The trait they all appear to have in common is not just that they are wrong in the head. They also share that malignant condition of being reclusive dropouts, loners estranged from family and society. And what is the point of searching for a motive in the sick mind of a mindless killer, all the while extrapolating from our perspective as rational individuals?
The massacre in Aurora, Colorado, last week left Americans stunned, shocked and bewildered. To ask why a 24-year-old nobody called James Holmes walked into a movie theatre, armed to the teeth, and opened fire, killing 12 and injuring close to 60 patrons, misses the point. Others before him, others like him, had gone on similar rampages in Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson — and at Fort Hood Army base in Texas; at the entrance to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, where the perpetrator improbably was an 88-year-old senior citizen.
All for no ostensible reason. And when, say, David Chapman, a 25-year-old nobody killed John Lennon in December 1980 — as the pop star was about to enter his building — and then sat down on the sidewalk reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye while waiting for the police, he too seemingly did it for no ostensible reason, though in Chapman’s twisted mind he may have seen himself as an angry Holden Caulfield exacting vengeance on an authority figure revered by a hypocritical society.
To blame it all on lax gun control laws, or attribute it to the need of a nobody to suddenly become a somebody, a notion that much of the public debate appears to posit, falls short of the mark. The explanation is too facile, failing as it does to engage the wider issues which spring from the very ethos of American culture itself. For why is it that we do not see similarly senseless acts of violence, or see them rarely, in other countries around the world, including countries in the Middle East, where guns abound? Here’s an example: In 1981, while on a writing assignment, I spent five weeks in several Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where virtually everyone, including teenagers, carried all manners of handguns, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, made readily available to people under assault and under stress. Yet, you never encountered a single lone assassin who went on the rampage, killing people in a movie theatre, on campus or outside a supermarket.
What can explain this crazy quilt? American society is obviously different, more privileged and more endowed than other countries around the world. But it is not necessarily better or more advanced, more competent, as it were, at apprehending nature, social relations and human conduct. The idea that Americans inhabit a reality imbued with “exceptionalism” may not be true, but it is culturally acquired as a norm, experienced as effortlessly as one experiences the wince of one’s muscles. Under stress of hatred, of alienation, of boredom, of sudden fear, a great gap opens in society. And there will always be that individual — a representative of the mass malaise — who will discover, with sickening conviction, that he and the community shared no common language, that his previous understanding of it, his communion with it, had been based on trivial pidgin.
The symbolic and expressive constraints encoded in everyday life are then left by the wayside. And he will lash out, just as James Holmes lashed out last week. In no time, of course, Americans will discover everything there is to discover about the background of this young man, just as they had discovered everything there was to discover about the backgrounds of previous killers like him. But it will all be cold comfort as America grieves, as Americans mourn, as society ponders how to deal with the unspeakable.
Guns proliferate in the US (reportedly 45 per cent of Americans have a gun at home) and no doubt the debate over how to balance a citizen’s right to “hold arms” and the state’s right to prevent a tragedy like that at Aurora from recurring, will continue. But really, in the end, it’s not about gun ownership or gun control, an interminable debate of desperate monotony. Rather it is about understanding the soul of America as a big power and how its projection of that power will, in mysterious, subliminal ways, insinuate itself into the inward preoccupations of alienated, ultimately disturbed individuals.
As the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow reminded us in his piece earlier last week, quoting Howard Friedman, a statistician and economist for the United Nations: “America’s homicide rates, incarceration rates and gun ownership rates are all much higher than other wealthy countries. While the data associated with crime is imperfect, these facts all point to the idea that America is more violent than many other wealthy countries”.
And why is America more violent? Very simply this: Its status as a big power has penetrated the consciousness of ordinary citizens with a sense of the rule of the gun. Since roughly the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, and to a lesser degree long before, going back to its first war in our region against Libya in 1801, America’s armies have marched from Normandy to Okinawa, from Vietnam to Lebanon, from Panama to Afghanistan, and from Grenada to Iraq, reshaping the world in their path. War, for several generations of Americans, was no longer a matter of archives, but had become woven into the fabric of their everyday lives. And from time to time, some of that terror spills over from the system to the subsystem.
How America may, one day, find a way to deal with these tragic outbursts by disturbed individuals will test its intellectual reach, its ability to ask the right questions, to break novel ground in finally getting it right.
Meanwhile, will someone, please, find Holmes, this young man with that dreadful, red-dyed hair, the right shrink and, after his case is adjudicated in court, the right psychiatric facility where he could spend the rest of his life?
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.