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The Peace that Passeth All Understanding


When he was born, his mama said,

“The moon turned black, and the clock stopped dead.

Lord, have mercy,” she said, “what have I done?

Is my flesh and blood the Devil’s son?”

The Stone Coyotes: “Powder Keg,” by Barbara Keith

In director Lynne Ramsay’s (2011) We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film about a mother’s grief and shame after her son’s act of mass violence, her son gives us the motivation for what he will eventually perpetrate in the locked-down gym of a high-school pep rally: “It’s like this: You wake up, and you watch T.V. You get in your car and you listen to the radio. You go to your little job, or your little school. You’re not going to hear about that on the six o’clock news. Why? Because nothing is really happening. You go home and you watch TV. And maybe, on Friday, the fun night, you go out and watch a movie. It’s gotten so bad that the people on TV, inside the TV, they’re watching TV. What are all the people watching? People like me. What are all you doing right now, but watching me. You don’t think they would’ve changed the channel by now if all I do is get an A in geometry?” Yes, Lynne Ramsay was also the director of the 2017 You Were Never Really Here, and yes, she does have the pulse on a nasty vein of America’s bloodiness. But no, Kevin is not about firearms; this cold killer is a precision archer.

I initially wrote this essay for the website of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science in the wake of the tragedy at Newtown, after the horrific slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. It just doesn’t stop. The national conversation seems to flare up the most with school shootings, from Columbine, Colorado in 1999 to Parkland, Florida in February of 2018. When student survivors of the latter began a campaign of social activism, it appeared, for a few news cycles, like

things might be different this time. I’m not sanguine. We live in one of the most violent societies in the world, and Americans own 46% of the 857 million civilian-owned firearms in the world, despite making up only 4% of the world’s population. We own more guns than there are citizens, an estimated 120 guns for every 100 residents. The second highest is war-torn Yemen, with 53 per 100.

My wife and I recently visited her best friend, now a surgical resident at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. The UMC treated 104 of the 851 injured and 58 killed by a shooter firing 1,100 rounds of ammunition, in about 10 minutes, from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino, 450 meters into a music festival crowd of about 22,000. This was the deadliest shooting which ever occurred in the US, over the 49 killed in the Orlando Nightclub shooting of 2016. Please let us not call this a “record” shooting as records are made to be broken. We are so inured to such events that one wonders when they will cease to even be news. Except to the grieving families of the innocent victims, the captive audience to a frighteningly real-life event. The Las Vegas murderer had over 20 firearms, including 14 AR-15s, equipped with “bump stocks” allowing 100-round magazines to be fired at the same rate as fully automatic weapons. Even gun enthusiasts, steeped in regional gun cultures, warn that such firearms have no purpose other than to kill human beings at devastating effect. The wounds produced by the force of even .223 caliber bullets, not much larger than your grandfather’s .22, are devastating, gaping, and bone-shattering. They are also incredibly accurate, as I learned when I fired one, repeatedly hitting a small metal disk a hundred yards into the wooded area around a friends cabin, on a “guys weekend.” There is no good reason why such weapons should be owned by civilians. And I don’t want to hear the argument about their hypothetical need in some future armed insurrection; almost no one thinks fully automatic weapons should be legal. Let’s not start talking about Abrams tanks, long-distance artillery, or nuclear weapons. Or, for that matter, personnel with military training, who are discharged from the military with horribly insufficient training in how to live in a civil society which isn’t (yet) a war zone.

Thousands of people walked from Circus Circus, down the Las Vegas strip to Mandalay Bay, in memorial to the victims, Even our president came to visit some of the survivors. My wife’s bestie, the surgeon, remembered when she and some colleagues were overheard talking about the shooting at an area restaurant, and were not allowed to pay for their meals. We heard a story about a military guy, attending the concert with his girlfriend, who hot-wired someone’s truck, and brought several victims to the ER who would likely not otherwise have survived. This was the first time our young physician friend had actually seen military-level triage: A black card means there is nothing that can be done for you, you are going to die. I don’t want to imagine being in the ward full of these. A green card means that, regardless of the level of your damage and the amount of pain, you are not at immediate risk. A red card means help this victim immediately, as their trauma may be prevented from leading to their death. Pretty stark. My wife’s friend, the surgeon, was clearly traumatized by this event. The psychiatrist gave her an approval to return to work, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t changed by this, or by her immersion in the world of the ER, where many of the people she serves are there because of their own bad judgements, or, for that matter, simply from living in Sin City. One of her current crusades is to make sure schools and other institutions have wound-packing kits. You don’t put pressure on a bleeding bullet wound if you want the bleeding to stop, you need to pack the wound, preferably with fabric. I do not know why we need to understand this, but we do.

Deathly violence is made too easy and too deadly with firearms. I have no doubt but that there should be some rational course, which does not infringe on our second amendment right to keep and bear arms, but nevertheless makes less likely the kind of tragic slaughter of innocents we saw happen at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or Parkland, or the Orlando nightclub, or under the 32nd story of Mandalay Bay. Nevertheless, I do not think that either draconian restrictions on firearms or a radical recasting of our mental health awareness are realistic or probable, and given the greater likelihood of inflaming both the fears of some people terrified by the danger to the innocent and the fears of other people of oppressive restrictions to their liberties, my own fear is that we will engage in the neurotic “security operations” that give us an illusion of security, but change little. Mass shootings are invariably followed by increases in the sale of firearms, and stock prices rise for weapons manufacturers, because of the fear of gun restrictions. In more rational societies like Australia, restrictions immediately following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, produced a major drop in shooting deaths.

In this light, in our culture of cantankerous opposition for its own sake (often seriously exacerbated by the “information bubbles” in which our communicational technologies allow us to reside …witness the befuddled response of Fox News to Obama’s election, or the controversies about “fake news,” on both sides, in the social-media saturated election of 2016), it is troubling that there really is evidence for a link between anxiety proneness and political beliefs. Douglas Oxley and his colleagues (2008, in Science 321:1667-1670) identified two groups of people with opposite political views. One group favored the death penalty, efforts to block immigration, and availability of firearms. A second group showed weak support for the military and otherwise the opposite views to the first. Oxley and colleagues measured startle responses to loud noise. The first group showed greater startle and slower habituation. Do people responding more strongly to fear stimuli see the world as a more dangerous place? (The data are, of course, correlational, not causal, so it could be the other way around.) People conditioned in environments that are more dangerous, or that include more fear and threat, tend to also have political views supporting a strong military, strong law-enforcement, and the ownership of firearms. In general, appraisal of hostile intent magnifies anger, and discomfort tends to magnify aggressive behavior. Even worse, Terror Management Theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pycszcynski) accurately predicts that when people are subjected to a “mortality salience manipulation” (anything that reminds them of death, from being interviewed in front of a funeral parlor, to watching war footage) they tend to be even more defensive and less likely to think critically, especially about deeply held beliefs, and this to the point of violently defending them. 9/11 was, in some ways, a massive mortality salience manipulation. So is news about mass killings, particularly in places we normally expect to be safe. And as John Gottman’s (1993) research on marital couples in distress shows, once our level of arousal gets too high (say, a pulse rate of ten beats per minute above baseline), we are substantially less likely to come up with creative solutions to problems, and will continue to repeat the same arguments.

Let’s at least dispatch a few of the myths. James Alan Fox, professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University exposed these in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

1). Mass shootings are not on the rise, but have averaged about 20 a year for the last three decades; what has changed is the style and pervasiveness of news-media coverage.

2). Mass murderers do not snap and kill indiscriminately, but tend to plan their assaults for days or weeks, and are both deliberate, methodical, and determined. The Mandalay Bay shooter also researched a Lallapalooza concert outside of Chicago. After weeks of research, he brought his weapons into Mandalay Bay over a series of days, with the help of hotel personnel.

3.) Enhanced background checks would do little to stop them, as most do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization. The Mandalay Bay shooter, while a bit of a drinker, had no history but that of parking tickets, and kept pretty much to himself. Most of the other high-roller poker players didn’t know him as most of his gambling was done on video poker (though his father was a bank robber on the FBI most-wanted list). Bureau of Justice statistics show that most criminals do not buy guns at gun shows; 79% of prison inmates who used firearms obtained them illegally or from friends or relatives.

4). Most mass shootings are done with firearms that would not be restricted by “assault weapons” bans, and even weapons that look like assault weapons are not automatic, despite their cosmetic appeal. Still, yes, a restriction on clip size might force reloading. 14 AR-15s, with “bump stocks” and 100 round magazines shouldn’t be in civilian possession.

5). There are not really “telltale warning signs” that allow identification ahead of time. Features common to mass killers, like depression, resentment, social isolation, externalization of blame, fascination with violence, and interest in weaponry are, unfortunately, fairly prevalent.

6). Widening the availability of mental health services and reducing the stigma of mental illness would likely do little. Mass shooters tend to externalize blame, see themselves as victims, and would tend to resist encouragement to seek help. Calling them “wackos,” or “sickos” doesn’t exactly help.

7). Increased security tends only to serve as an inconvenience for the determined, excessive security serves as a constant reminder of danger and vulnerability, particularly troublesome in environments where trust and nurturance are important parts of institutional process.

8). Expanding “right to carry” laws are likely to produce a lot of collateral damage, as citizens without stress-training are likely to be surprised and frantic, making more errors than those of prepared killers.

James Fox points out that while sensible laws about the arms we bear (upon which polarized positions would have to agree), affordable mental-health care (an oddity to the poor and disenfranchised in any case), and reasonable security measures might enhance the well-being of millions, it won’t take much of a bite out of mass-murder. Yes, there are low homicide rates in countries with stricter restrictions on firearms; what of the low homicide rates in countries where every able-bodied male of military age owns an automatic military-style assault rifle, like Switzerland? Switzerland, Israel, and Norway all have high rates of ownership but low rates of homicide; Holland, Sweden, Denmark, and Russia have the opposite problem. So it is more complicated. Evidence like that of Australia does show that federal legislation can have major effects. Yes, the ready availability of guns can make homicidal violence more likely. But gun ownership by law abiding citizens is, remember, constitutionally protected, and not only is hunting a part of our culture, but target shooting is both respectable and, it turns out, the only sport next to bowling in which girls and boys compete on equal footing.

Even further, there are dangers from which we have every right to protect ourselves and those we love. I think it was during the 1990’s that the statistical likelihood of being the victim of violent crime exceeded the likelihood of being in an automobile accident. Call for a pizza, call the police, and see who gets there first. I’m sorry, I became a gun owner not long after I witnessed two urban teenagers rob a pizza delivery man, with a small revolver, from a distance of less than ten yards away, while holding my infant son in my arms. We soon moved to the suburbs, but it was a few years before a student convinced me that my owning guns in an otherwise safe neighborhood put a common good at risk. So I sold them. Before we got married, I bought a five-shot polymer frame revolver for the woman who would later become my wife,. She was then living in the neighborhood of a college campus where a colleague had been mugged on a weekday summer afternoon. When I took her shooting, she was surprised that “fire came out of the end.” Of course, the first pistol I purchased looked just like one used by Jean Claude Van Damme, the “Muscles from Brussels,” not the first bodybuilder turned “action hero.”

So what should we be talking about? How about the glorification of violence in our culture, especially that involving firearms? The American obsession with firearms has a long history, from the flintlocks of our colonial forebears, through cowboy six-shooters, to the automatic and semi-automatic weapons of modern warfare. It’s not just about weapons technology, of course, but violence as entertainment. We live in a culture that values and seeks excitement and arousal, like amusement park rides, and the depiction of violence on television and in films is one of the most straightforward ways to produce it. I got a lesson in realism from a college chum from the steel producing Region of northern Indiana, when he told me he could no longer watch fisticuffs on television because the only time he’d heard a real life sound like the sound effect of a punch to the head was when someone’s head was being stoved in. We’ve been watching the choreography of violence made slow-motion beautiful since Peckinpah’s Bonnie and Clyde, and even as recently as the newest Sherlock Holmes. The good guys kill the bad guys, often with efficient dispatch. The newest James Bond is nothing short of brutal. I won’t even talk about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I find it deeply troubling that showing the humorous, Broadway style “penis song” from The Sweetest Thing can still occasionally offend a college coed nonplussed by watching the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, death in the air on Omaha Beach, young men with missing limbs screaming for their mothers as they die.

Computerized video games are also increasingly violent and increasingly engaging. I frankly got bored one night watching two college students play Black Ops, as it seemed to simply involve addictive shooting after shooting after shooting, from the first person perspective. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Grossman’s On Killing points out that it is only realistic stress-training, and sprayed fire that increased the number of combatants who kill in modern warfare; a sizeable proportion of the muskets found on the Gettysburg battlefield were unfired, loaded with one minie-ball on top of another. First-person shooter combat video games are training a generation of male youth the deadly skills of using assault weapons to kill. Worse is our training of soldiers, with little self-identity other than basement warriors, to kill in Iraq or Afghanistan, and then dumping them back on our streets with a few days of debriefing (cf. David Philipps’ Lethal Warriors). We are going to be paying this terrible debt for a generation.

I’ve published scholarly work in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science about toxic levels of individuality, social fragmentation, loss of social capital, living alone, and increases in anxiety in our society. David Baron-Cohen warns us, in The Science of Evil, that it is the failure to empathize with the pain of victims that leads to genuine pathology. You want to abstract out all empathy cues? Eliminate the facial engagement of shared emotion, and communicate entirely by email, text, or twitter and then wonder why you feel lonely and alienated. Not only is it not uncommon for recent mass shooters to have been videogame aficionados, but it is the isolation and separation of an electronic world of which they are the most prominent victims; that this is occasionally acted out is collateral damage. I’m reminded of an alumna who was a career counselor at an engineering school who reported about students who couldn’t bear the vulnerability and exposure of a face-to-face job interview. Interesting that contemporary neuroscience shows the emotional pain of social rejection being mediated by the same neurophysiology as physical pain.

How do we heal? We first need to accept our fears, and our grief, and acknowledge them. Then we can start thinking more seriously about programs like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, or the much simpler and plainer reconciliations and forgiveness of an Amish community, as they reached out to the family of the killer of their children at Nickel Mines, as documented by my colleague Don Kraybill in Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (2007). Remember the heroes who stood in harm’s way, and gave their lives for those they loved, the heroic teachers and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Think of the tragedy of the smile that lights up your world, lost forever, which is no less tragic for the mothers, the families, of the lost souls who were drawn to such acts of violence. Have compassion. Talk to each other. Turn off the TV, or the computer, or the XBox, and try playing some games which require you to have face-to-face interaction with other human beings. Have fun. Laugh. Pay attention to what you do in the video games you play, and from what your catharsis and identification come when you watch a movie. Are those the skills you want to be learning, or the feelings you want to nurture? You need have no instrumental purpose whatsoever simply to treat people as something other than parts of the machinery, or as virtual avatars, but as ends in themselves. Go out, see people, join with others; they may make you feel more vulnerable and exposed, but love always involves risking part of yourself. Danger and delight grow on the same stalk.

Copyright 2018: John A. Teske