This is the final post in a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.
In setting out to prevent mass murder as much as humanly possible you have learned a great deal. Most of what you learned will do nothing to keep anyone from being killed, at least for a long while, but you no longer feel confused. It is understandable that people attribute motive to all kinds of things, including mediums of entertainment, and particularly to mediums that feature violence. It is also true that violent entertainment — along with every other aspect of life — may, in some instances, be a contributing factor in murderous mayhem, but it’s equally clear that there will never be any methodology by which such eventualities can be predicted. Even banning the most violent mediums would do nothing to prevent acts of violence from happening because acts of violence have been a part of human history since long before the invention of entertainment technology.
One thing you are convinced of, which you did not believe before, is that stories do play a big part in violence — but not the fictional kind that people usually blame. Narratives are always hard at work in life, including when people go berserk and start killing, but the most dangerous stories do not come from mediums of entertainment, they come from the omnipresent tension between society and the individual mind. They are persistent fictions that people believe in all the time, not just when the telly is on for a couple of hours or a game is played or a movie is streamed. They are beliefs that may even have no basis in reality, yet people are nonetheless convinced those beliefs not only explain how the world works, they unfailingly reveal how the world should be.
One of the most corrosive of these cultural narratives, by far, is the false belief — the protective fiction, endlessly reinforced by the profit-driven press — that we can ever truly know the motive behind any act of madness. Not only does this widely held mistaken belief lead to waste as everyone tries to assign and avoid blame after an act of madness, it perpetuates the false hope that understanding motive in one instance will enable us to predict and prevent acts of violence in the future. Worse, by pretending that the divination of motive can save lives, the real-world benefits of limiting access to the means of violence go largely unreported, and those who might otherwise consider such options remain perpetually misled about the viability of the choices before them.
The Free Press and Real-World Violence
As if on cue, while you are trying to glean some way to keep people safe, another multiple murder takes place, launching a predictable feeding frenzy in the press. Before you look at a single report you know what you’ll find, and when you choose a link at random you are not disappointed. Given that the killer turned himself in, all that’s left is to get on with the literal business of pimping the question of motive in the hope that it will lead to more revenue in the next quarterly report:
Was it a dispute over a parking space or something more sinister that prompted the shooting death of three students in an apartment near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus?
Even if you digest the whole column in minute detail you know the question will never be answered to a certainty because it cannot be answered to a certainty. That is, in fact, the whole point of dangling it before a traumatized nation. Nauseated, you nonetheless press on and learn that in only a matter of hours the soon-to-be-ex-wife of the killer and her attorney proposed their own answer to the motive question, which the press dutifully puts in play:
“This incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith, but in fact was related to the longstanding parking disputes that my husband had with the neighbors,” Karen Hicks said.
Karen Hicks was in the process of getting a divorce from her husband. And Rob Maitland, her attorney, said the shooting “highlights the importance of access to mental health care services.”
He declined to provide any details about the suspect’s mental health history, but said, “obviously it’s not within the range of normal behavior for someone to shoot three people over parking issues.”
In characterizing the murder of three human beings as a tautological banality the mental health industry again takes the rap because a person would of course have to be crazy to do something like that. What’s left unsaid is that all across America, if not the world, enraged people are storming around with loaded guns in their hands, shrieking about the injustice of it all, yet because they have not pulled the trigger everything is assumed to be perfectly fine. No matter how unstable those people are, no matter how they would fare if subjected to a battery of psychiatric tests, they are still sane because it’s only those people who act on their derangement that the mental health industry should be able to single out beforehand using methodologies that are never actually specified.
As you finish the article you know there’s nothing you can do to change the press, but you also know you don’t have to participate in the exploitation of innocent victims for profit. When you watch the news or pay attention to such abusive practices you are part of the problem in the same way that you are part of the problem if you buy sweat-shop goods or traffic in ivory. If you want to change the world then you have to change yourself as well, and as an individual that means refusing to give news organizations your attention when they’re celebrating and selling murder. Turn the channel, give thanks that you’re okay, and try to remember those who died. Converting killers into celebrities and victims into page views is an ugly business, and nothing you condone.
Mental Health and Real-World Violence
Thinking about the killings you are once again reminded why the police are becoming more hysterical, using increasingly aggressive means to take down even the most physically timid suspects before those suspects have the chance to reach for a legally acquired semi-automatic weapon capable of firing fifteen bullets. If the only distinction between a law-abiding citizen and a mental patient is the moment in which they do or do not decide to go berserk, and in your line of work you regularly deal with agitated people, at some point it’s going to occur to you that waiting to see what those people do is a bad idea.
And yet, as you mull it all over, you realize there may be a glimmer of hope. You know that blaming the mental health industry for failing to prevent acts of violence is an ugly dodge put forward by people trying to deny their own complicity. It’s also an extremely easy target in the United States, where mental health services have largely been abandoned in favor of a massive build-up of prison space, in which the mentally ill can be housed while receiving little or none of the expensive and complicated medical care that they need. Still, the very fact that law enforcement is already spending a good deal of time dealing with mentally ill citizens means law enforcement might be willing to take steps that decrease the risk of criminal behavior by the mentally ill — and more importantly, decrease the risk of physical harm to law enforcement officers themselves.
Because there does seem to be general agreement that shooting a bunch of people qualifies as an insane act, it might be possible to develop criteria that law enforcement could use to identify people who were more likely to go berserk, thus preemptively limiting their means of causing mass casualties. For example, while every American has the right to own a gun unless they’ve been convicted of a felony, it might be possible — on mental health grounds — to limit an individual’s right to possess or own a firearm if a person is behaving in a manner that raises questions about their sanity. If someone begins acting erratically, either as a result of the disintegration of their mind or some criminal enterprise, who would argue that the legal system should not engage that person and determine whether or not they are threat?
If you own a gun but you keep having run-ins with your neighbors, or worse, with law enforcement, why shouldn’t the police be able to seize your weapon and revoke your license? If you really want a gun for self-defense, and you’re walking around making threats or confronting people on your own instead of using the legal system and law enforcement, aren’t you undercutting the premise of your stated need for a weapon — or perhaps even betraying the fact that what you’re really itching to do is take somebody out? If an investigation led to a cache of weapons, a trail of incendiary writings or social media interactions, a carefully researched plan of action or a cognitive perspective at odds with reality, that might provide legal cause to deprive such an individual of the means of committing mass murder, if not provide sufficient evidence to support incarceration on conspiracy charges, thereby accomplishing the same goal by converting said former law-abiding citizen into a felon.
If you are born with a constitutional right to a gun in the United States of America, and you’re also presumed to be sane when you take physical possession of that birthright, what is there to stop a mentally ill citizen from purchasing enough firepower to kill a room full of adults, let alone a bunch of children? Doesn’t there need to be a sanity check at some point? Isn’t that what blaming the mental health industry is all about — prodding them to do more, to be proactive, so we can stop the madness? What law-abiding gun owner wouldn’t want to provide proof of good mental health while also going through a background check and presenting proof of citizenship?
While it would be a good first step to have everyone take the MMPI or some other diagnostic test of mental health before taking possession of a firearm, you realize it would do nothing to address domestic or foreign terrorists, or the fact that some people really do go berserk and commit literal crimes of passion because of a temporary emotional state, but it’s a start. Maybe by identifying the people most likely to go berserk we could, in the interest of public safety, lawfully deny them access to the most likely means of mass murder, thereby saving a few lives along the way, and getting some sick people the healthcare treatment they desperately need. Or put them in jail.
Storytelling and Real-World Violence
In the end the rank hypocrisy would be comical if the blood you were standing in wasn’t three feet deep. By asserting that the only proof of insanity is an insane act, anyone making that argument tacitly admits that motive can never be known in advance — yet at the same time the mental health industry is deemed solely responsible for identifying killers before they kill. Even if a person fantasizes about killing from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed that individual is deemed fit for lawful possession of as many firearms as they can afford, yet the moment they go berserk the mental health industry has failed its solemn duty. If the mental health industry really is charged with weeding unstable people out of the population of gun owners, where is the authority to do so? Where is the administrative weed whacker that would deny a mentally ill individual — as apparently everyone agrees should be the case — the legal right to acquire the disproportionate means of violence that firearms represent?
Instead of acting on our purported convictions we wait until another handful of human beings die, then tell ourselves a bedtime story about how the motive could have been known in advance — how the mental health industry should have been able to see it coming, even as we actively prevent such determinations from being made in advance. Although we can never know precisely who will go berserk and kill, we probably could develop criteria that indicate whether an individual is more or less likely to become violent, and use that determination as a gauge of whether a person can posses a firearm. We would never be able to predict what might push a person over the edge, but if we ignored motive and concentrated on limiting the means of violence we might keep them from reaching for a small, portable, easy-to-use machine that was designed to be as lethal as humanly possible if they did go off the deep end.
The one thing you have learned above all else, however, is that almost no one actually wants to prevent acts of mass murder, let alone preclude the possibility of individual acts of violence that many people seem to enjoy fantasizing about if not also preparing for. Even after a roomful of children are shot to pieces most people simply avoid or ignore the reality of their little terminated lives in preference of fictions that make them feel better about themselves, or maybe just better about their own chance for survival. It is of course horrible to suggest that people might so callous, and it’s true that nothing can be done to bring the victims of violence back to life, but unfortunately, for reasons that go far beyond simply being cold-hearted bastards, that is how people often respond. Which is not to say that being cold-hearted bastards isn’t also part of the problem.
We won’t ever stop people from killing each other, of course. And if an individual wants to pre-plan their carnage they’ll probably be able to do so no matter what regulations and laws are passed. But in the aggregate, over time, it might be possible to save a few lives by making it harder for people who are predisposed to go berserk to multiply their lethality with weapons designed to kill as many humans as possible in an exceedingly short amount of time. It’s sad that that’s the best we can do, even if we do everything we can, but in the end it is the best we can do. That we have so far chosen not to do it says a lot not only about how much we value money and power, but about how important our narratives are to us and how little we actually value life. If saving even a single child comes at the expense of the stories we tell ourselves, then that child will die.
— Mark Barrett
Interesting column, Mr. Barrett. Don’t forget however that crime rates in the USA have dropped to their lowest levels in decades. Statistically, the USA is a far safer place in terms of violent crime than it was in the 1970’s, 80’s or 90’s and I think we’d both agree that there are not fewer guns out there.
I agree with you that if guns were regulated much more stringently the country would be a safer place, but a large percentage of the country honestly, in their hearts, disagree with that notion and with violent crime rates down significantly they have at least a little evidence to support their views.
I didn’t see this in any of your columns, but I might have missed it. I was quite surprised to read that some people believe the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. I have no idea where that comes from, what the motives would be or why anyone would be stupid enough to believe it – apparently the former baseball player Chipper Jones does – but it’s out there.
With that kind of public sentiment, good luck getting rid of guns.
I agree that violent crime rates are down, and yes, there are certainly more guns on the street these days — and much more powerful weapons compared to the Saturday night specials that used to be commonplace. Whether the average person is being more judicious in their outrage or other factors have led to the fall-off I don’t know, but it’s obviously welcome.
This post and those before it are primarily concerned with people who go berserk. Not even the casual disagreement that escalates, but more the mind that breaks, and how to limit the damage that a broken mind can do. By focusing on motive and ignoring means even people who should know better end up dying, as this typically exploitative press write-up makes clear:
Trying to answer the question of motive to exactitude fails every time. The question is not why the person pulled the trigger, but why someone who was so clearly sending off erratic mental signals was allowed anywhere near a machine that could kill multiple people with little or no effort. That Kyle himself didn’t put two and two together only underscores the degree to which this is a cultural blind spot both outside and inside the gun community.
As for the denialists you mentioned, there’s a certain percentage of any human population that simply can’t come to grips with reality. I feel bad for them, but I’ve long since stopped trying to shed light on any mind that has been willfully shuttered. I can understand not wanting the world to be the way it is, but simply declaring that it’s not isn’t an option.