The scariest thing about mass murderers is just how normal they are.
In the wake of Umpqua Community College shooting last week, the New York Times published an article titled, “Mass Murderers Fit Profile, as Do Many Others Who Don’t Kill.” Here’s a very disturbing line:
What seems telling about the killers, however, is not how much they have in common but how much they look and seem like so many others who do not inflict harm.
What’s so scary about these killers is that we’d really like to have an explanation that makes them “other” than the rest of us. So we say they are mentally ill – unlike the rest of us who are quite mentally healthy – and our society needs to do a better job of caring for them.
While it’s true that we need to do a better job caring for the mentally ill, the vast majority of people with mental illness will never harm anyone. Mass murderers don’t tend to be mentally ill. As Dr. James Alan Fox stated in the Times article, “They’re not out of touch with reality. They don’t hear voices. They don’t think the people they’re shooting are gophers.” In other words, the problem with these shooters have very little to do with mental illness.
What are the signs that someone may turn into a shooter? The Times makes another disturbing claim, “With many of the killers, the signs are of anger and disappointment and solitude.”
Anger, disappointment, and solitude. Those emotions are universal. We all feel them. How do we make sense of that? There’s a darkness that creeps up within all of us – and if we are honest with ourselves, we might just admit the horrifying truth that there’s not a lot that separates us from them.
Desire and Resentment
We are all united with a common desire for fame, notoriety, and love. We fear solitude. Everyone wants to be known. We gain a sense of value and worth in our lives through obtaining more likes and tweets on social media. As mimetic theory teaches us, we inevitably compare ourselves with others who become our models for success.
But what happens when we don’t gain the success, fame, or the love that we all desire? When others don’t validate us, when we don’t achieve the success we desire, we become resentful of our models. As Stefan Tomelleri states in his book Resentment: Reflections on Mimetic Desire and Society, “We live in a world where many people, rightly or wrongly, feel blocked, or paralyzed, in all their aspirations, obstructed from achieving their most legitimate goals” (ix).The more we fall behind our models, the more resentful we become. Our model then becomes our rival and we seek some form of revenge against them for enflaming our desire for something we cannot have. Whenever we feel as if the path to fulfillment of our aspirations is being blocked by the ones who make those desires seem desirable, we risk becoming verbally, emotionally, or physically violent.
Typically, no one ever teaches us how to manage our feelings of resentment in nonviolent and healthy ways. In fact, we are taught the opposite. 9/11 taught us that if someone hits you, you hit them back. Only, you don’t just hit them back, you up the ante. You hit them with “Shock and Awe” to destroy the enemy’s will to fight back.
But Shock and Awe has only “worked” to embed violence deeper within our culture. Violence isn’t just “their” problem; it’s our problem. It infects all of us. Almost every day we hear about another violent attack. For example, just two days after the horrific shooting in Oregon last week, the United States bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, killing 12 medical staff personnel and 10 patients, including three children. The U.S. has defended the bombing, while Doctors Without Borders calls it a war crime.
What’s the truth? The truth is that as long as our nation responds to violence with violence, we will continue to sow the seeds of violence and resentment within our nation and around the world.
What’s the Answer?
We need stricter gun control laws, no doubt. But we need so much more than gun control. We need models who will lead us toward a massive shift in our culture. Resentment and violence infects us all and we need to learn better ways to take responsibility to manage our anger, disappointment, and hatred.
God tells Cain that, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7). God speaks those words to all of us. The truth is that there’s a little bit of Cain within everyone. The darkness is within us all. Unfortunately, many of us are too afraid to look at it. We’d much rather ignore our pain than examine it. But the way to master the “sin that is lurking at the door” is to acknowledge it, but like Cain, we typically suppress it. We bury our resentment and anger deep within ourselves, only for it to manifest through violence.
That’s why the ancient spiritual practice of confession is so important. It’s much healthier to talk out our emotions than it is to bottle them up. Without the ability to talk about our frustrations, we externalize our emotions by blaming others. Our shared desire for fame and admiration can then lead us to commit acts of violence when they become frustrated.
Much more than gun control, we must shift our culture of violence to a culture of peace. We need models who will lead us to move beyond resentment and towards an ethic of love, a love that embraces even our enemies.
The answer is to work through our resentment and come out the other side into love. More than anything, we need to be challenged with a daring and challenging mission. In the face of a culture that responds to violence with more violence, we need more people who will step up and model how to return love for hatred, forgiveness for anger, kindness for hostility, violence for peace.
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