By: Aryeh Schonbrun | Features  | 

The Insane Society: Why Mass Shootings Are No Mere Aberrations

Our society continues to reel from the onslaught of the vicious assaults on our defenseless and young, from the inhumanity of arbitrary acts of murder that cannot be accounted for by any traditional means. Psychologists fail to identify practical applications of therapy and diagnosis adapted to the era of the AR-15, and lawmakers fail to act on common sense. Our situation starkly contrasts with the peace and quiet promised to us by our authorities and strikes at the heart of our nation’s psyche. What has changed in us that has allowed such bloodshed and carnage to occur and reoccur, and what can be done to stop it?

In order to understand more fully the sociological context of these acts of mass slaughter, we must begin with a comprehensive examination of our society’s attributes, both positive and negative. In order to do so, I request of you an open mind and a willingness for self-critique. I don’t wish to blame ourselves, but we must know our shortcomings in order to fix our faults.

Bloodshed itself as a human phenomenon needs no explaining. Over the millennia, and over just the few centuries of this country, men have murdered, killed, plundered, maimed, destroyed, conquered and raped as a matter of course. The act of killing, as distant as it may now seem, does not require from us much reasoning. Humans, even upon accounting for all our progress and enlightened attributes, retain the legacy of eons of evolution. We as civilized citizens do not wish to focus on our animal-like instincts, but as we all know, they lie deeply rooted in our individual psyches, irascible and untamable in their base forms and only faintly sublimated through the labyrinthine structure of modern society. A quick glance at the third world would equally demonstrate to any observer that man was born to fight. Regardless of the serious questions surrounding our inaction as concerning the crime and poverty of our uncivilized brethren, and our apathy to their struggles, we must come to the realization that violence, as much as we fear it, finds a place in the pantheon of human emotion. It is a force we cannot erase or transmute; it must be reckoned with seriously and through sophisticated awareness of our societal ills.

As citizens of the West, we have become accustomed to lives of relative security. Longevity, once considered a divine gift, now appears to many as a scientifically and medically-backed right. Crime, drugs, lawlessness and even poverty can be avoided, as our prosperity gospel preaches, with just faith in the law, society, God and oneself. Responsibility and goodwill, as the individual’s obligation to himself, to society and to the Almighty, go hand-in-hand with the rewards of living in the modern haven of the post-industrial democracy. One need not dirty his hands in hard labor, as did his forefathers, nor need he independently pursue for himself education, occupation, family and society. He doesn’t have the urge to set out for undeveloped wilderness, nor the necessity to settle for a pauper’s lifestyle. With just a bit of talent, and some mazal, he’ll surely find his place in this vast American society.

Overall, the prosperity gospel doesn’t fail to bring its promised returns. Man (that is, Western Man) lives today better off than ever before in his tediously haunting history. Never before in the millennia of civilization and the eons of prehistory has man found himself in control of all the elements of nature, and with the power to indefinitely satisfy his physical needs. We cannot even begin to imagine how our forefathers fought just in order to survive, and we count our blessings for having been born to a technically-advanced society. However, as we all know, physical prowess does not make the whole of man. We lack some other basic necessities.

Spiritually, Western Man breathes his last breaths before falling into a love-deprived coma. We millennials, born to the most prosperous generation ever, have also entered this cruel world in its most backward and infantile stage of sociological development. We live our lives as servants to our desires, technology, jobs, identities and traumas, unable to withdraw from our worldly ties in order to contemplate the divine, the beautiful, the eternal and significant. We surround ourselves in artificial societies, disconnected from each other, while plugging ourselves in to unstable and insecure relationships. America is as prosperous as anyone would dare dream possible, but America is falling, and failing its citizens.

In America’s prosperous wonderland, we find harsh conditions of poverty, social neglect and inequitable social structure. America, the richest country in the world, also ranks high in crime, poverty and economic inequality. The America of old, of a strong middle class, of satisfied, happy industrial workers, has long gone and been replaced by elitist, bureaucratic misers, a broke and disaffected workforce and a debt crisis that has just begun to generate discomfort and disarray. Americans, overwhelmed by the increasingly cumbersome burden of indelible student debt, adding to already significant levels of credit and mortgages taken on in order to secure a modest lifestyle, have started to struggle to make ends meet, and have come to question the consequences of continued economic growth. As the average salaried American worker sees it, as the economy grows, life just goes on getting harder. As life goes on, it gets more difficult to live.

The renewed struggle for a decent wage and way of life, in contrast to the worker’s relative stability and vitality of the post-war economies of the West, has introduced into Western Man a struggle against the elements that had long been thought vanquished. After the spectacular disaster of two world wars, it appeared to the West that the time for violence and struggle came to an end. Equitable allocation of natural resources and comprehensive social reforms meant to reinforce the welfare state and workers’ faith in humanity came to represent not only prudent economic policy, but inspired and real social progress. Americans came to understand that true patriotism extends into the mundane existence back home, and started to deal with the inherent social ills present in their contemporary society. They fought for the freedom of the blacks, for positive social and economic change and for comprehensive security and prosperity of all citizens, no matter race, creed or ethnicity. A common destiny and shared identity formed, bred by the brotherhood of the military and by the unity imposed on a nation when under threat, and by a general goodwill promoted by all who desired the end of needless struggle.

Today, things have changed. No longer can we rely on society or on the government, and no longer do we feel connected as we once did. We have grown apart, both physically (suburbia) and socially, and nowadays screens, devices, illness and now existential fear separate us more. The demagoguery of identity politics, bolstered by an upsurge in cheap populism, reinforces in all citizens that the collective spirit that once defined Americans exists no more. We can’t even bemoan the loss of it anymore and no one can even seem to remember that things were different (and better) just a generation ago, before the politicians declared war on unity and began to divide us.

Today, each and every individual must strike forth for his or her self, and redeem themselves from the tedium of today’s post-capitalistic economic toil. If one finds a job that pays enough to satisfy his material needs, he has been elected by the market to succeed; if not, he has been predestined to a life of stress, fear and humiliation. American workers, in response to an increasingly unproductive way of life and unnecessary economic hardship, have distanced themselves from unions, thereby giving up their basic rights to demand their worth in salary and have grown disaffected, despaired of any progress of their interests and increasingly anxious regarding their future. Pensions have fallen significantly over the past few decades (thanks to ineffective bargaining power), salaries stagnate, benefits are cut, government handouts reduced, costs have risen and morale has flatlined. This sorry state of affairs exposes the reality of the average American citizen, and, to be sure, he feels it.

For the American worker, the inability to fend for himself, the outright subjugation of his economic viability to little-known and poorly understood market trends and the tremendous sterility with which one must navigate the unforgiving job market don’t lose their significance on his psyche. The not-knowing, the inability to rely on one’s stable employment and on one’s ability to weather the storms that reality delivers, the feeling of aloofness, the insidious loneliness and utter dependence on and subjugation to forces not in one’s control all contribute to the feelings of fear, alienation and paranoia that define an average citizen today. The worker, satisfied easily at the prospect of making a meager living, unable to demand any more of his bosses, must rely on the grace of god, i.e. the market, for his sustenance. Society, as we repeatedly witness, will offer him no respite nor grace. Society, in gross abundance of narcissistic entitlement has turned away from the lowly employee and has forsaken him to fate. With callous apathy, society looks on as Americans suffer in silence, unable to make ends meet and without just intervention. The middle-class withers away from lack of investment, and society pays no heed.

Many suffer from physical, mental and spiritual isolation, regarding themselves as unwanted by society’s exacting measurements of productive and beneficial. Some try to get help, but some eventually find themselves addicted not only to their phones, but also to a myriad of drugs, meant to compensate for their mental anguish. Some get treatment, but treatment has never been known to provide sustenance. Their pain remains real, materially and spiritually piercing, but no one arrives to help them out.

And so, the average American suffers in silence, robbed not only of the fruit of his labor, but of the natural relationships that contribute to his sense of belonging, identity and self-value. Bereft of a society that cares for its weak, its downtrodden and its dejected, the American turns away and recuses himself, to the blinding screens and artificial constructs of his disturbing reality. In disbelief and frustration, humbled and sad, he suffers alone, unable even to commiserate with his fellow rejects.

Society, as I have demonstrated, doesn’t give a hoot. She shows a lack of compassion unequaled to in the Western world, an internalized xenophobia that alienates all who wish to contribute and become part of a collective vision, a shared identity. Society, robbed of her humanity, fails to unite men together and ceases to exist. Society, as we have come to expect, cannot last much longer: she will fall apart spectacularly.

When society disintegrates, as a result of lack of economic and social investment in her upkeep, anarchy reigns supreme, and average citizens become targets of arbitrary acts of violence. The fabric of society, as a uniting, organizing force for good, cannot function without ample support. Upon the gutting of the common identity of the nation and her social capital in favor of irrational, cruel and cold egotism, society fails and disappears.

When a cold-hearted killer approaches his victims, he cannot empathize with them. They are nothing to him. If he were to see them as living, beautiful beings, he would not dare harm them. When an attacker prepares himself, he cannot allow himself to see the good and the humanity in his victims, else he would surely commit himself to repentance and forego his evil intent. However, when society does not offer him the option of seeing men as men, when we may only regard human personnel as an economic “resource” (i.e. “human capital”), she dehumanizes the character of the strangers in his life, and he fails to empathize with his compatriots. The privatization and individuation of society, taken to such an extreme, must surely give way to cruel, baseless violence, and I fail to feel surprised when time and again such tragedies occur. The same society responsible for her failure to care for her weak and struggling, her subjugated and impoverished, who casually dismisses claims of justice and humanity as “irresponsible” or “unscientific,” will surely find herself reeling from such self-inflicted violence. A human, once degraded, becomes a threat, even more so with an AR-15.

I do not wish to excuse the actions of the sociopaths who decided to commit these horrendous acts of utter violence, but I do want to point out our mistake when assigning blame. We tend to blame the authorities, politicians, gun-makers, god, etc., but we shy away from blaming ourselves. If we are society, we, then, are to blame. If we yet retain some say in the direction of our politics, we must act to save this country. However, it will take more than a ban on assault weapons, or increased mental health funding. In order to make a difference, we need to stand up for justice, demand change and progress, equity and equality and continue to pray for salvation.

רבי חנינה סגן הכוהנים אומר: הווה מתפלל בשלומה של מלכות, שאלמלא מוראה, איש את רעהו חיים בלעו
(אבות ג,ב)

“Rabbi Chanina, the Deputy High Priest, says: Pray for the welfare of the government, since without reverence for of it, man would swallow his fellow alive.” (Avot 3:2)