This post on “the worst mass killing in US history” addresses a point which has intrigued me since the date of the shootings, when I first read it. I thought this claim was preposterous, so I noted their exact phrasing and started looking around for precise definitions. One example from the following day is here, where they refer more prudently to “the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.”
MSNBC cites the 10 deadliest US shootings here, going back only to Whitman in 1966. And here an Associated Press article analyzes the phenomenon of “the rise in mass shootings” as a post-1966 development, but then refutes this with a quote from a criminologist who found they were just as common in the 1920s and 1930s. The article gives one 1929 example of why this may be attributed to economic despair. Then it proposes alienation as a modern explanation, but refutes this with an example of a 1915 mass shooting in which the killer was apparently well-adjusted. In the end, “answers remain elusive,” that is, there should be an easy solution, but journalists will keep working on it in the meantime.
Within this analysis there appear certain liberal tropes:
1. Gun violence has become part of the common culture and leads to a generic feeling of anxiety.
Mass public shootings have become such a part of American life in recent decades that the most dramatic of them can be evoked from the nation’s collective memory in a word or two: Luby’s. Jonesboro. Columbine.
2. History begins in 1966, that is, at the beginning of the Age of Aquarius.
3. There are three possible causes of random violence: declining morals, increasing depictions of violence in the media, and the availability of guns. Smart people blame guns.
4. Strict gun control laws eliminated the problem in one place.
5. Economic insecurity may also cause mass murder.
6. Some killers blame society, especially “members of particular ethnic or socio-economic groups.”
7. Another cause of mass murder is “decreasing economic security and increasing inequality.”
8. Answers remain elusive, but conservatives are wrong.
- “Declining morals” is equivalent to “loss of community,” but a businessman who had lived in the same place for 12 years committed a mass murder in 1915. Significantly, he used an automatic shotgun. It is not significant to note that he was stopped by a private citizen carrying a gun.
- Violence in the media is insignificant, since killers don’t usually blame the media and geeks don’t usually play video games or watch TV:
Only a handful of them have ever cited violent video games or movies as inspiration for their crimes. Often they are so isolated and socially awkward that they are indifferent to popular culture.
There seems to be willful ignorance of the violent history of the US and of humanity in general. Why? Perhaps they think that people were too dumb before 1966 to know that mass murder was a bad thing.
Personally, I think this characterization of the significance of mass shootings reflects both an anxiety about guns and an anxiety about alienation (not alienation itself, but the fear of it).
I think there is a tendency among journalists to expect modern US society to be civilized and enlightened, and to that extent somewhat ahistorical, as if it is uniquely shocking for someone to both have a lethal weapon and to be angry enough to want to kill other people. They want to believe that society has somehow “progressed,” at least in the democratic paradise. In fact, the liberal sensibility seems to be that democratic government in itself removes any rationale for individual violent behavior, except in the case that one’s civil rights are violated.