proliferate alongside tattoo parlors.

In the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, it now appears that the killer's mother, Nancy Lanza, also enjoyed the sense of power that a gun can provide. Friends say that she was vivacious and friendly, but after a divorce she also frequently seemed on the verge of losing it. 

She trained her shy, withdrawn son at local shooting ranges, and she kept Glock pistols and a Bushmaster 223 semi-automatic assault rifle at home "for protection." Protection against what was need clear.  In the end, her son used the rifle to kill her, and he then used it to kill 20 children ranging from five to six years old as well as their teachers who tried to save them. 

He didn't shoot these children just once. He fired anywhere from three to 11 times at each child individually.  Then he shot himself.  The killer would have been obliged to take driving lessons and obtain a license to drive a car. There was no such requirement to obtain a weapon designed expressly to kill.  The US Congress knows what needs to be done.  The question we should be asking ourselves today, is why it did not have the courage to do something about it.