Not being an American, I have been reluctant to delve into the question of mass shootings, which thus far are almost unique—in terms of gravity and frequency, at least—to the United States. But the more I think about it, the less persuasive that position becomes. America is at the frontier of a mode of human existence that is, for better or worse, mimicked right across the free world. Outsiders have a stake in this question.
There are lots of great and beautiful things about America, but in the outside world we tend to import its worst aspects and mimic them without much reflection or awareness. There have been many baneful imports from the American front line: misandry, identity politics, political correctness, opioids, reality television, really bad television, celebrity hypocrisy, barefaced media mendacity, etc. With mass shootings we appear to have reached the outer limit of the potential for awfulness a modern society is capable of throwing up.
According to one survey of 25 countries, the U.S., in the three decades between 1983 and 2013, experienced nearly double the number of mass shootings of the other 24 countries combined. The shootings are deeply dismaying, and so are the distractions in the American discussion of the topic, predicated as it is on finding the most immediate contemporary connections on which to hang a definitive explanation. Whole swathes of the media blame President Trump; President Trump blames video games. The result is that one of the most scarifying and possibly emblematic conundrums of the age is beaten into a weapon of petty faction-fighting.
In a recent article in The Conversation, Christopher J. Ferguson, professor of psychology at Stetson University, argued that several of the conventional beliefs about mass shootings are unfounded. His article addresses several of the standard assumptions: that video games are a key causal factor, that most mass shooters are white supremacists, and that the incidence of these shootings is becoming more frequent.
He observes that two years ago, the American Psychological Association’s media psychology and technology division “specifically recommended politicians should stop linking violent games to mass shootings.” Citing data from the Mother Jones survey of mass shootings, Ferguson demonstrates that the ethnic composition of mass shooters is overall roughly in line with the profile of the general U.S. population (actually, the white population is marginally under-represented).
On the question of frequency, Ferguson uses the Northeastern University mass killing database to show that the incidence of mass shootings has remained relatively constant, although the death toll shows signs of rising somewhat in recent years. In a graph illustrating the patterns from 2006 to the present, the annual figure of such incidents (involving four or more people being killed) hits a low of 18 in 2010 and a high of 27 in 2008. This pattern, he says, can be observed right back to the 1970s, and is at odds with the overall homicide rate in the U.S., which has “declined precipitously” in the same period. These trends suggest that mass killings may be of a different order, that we have not yet explained their nature.
One under-emphasized aspect of these crimes, distinguishing them from others, is that the perpetrator (usually a man) embarks upon his killing spree in the reasonable expectation of ending up dead. Most perpetrators either kill themselves or are killed by police or security personnel. In other words, there is an invariable suicidal aspect to these shootings—perhaps we should define them more precisely as “murder-suicides” rather than murders simpliciter. Interestingly, the figures for actual suicide show a different pattern: an upward trend since the turn of the century, with men three-and-a-half times more prone to self-destruction than women, and white men accounting for a majority of self-inflicted deaths.
In Suicide, Émile Durkheim posited that the source of suicide is to be found in the collective rather than the individual sphere. His theory derived from the relative stability of suicide rates within particular societies, contrasted with the variability existing between even adjoining societies. If each suicide is due to particular individualized (e.g., psychiatric) circumstances, he asked, why are there consistent patterns in the statistics of specific societies? Each society, he concluded, has a “definite aptitude” for suicide. “The numerical equality of annual contingents,” he wrote, “can only be due to the permanent action of some impersonal cause which transcends all individual cases.” Individuals, by uniting, form new psychic beings with distinctive ways of thinking and feeling.
From this Durkheim deduced that the social realm holds the key to suicide, with individual circumstances in specific suicides being pretexts for the action of social factors at an unconscious level. Each suicide is in some sense emblematic of the whole. The suicidal individual’s sadness, Durkheim wrote, “comes from outside, not, however, from this or that incident in his life, but from the group to which he belongs.” Social tendencies and collective passions are not metaphors, but forces in their own right, which act on the consciousnesses of individuals.
Durkheim identified three distinct elements in the phenomenon of suicide—egotistic, altruistic, and anomic—each crudely reflecting a strand of societal reality: individual personality, patriotism, and progress. These forces pull humankind in opposing directions, but when balanced in society, serve to moderate suicidal tendencies. Where they offset one another, the individual enjoys a state of equilibrium that protects him from suicide; but where one of these forces becomes dominant, self-inflicted death ensues.
Self-inflicted deaths, Durkheim insisted, reflect the most general moral sentiments of the societies within which they occur. The “reasons” ascribed to them are only “apparent causes”—individual manifestations of more general conditions:
They may be said to indicate the individuals’ weak points, where the outside current bearing the impulse to self-destruction most easily finds introduction. But they are no part of this current itself, and consequently cannot help us to understand it. . . . It is not because there are a certain number of neurotics in a social group that there will be a given number of suicides every year. Neurosis only means that some will succumb rather than others.
He also concluded that all forms of strong integration—family, nation, etc.—represent protections against suicide. Himself agnostic, he believed that religion protects man from suicide because a religion is a society. Increasing rates of suicide are evidence of a society’s disintegration. And as that disintegration proceeds, the individual, losing a sense of social meaning, retreats into himself and his own value system. Durkheim referred to this process as “egoism,” which he maintained is accompanied by self-destructive impulses. The particular type of self-inflicted death it produces he called “egoistic suicide.” The egoist, seeing “nothing real” in the society that formed him, sets out to destroy himself.
Altruistic suicide results from a felt compulsion within a society wherein self-destruction is a duty imposed—on the old, the disgraced soldier, the widow. The egoist lacks meaning in this life and is depressed, whereas the altruist focuses on the next world, so that suicide becomes an act of hope.
Anomic suicide, however, is produced by a more modern mood of frustration and world-weariness that is equally conducive to homicide. Anomie—alienation—epitomizes a particular response to progress, providing a brake on the collective aspirations of a society. It often arises from a cultural failure in enforcing constraints on human aspirations and their satisfaction, thus creating unhappiness. It can be sparked by either economic calamity or sudden prosperity. A man without limits is as incapable of satisfaction as a man without hope.
Durkheim held that the particular social conditions that provoke either anomic or altruistic suicide induce also a tendency toward homicide. Feelings for others and feelings for ourselves, he observed, are not unrelated, but related to the moral value placed on the individual in the collective conscience of a particular society.
The pattern of mass shootings, I believe, bears striking similarities to what Durkheim describes as anomic suicide. If we extend Durkheim’s theory in this manner, a number of possibilities become plausible. One is that mass shootings say something in general about the society in which they happen, and are representative of feelings and tendencies that exist beyond the number of people directly implicated. Accepting this, we might decide that American men, as a category, have become deeply alienated from their society in general. This means not just white men, but perhaps every category of American manhood: black, Hispanic, Native American, etc. This idea directly contradicts the dominant thinking of contemporary American society, which may explain its invisibility.
By Durkheim’s logic, the actors in these unspeakable episodes may represent, at some level, a 0.00000001 percent trace element of the alienation of American manhood. It may be the case also that this alienation takes a particular form: that men find themselves operating within a culture that does not satisfy their aspirations, even as they are framed as the architects and builders of this cultural system. It may tell us, too, that American men feel less valued in this culture than women.
We might also conclude that these tendencies have been present in American society for a long time—close on half a century, at least—and have nothing to do with recent political developments or personalities, nor with superficial cultural developments or phenomena.
To get to the bottom of this, America needs to dig deeper into itself. And this digging must be predicated, paradoxically, on a sympathy and affection for men.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.