I’ve been chewing on a thought for days: that nearly all the violence in our society is grounded in the perpetrators’ felt sense of powerlessness.
This speaks to an existential paradox: although our days are filled with choices and decisions, in an ultimate sense we are at the mercy of forces far larger than ourselves, forces over which we have little or no control. If you come in for a close-up, our lives are made of intention, overflowing with meaning. If you pull back far enough, you see tiny beings stuck to a giant rock hurtling through space, an anthill writ large. Are we in control or not? Yes to both.
It’s hard to resist quoting one of my favorite rabbinic stories to sum it up in a couple of sentences—so I won’t. They say that Rabbi Simcha Bunim always carried two slips of paper: in one pocket, a message with Abraham’s words from Genesis, “I am but dust and ashes,” and in the other a line from Talmud, “The world was created for my sake.”
Simcha Bunim toggled between the two, titrating doses of humility and self-love to balance an excess of ego or self-loathing arising from each moment. He was a brave man: mostly, my comfort comes when I have at least the illusion of power and control, of a world for my sake; my greatest comfort is when experience seems to offer proof.
When I feel out of control—which for me usually means feeling trapped—I am more volatile. Minor frustrations explode into tantrums or tears. I obsess over the presumed cause of my suffering. As I give it attention, it seems to expand. I become nothing, dust and ashes. I’m not a violent person, but those are the times I might fling something across the room or slam a door. I might fantasize revenge, sometimes vividly.
I’ve been hearing and reading reams of speculation about the psycho-social causes of violence, mostly following on the Virginia Tech shootings. Dave Cullen is a writer who often pops up on such occasions, because he an expert on the Columbine killings of 1999 the way some people are experts on JFK’s assassination or 9/11. In other words, it appears Columbine ate his life, and he will soon have a book to show for it. I’m looking forward to reading it, because he has some sensible things to say about useful subjects such as the perils of diagnosis via TV talk show, as in this piece from Slate.
Cullen’s Slate article pointed me to interesting research findings in a Secret Service/Department of Education report on the perpetrators of 37 school shootings between 1974 and 2000. None of the obvious pop-psych diagnostics are supported there: apart from all being male and most being white, the shooters have little in common. They cross socioeconomic lines, differ in their school achievement and participation, range from socially active to isolated. What they do have in common is less about demographics than experience:
Most attackers appeared to have difficulty coping with losses, personal failures or other difficult circumstances. Almost all of the attackers had experienced or perceived some major loss prior to the attack (98 percent, n=40). These losses included a perceived failure or loss of status (66 percent, n=27); loss of a loved one or of a significant relationship, including a romantic relationship (51 percent, n=21); and a major illness experienced by the attacker or someone significant to him (15 percent, n=6). In one case, the attacker, who was a former student at the school where the attack occurred, was laid off from his job because he did not have a high school diploma. The attacker blamed the job loss on the teacher who failed him in a senior-year course, which kept him from graduating. He returned to the school a year after leaving the school, killed his former teacher and two students, and then held over 60 students hostage for 10 hours.
For most attackers, their outward behaviors suggested difficulty in coping with loss (83 percent, n=34). For example, the mother, the brother and a friend of the attacker who lost his job each had commented that the attacker became depressed and withdrawn following the lay-off. The friend also reported that he knew that the attacker blamed his former teacher for his problems and had begun planning how to retaliate.
What’s more, the attacks were all planned in advance, and all with a sense of grievance front and center. In other words, here’s what we can say about the attackers as a group: when loss or humiliation elicited strong feelings of their own powerless, they focused on a real or imagined cause, nursed their grievance, then planned and executed horrific revenge.
Surely it is not accidental that all the shooters were male. Perhaps the social impact of gender is diminishing in some ways, but this much is evident: in the ordinary run of things, men are conditioned to base their sense of self-worth and meaning on the extent to which they feel in control of their lives and circumstances, and often of everyone around them. When the sense that the world is made for them fractures, leaking dust and ashes into their deepest selves, the impact is profound.
No matter which category they might be slotted under in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, these school shooters were deranged; no one would say they reacted normally to what might be seen as commonplace losses. (I have experienced all the above-listed circumstances without going berserk, and so, probably, have you.) But their extreme reactions are suggestive of something more ordinary, that when men are trained to prize control to the point that loss is unbearable, society pays.
For the walking wounded whose upbringing was steeped in the love of power, ego expands far beyond the boundaries of the individual person, and the whole world becomes fodder for revenge. How much is George Bush’s belligerence rooted in his own past humiliations, his school and business failures, his repeated need to be rescued by his father’s friends from his own ineptitude? How much is he driven to avenge his father’s humiliation by Saddam Hussein, as some commentators have suggested? How much is Dick Cheney’s bloodthirsty rage rooted in the serial humiliations of his own early adulthood, wonderfully described by Joan Didion in the New York Review of Books last October:
It was in some ways predictable that the central player in the system of willed errors and reversals that is the Bush administration would turn out to be its vice-president, Richard B. Cheney. Here was a man with considerable practice in the reversal of his own errors. He was never a star. No one ever called him a natural. He reached public life with every reason to believe that he would continue to both court failure and overcome it, take the lemons he seemed determined to pick for himself and make the lemonade, then spill it, let someone else clean up.
Paradoxically, being steeped in powerlessness can produce the same result, albeit on a very different scale. Do I really have to ask how much of the violence that has swept up so many young men in our inner cities is rooted in the steady beat of losses and humiliations doled out by nearly every social institution many of them encounter during their formative years?
Here’s the thing that has me sighing hardest: our society proposes putative remedies that only make the problem worse. I’m reading and listening my way deeper and deeper into the realities of our prison industrial complex (click here, then scroll down to the right and click on the blog category “Incarceration Nation” to read prior posts about it). Over and over again, my mind buckles under the weight of this realization, that our prisons prescribe humiliation and loss as punishment for men whose lives have already been distorted beyond recognition by just those experiences. How crazy is it that our notion of how to address the culture of violence that has filled us with sadness and dread is to pour gasoline onto the fire?
I am filled with admiration for those who can survive loss and humiliation without self-destructive revenge. Not just the great souls who are sustained by an abiding conviction, like Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel, but everyone who finds a way to spin the straw of ultimate humiliation into the gold of possibility. Two obvious changes would increase their number: teaching boys to roll with the ordinary losses and humiliations is one, no matter how much they hurt. Completely rethinking prison is another. Isn’t thousands of years of failed punishment enough? What if the purpose of confinement were to earn a grounded sense of self-worth through real education, real opportunity?
Or we could just keep watching humiliation and loss ricochet through schoolyards, neighborhoods and battle-torn cities, and try to keep out of the way.