Recently by Butler Shaffer: What Lies Beyond Mars?
The law locks up both man and woman Who steals the goose from off the common, But lets the greater felon loose Who steals the common from the goose.
In the aftermath of the murders at the Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee, a lot of counterfeit hand-wringing was expressed by members of the media, politicians, and men and women who could be counted on to appear on television, covering all the bases of politically correct opinion. Once again, we are treated to the spectacle of people engaging in that deadly practice of psychological "projection" (i.e., the effort to rid oneself of undesired "dark side" influences by presuming such traits to reside in others). Institutional deflectors of causal inquiries find the explanation for undesirable events in superficialities such as guns, rock music, lifestyles, alcohol or illegal drugs, clothing styles, or any other behavior that does not negatively implicate corporate-state interests.
Is the availability of guns the underlying cause of such seemingly random violence against strangers? In my youth — in the late 1940s — it was commonplace for teenage boys to own a rifle — usually .22 caliber in nature. While I did not own such a weapon, I learned how to use one at a Boy Scout camp. Many — perhaps most — of my friends owned a rifle or shotgun, and I do not recall any mass killings resulting therefrom.
The idea that material objects have the capacity to direct and control our behavior is so childish that you can see how nicely it fits into the state's interests in keeping us as obedient children. But if the proposition be true, none of us has "free will" (i.e., we are but billiard balls reacting — without intention — to forces outside us). Vector analysis, employing laws of physics, would be sufficient to explain human behavior. If this is so, what moral justification would the state have to punish anyone for anything that they do? If guns were responsible for the mass-killings in Colorado as well as in Wisconsin, why should those who pulled the triggers be held responsible? Perhaps we could revert to the practice in early England when, for example, if a gate collapsed and killed a man, the gate was put on trial and, if found guilty, punished for its "wrongdoing."
But if guns have the power to cause us to do things we would not be inclined to do in their absence, wouldn't the same logic apply to weaponry in the hands of the state? Perhaps it is the guns, bombs, rockets, aircraft carriers, missiles, bombers, and other inanimate tools of death and destruction that cause wars. Those who desire peace in the world should organize themselves on behalf of disarming the state; of taking from the military and police officers the tools with which they are driven by unseen forces to inflict violence upon others. Perhaps the power of inanimate "things" explains why the United States leads the world in the percentage of its population in penitentiaries: in the language of chaos theory, prisons may serve as "attractors" that draw men and women to be incarcerated therein!
It would be easy to dismiss my suggestions as empty foolishness except for the fact that they are quite logical extensions of the premises upon which the media and politically-minded persons operate. If guns make us their unwilling agents of violence in one setting, why not in the other? Such a mindset helps to explain why our behavior is so irresponsible: we are the passive "victims" of things that exercise their wills over us; material objects control us!
But what if the accelerated violence in our world has other explanations to be found in our thinking? What if our minds have created a culture of violence? What if we see the world as a malevolent place, characterized by ever-expanding conflicts with one another? What if we regard every undesirable condition as a cause for going to war — e.g., the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on obesity, the war on cancer, the war on child abuse, etc.? And if our world becomes a battleground within which to fight these endless wars, would our thinking not be attracted to ever-more-powerful weapons for the hostilities?
Given the pervasiveness of the thinking that sees war and violence as the nature of human beings in society, should we be shocked to find occasional individuals emulating the behavior of those who engage in such activity at political levels? When soldiers who kill innocent people in foreign lands are rewarded with medals and accorded the status of "heroes," why do we not extend the same approval to the man who kills his neighbor? Why would we be offended by a bumper-sticker that read "support the Sikh Temple killer," but not one that reads "support the troops"? Why are serial-killers rightly condemned for their mass slaughters, while those who play central roles in conducting wars that kill hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children receive the Nobel Peace Prize?
Is our culture so dominated by systematic lies, contradictions, inconsistences, distortions, speculations-reported-as-facts, and twisted reasoning, that our minds remain in a default mode that accepts the proposition "a lie is as good as the truth if you can get someone to believe it"? Is truth something to be negotiated; to be defined by the outcomes of opinion polls? That paragon of militaristic absolutism, Napoleon Bonaparte, defined "history" as "a set of lies agreed upon." Given his record, do you understand why he found factual inconstancy so necessary to his purposes; and why the modern established order does so as well?
In such ways have we learned to metabolize the moral confusions inherent in our politicized world. When we identify our sense of being with the state — or with any other institution — we have to separate ourselves from those actions that our unconscious minds would otherwise condemn. If we think of ourselves as indistinguishable from the state, the wrongs of its officials become our wrongs; if the state engages in evil, our unconscious voices suggest to us that we are evil. I suspect that a good many alums of Penn State University — whose collective motto is "we are Penn State" — must be experiencing inner turmoil as a result of despicable criminal offenses charged against school icons.
How can we rid ourselves of these discomforting feelings? The mature route would be to engage in what Carl Jung called the process of "individuation," to withdraw one's energies from the collective mindset; to accept that each of us has a "dark side," the forces of which can be neutralized by the awareness that this is who we are. If we are uncomfortable acknowledging our shadow "selves," we can resort to the more common practice of projecting such unconscious sentiments onto a scapegoat, who can then be punished for our participation in collective guilt. A scapegoat need not be innocent of wrongdoing: he or she need only be seen as an acceptable substitute for the misdeeds of those we are fearful of directly confronting.
When American presidents announce to the world that they are entitled to declare war on the people of any other country; that they may torture and imprison others without any legal recourse; and may even order the assassination of anyone they deem to be persona non grata, how will those who identify themselves with the nation-state respond? Unwilling to condemn a system with which they identify themselves — an act that would amount to a personal condemnation — they are eager to find a proxy upon whom to unload their righteous anger. Those who engaged in mass killings in Colorado and Wisconsin were perfect surrogates: they were, apparently, guilty of engaging in these horrific acts. In addition to their own criminality, they can serve (unconsciously) as scapegoats for even more extensive wrongs against other innocent victim.
We are not to inquire, of course, into what might have motivated these troubled men to engage in their murderous acts of violence. It is sufficient that our attention can be diverted to guns, drugs, or dyed hair for explanations. But when presidents and other government officials routinely get away with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents, should we wonder where the idea of mass killing might originate? When the current president asserts the authority to murder anyone of his choosing, should we be shocked to discover young men emulating this policy in suburban settings? And when this same president went on national television and declared that we needed to do some "soul searching" for ways to "reduce violence," did any major political or media voice suggest that the American government might set an example by ending its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Is it denseness or moral cowardice that causes us to not see the causal connections between the violent, destructive, and dehumanizing nature of the practices of the corporate-state, and their reflection in the actions of men and women in our society? Can we stop looking for convenient explanations elsewhere than in the content and processes of our thinking that makes us revere the systems — and their elitist owners – that profit only by destroying us?
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.