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Archive for December 2012

Mass Shootings, The Media, and Politicized Narratives

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In the wake of this most recent school shooting in Connecticut, it is important to remember that these are still isolated incidents.  That these cases become public spectacles represents an ideology of indoctrination more than they represent symptoms of a peaceful society changing into something frightening and more violent.

The Problem

Our society is already violent.  12,000 gun homicides annually ranks our “peaceful” Homeland among many war zones.  This is a 10-year low.  For every gun homicide, there is roughly one accidental gun death.  But very few of these deaths take place in mass shootings: they are overwhelmingly the results of domestic disturbances, armed robberies, and gang violence.  Yet, when these more common types of shootings occur, the media is largely silent.  If it were otherwise, the news would be about nothing but shootings.

When the media picks up gun violence as a topic — typically when a rare mass shooting occurs — the narrative the media propagates tells audiences that these acts are result of some “disturbed” individual.  Now, clearly, shooters in domestic disturbances are “disturbed” at the time, but the media means to say something about psychological pathology: that mass shooters are somehow unhinged and acting irrationally.  Relatively little attention is paid to what sorts of social pressures these mass shooters may have been under.  And almost no attention is paid to the significance of the fact that these shooting sprees often end with a suicide.

The Suicide Shooter

What should be deeply disturbing to media consumers is that the sensationalism of the media coverage is oriented more towards inflicting emotional trauma on audiences than providing a useful description of what gun violence in the country actually looks like.

The media seems to be operating under the premise that when American audiences see coverage of events like this, audiences implicitly understand that these events are stand-ins for countless other events that vary widely in their specifics.  All the Tweets and FaceBook posts to the effect that, “if only more teachers carried weapons in the classroom” seem to contradict such an assumption.  I would wager that if more teachers were armed in class, there may be more school shootings: it is not safe to assume that all teachers love children unconditionally, or are a paragon of infinite patience.

Perhaps most disturbing about the media coverage of these events — in a sociological sense — is the uniform lack of discussion of the frequent suicidal climax of the killing.  Perhaps the media feels it is enough to state that the shooters are “disturbed,” and that suicide therefore seems natural enough as a conclusion to such a “disturbed” episode.  But we do have another paradigm for suicide attacks like these: suicide bombers in the Middle East.

It is not so easy to write off Middle Eastern suicide bombers as uniformly “disturbed.”  They are trained in their attack strategies — much like our suicide shooters plan assaults.  Suicide bombers are motivated by ideology or other political goals — which often enough appears to be the case with our suicide shooters.  While suicide bombers are promised great rewards in the afterlife, our suicide shooters live in a culture saturated with aesthetic treatments of violence, such that the rush of a real-life shoot out and the subsequent notoriety may be reward enough.

Often enough, the perpetrators of these acts of mass violence do have reasons, though, due to the media’s sensationalism and lack of analysis, we never get any closer to understanding those reasons or, consequently, understanding what we can do address them.  All we are left with, as a nation, is televised grieving, emotional trauma inflicted by the media over distant events, and nebulous debates about “gun control.”

The Calculating Killer

Joe Stack, who after several failed attempts at pursuing the American Dream through entrepreneurism, eventually committed suicide by flying a private plane into an IRS tax office in Texas.  Joe Stack wrote a suicide note, titled, “Well Mr. Big Brother IRS man… take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”  In it, he stated:

“If you’re reading this, you’re no doubt asking yourself, ‘Why did this have to happen?’ The simple truth is that it is complicated and has been coming for a long time. The writing process, started many months ago, was intended to be therapy in the face of the looming realization that there isn’t enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken. Needless to say, this rant could fill volumes with example after example if I would let it. I find the process of writing it frustrating, tedious, and probably pointless… especially given my gross inability to gracefully articulate my thoughts in light of the storm raging in my head. Exactly what is therapeutic about that I’m not sure, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

“We are all taught as children that without laws there would be no society, only anarchy. Sadly, starting at early ages we in this country have been brainwashed to believe that, in return for our dedication and service, our government stands for justice for all. We are further brainwashed to believe that there is freedom in this place, and that we should be ready to lay our lives down for the noble principals represented by its founding fathers. Remember? One of these was ‘no taxation without representation’. I have spent the total years of my adulthood unlearning that crap from only a few years of my childhood. These days anyone who really stands up for that principal is promptly labeled a ‘crackpot’, traitor and worse.”

Joe Stack doesn’t sound like his reason has become unhinged, he sounds like society pushed him to the breaking point.

Some time earlier, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, wrote in in his Manifesto:

“96. As for our constitutional rights, consider for example that of freedom of the press. We certainly don’t mean to knock that right: it is very important tool for limiting concentration of political power and for keeping those who do have political power in line by publicly exposing any misbehavior on their part. But freedom of the press is of very little use to the average citizen as an individual. The mass media are mostly under the control of large organizations that are integrated into the system. Anyone who has a little money can have something printed, or can distribute it on the Internet or in some such way, but what he has to say will be swamped by the vast volume of material put out by the media, hence it will have no practical effect. To make an impression on society with words is therefore almost impossible for most individuals and small groups. Take us (FC) for example. If we had never done anything violent and had submitted the present writings to a publisher, they probably would not have been accepted. If they had been accepted and published, they probably would not have attracted many readers, because it’s more fun to watch the entertainment put out by the media than to read a sober essay. Even if these writings had had many readers, most of these readers would soon have forgotten what they had read as their minds were flooded by the mass of material to which the media expose them. In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.”

Say what you will about his methods, but his thinking was not delusional or unhinged from reason: this was a man pushed by society to his breaking point.  His actions were not the result of an irrational outburst.  He sought social change.

The Media

For a media apparatus that literally sold us the lies that lead up to our 2003 invasion of Iraq; that has been largely silent on the erosion of the 4th Amendment under the FISA amendments and the free reign given to the National Security Agency; that has been largely silent on the erosion of the 5th Amendment under the 2012 NDAA; that is silent about illegal drone campaigns in foreign countries, extrajudicial assassinations of US citizens without trial, that still hasn’t gotten to the bottom of our war crimes in Fallujah, or what actually happened in the 2000 elections; that allows the sprawling security state unchecked growth, and that even cheerleads for the technologies that make it all possible, subsidized by mass production yields in consumer goods … all the media’s moralizing on issues like this rings hollow.

Anarchist thinker Emma Goldman had a different take on events like these:

“To Analyze the psychology of political violence is not only extremely difficult, but also very dangerous. If such acts are treated with understanding, one is immediately accused of eulogizing them. If, on the other hand, human sympathy is expressed with the Attentäter, one risks being considered a possible accomplice. Yet it is only intelligence and sympathy that can bring us closer to the source of human suffering, and teach us the ultimate way out of it.”

Emma Goldman suggests that such violent outbursts are the product of an unusually sensitive soul, not an irrational madman or an unfeeling sociopath.  She does not condone these events, but seeks to understand them both emotionally and rationally, as part of a larger program towards making the world a more just and equitable place.  The media could learn a few things from her approach.

The Public

When the media or politicians raise the spectre of “gun control” following such incidents — which is logical enough, given the total lack of any more substantive debate about the causes and conditions underlying such violent outbursts — a certain highly vocal group of Americans starts clamoring about their rights.

Recent Supreme Court rulings depart from precedent dating back to the 1930’s, mainly, the Miller Case, which affirmed that a sawed-off shotgun is not a militia weapon, and that individual ownership of such weapons can therefore be curtailed.

The decision in the 1939 Miller case reads, in part:

“The Court cannot take judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches long has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon.”

In their close-reading of the text of the Constitution, the justices in Miller asserted:

“The Constitution, as originally adopted, granted to the Congress power —

“To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

“With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces, the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.”

The Second Amendment, in the strictest sense, is not the “gun” amendment, but the “militia” amendment.  The introductory clause, “A well regulated militia,” serves the legal function of a “whereas” clause, delineating the scope of the provision.  In the Second Amendment’s equivalent clause under the Articles of Confederation, the text is explicit in that arms are to be kept “in public stores.”

This is not to say there is not a Constitutional right for individuals to keep and bear privately-owned weaponry; but if the individual right to own a private firearm derives from the Second Amendment, it is the result of activist judges rather than the original intent of the Founding Fathers.  An individual right to own a firearm is more plausibly found in the 9th or the 10th Amendment.

Gun advocates, however, do not make this argument, because although they frequently want smaller government and despise activist judges, there is no judicial case history testing gun rights under these more plausible Amendments.

Moreover, if individual gun ownership derives from the 9th or 10th Amendment, this also opens the door to State regulation of gun ownership — something these anti-Federal government, States-rights gun advocates paradoxically want to avoid (opposition to the Chicago and DC handgun bans illustrate this point).  They want to have their cake and eat it too, where the Federal government and gun rights intersect.

Now, we are all accustomed to restrictions put on legal products to which we otherwise feel we have a right to purchase: there is a minimum drinking age for alcohol, all cars must drive on the same side of the street and stop at red lights, all electronic devices must limit their electromagnetic interference.  There are countless other instances which, under certain conditions, may represent an inconvenience, but which, on the whole, represent the needs of a greater social good.

But, by and large, the largest source of confusion and agitation on this point comes from the National Rifle Association.  Started as a support group for Marines, the powerful lobby completely ignores that gun ownership today is a completely different proposition that it was in the early days of the Republic.  The group’s position is completely a-historical.

In the Revolutionary era, guns were hand-made artisan items, not mass-produced commodities.  Maybe one out of eight men owned a gun.  As many as half these guns didn’t work, but were viewed as property nevertheless and passed on from generation to generation.  They weren’t essential for hunting, as many Americans lived in cities or raised crops and livestock as farmers.  There weren’t organized municipal police forces at the time.  The original “individual mandate” from the Federal government required that able-bodied me purchase firearms due to a massive shortage.

Today, there is one gun per man, woman, and child in the country.  It is a very different situation.  And here, perhaps, lies the most atrocious facet of the NRA: it is little more than an industry trade group masquerading as a civil rights organization.

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Written by Indigo Jones

December 21, 2012 at 3:35 pm

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