Saturday, April 21, 2007

Making No Sense of a Massacre by Peter Levenda


The author of the Sinister Forces trilogy discusses related matters...

The latest edition of Time magazine has just appeared, dated April 30, 2007. (Walpurgisnacht, the Witches’ Sabbath made famous in the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula, for anyone interested in the resonances.) And the cover story is about the Virginia Tech massacre, with the caption “Trying to Make Sense of a Massacre.”

It’s about what you would expect of Time. Pious musings, faux sensitivity. There are some unintentionally ironic moments, however. The court-ordered evaluation of Cho following his stalking incident in November of 2005 bore writing by a judge who claimed that Cho posed “an eminent danger to self or others”. Eminent, not imminent. Cho strove for both.

In addition, his first victims in the classroom shootings were students attending a German language course; next on the list was the engineering class being taught by a Romanian Holocaust survivor who lost his life while heroically saving those of his students, so many years after his survival of the death camps and on the day known as Yom ha-Shoah, “Holocaust Remembrance Day”. Thus, as in every such event, synchronicities pile up.

But what was annoying were the reflections by Jeffrey Kluger and David von Drehle, which focused on the narcissistic aspects of the crime and the criminal who committed them. Kluger – in “Why They Kill” – begins by asking “If you want a sense of just how terrible Monday’s crimes were, here’s something to try: imagine yourself committing them.” His point is that it is easier for us to imagine ourselves as victims than as killers. I guess Kluger has never played a violent video game. I guess Kluger never served in the armed forces. I guess Kluger is not old enough to remember Vietnam’s My Lai massacre in which young, red-blooded American boys with automatic weapons – told to “shoot anything that moves” – did just that. Of course, Kluger might respond, that was war. This is different. This is peacetime. A college campus. No “eminent” threat.

With the increasing – the exponentially increasing – amount of technology available in our materialist society and the proportional lack of spiritual or moral elevation, we are reduced to using this technology to visualize fantasies of pornographic violence. In these fantasies we are rarely, if ever, the victims. We are usually the perpetrators. Of course, in these fantasies we wear the white hats. We are killing drug dealers, or terrorists, or gang members. During basic training our men and women are taught that the enemy is a target, an object, not a human being. No one accuses our troops in Iraq of being narcissists, though.

Our technology has enabled us to create powerful works of art, vast multi-media creations linking music and image and text into spiritually-elevating experiences that demonstrate our love for culture and artistic expression … except that, well, we don’t use it that way. Instead, we project our own homicidal impulses onto the computer screens and with virtual Glocks murder hundreds, thousands, of virtual … whatever, whomever. For some of us, this represents a safety valve, a release of these impulses and tensions as they are grounded in a virtual world where no one really dies and no one is really to blame. For the rest of us, though, it’s training.

Kluger emphasizes – as does von Drehle in his article “It’s All About Him” – the role that narcissism plays in the minds of mass murderers and serial killers. As usual, the mass murderer and the serial killer are conflated, taken to be representative of the same violent impulse when of course they are not. The serial killer is a “lust killer” in the old terminology; the crime has a definite sexual element. The dead body itself is an object of desire, a focus for sexual acts and fantasies. The mass murderer, however, is not concerned with the bodies he (it’s usually a male) creates. He’s not concerned with quality, only with quantity, like a solder on a battlefield or a gamer at the controls. The people he kills are not people; they are objects and not even sexual objects. Instead, they represent the nameless and unnamable forces arrayed against him.

To relegate the entire phenomenon of mass murder to one of narcissism and clinical depression is to miss the point. Narcissism and depression are not the cause, they’re the symptoms of an underlying disorder. Narcissism is a defense mechanism, a way of keeping the identity intact in a world that has lost its moral compass; and by “moral” I don’t mean only knowing right from wrong (although that would be a welcome development), but something deeper than that.

In the United States, a country made up of people from virtually every country on earth, we have lost a shared sense of connection. We don’t know to whom we belong: what family, what race, what ethnicity, what religion … what history. An immigrant from South Korea in 1992, how could Cho be expected to identify with the American Revolution, or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, or the inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy? Yet he did identify with the assassinations of Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon. Pop icons took the place of cultural identification. “American” was probably an artificial identity for Cho; as was Virginia Tech. None of these things – social and cultural constructions invented by white people – provided any kind of real human connection for Cho. It’s hard enough for the rest of us, those of us born and raised here, to claim American “roots”: the whole idea is pretty problematic, especially if your ancestors were slaves, or illegals, or Nazis brought in under Operation Paperclip … My own ancestors showed up here from Eastern Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century. How much of American history, then, do I share with my neighbors?

The whole point of America was to do just that: to create an artificial environment that would guarantee a certain level of freedom for all its citizens regardless of their background; a country removed from considerations of monarchy and therefore from considerations of hierarchies, classes, even race, religion and family. It was an escape route from religious and political persecution in Europe. Well … for white people, anyway.

According to the statistics published in this issue of Time, most mass murders are carried out by men, both black and white (about evenly divided). In dissecting the mentality of mass murderers, though, the articles in question focus on the idea of narcissism and avoid questions of race and ethnicity. It is assumed that the motivation for one is the motivation for all, regardless of race. That seems intellectually dishonest to me.

Further, von Drehle compares Cho to Ted Bundy, and this is where his analysis starts to spring leaks. Bundy was a serial killer, a sexual psychopath and sadist, who killed women by first convincing them that he needed their help and then taking advantage of their kindness by knocking them out, kidnapping them, and then killing them. He was handsome, charming, with an easy smile and ingratiating manner. To all intents and purposes, he was socially integrated. Cho was anything but. While Cho may have had psycho-sexual problems – as seems evident from his stalking of women, and taking photos of them with his cell phone when they weren’t looking – the murders he committed had none of Bundy’s sexual dimensions (unless, of course, all murder is to be considered in terms of a sexual impulse). Von Drehle, however, sees the narcissistic impulse as the core impulse, the unifying characteristic, of both killers. He writes “Only a narcissist could decide that his alienation should be underlined in the blood of strangers.”

Let’s take a look at that. In the first place, who gave us the term “alienation” and how was it used? Probably the first time it was employed in any kind of a methodical way was by Erich Fromm. In "The Art of Loving", he writes:

Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions.

Alienation, therefore, is the result of a materialist society that turns human beings into commodities, i.e., objectifies them so that they have lost their essential humanity. By directing one’s “life forces” into materialist goals, a human robs himself or herself of basic humanity, becomes – in Holden Caulfield’s words – a “phony”. In order to sell oneself, one has to be concerned with packaging, with advertising, with spin: these are all concepts we have inherited from World War II and its aftermath, from a black art known as “psychological warfare” but which has come down to us as “communications science” and its ugly offspring, advertising. We live in a culture where people no longer communicate with people, they no longer touch; instead, you read my ad and I read yours. My people will call your people. We’ll do lunch.

Lest someone think I am going off the deep end here, let’s look at Cho’s writings. He blames the rich and the decadent. His focus – self-serving and narcissistic or not – was precisely materialism. To go back to von Drehle’s statement above, we would have to characterize virtually all revolutions, all civil wars, all wars in general, as acts of narcissism. They all promote one identity above all others; one nation, or race, or religion, or political philosophy. We belong, you don’t. We are the solution, you are the problem. You are standing in the way of my happiness. You enslave me, if only with your thoughts; your way of life; the way you pray; the way you vote.

The difference between acts like Cho’s and – let’s say – the Russian Revolution led by that great narcissist V.I. Lenin is that Cho’s alienation is a symptom of spiritual disconnectedness, of spiritual impoverishment. In order to survive the slow death of one’s identity – the inability to frame one’s identity in terms of status goods, or credit cards, or nice hair – one focuses on one’s identity, creates an enhanced identity that is consistent with one’s inner life, one’s inner anger and hatred.

As I mentioned in the previous post, suicide bombers share more than a little in common with Cho. Are they also narcissists? Isn’t that a simplistic characterization of their motivations? A suicide bomber is a mass murderer who ends by killing himself or herself in the process. A suicide bomber leaves a video or written testimony and mails it to the press. Complains about oppression. Kills innocent people.

I submit that my linking Cho with suicide bombers is just as valid a comparison as that used by von Drehle and Kluger in their articles. Using “narcissism” and “depression” as reasons for what happened at Virginia Tech is lazy and facile; pop psychology masquerading as insight.

Cho was sick, no doubt about that. He was mentally ill. But those are terms whose meaning we no longer recognize because they are labels that can be applied so easily it’s a wonder they don’t come with a solvent, just in case. Cho was a “crazed, lone gunman” to be sure; but that doesn’t answer any questions, doesn’t solve any problems. All the work the government tried to do in the wake of the Columbine massacre resulted in not very much, because the perspective was all wrong. As usual, we like to focus on symptoms and not on root causes. We could have prevented VT with … what? A pill? If only Cho had taken his meds …

Years ago, R.D. Laing wrote that schizophrenia was a spiritual disorder that should be respected as such. His approach made some headway until it was discovered that schizophrenia could be treated with chemotherapy. With drugs. Schizophrenics were no longer wandering the streets, mumbling to themselves, hearing voices. As long as they took their meds, we were safe from them. So, Laing’s work became discredited, a quaint reminder of the kind of thinking that went on during the Sixties. But what do the drugs actually do? It is recognized that they do not cure schizophrenia, they only mask or reduce the symptoms so that schizophrenics can function in society, enabling them to bring themselves “the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions”.

Yes, Cho was ill. Dangerously, radically ill. But by dismissing his case as easily as do Kluger and Von Drehle, we run the risk that other Chos will rise, enabled by his example; because those market conditions still exist and alienated narcissism is the only survival mechanism available to those who can’t quite make a sale.




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