Human Rights

Shooting Rampages: An American Tradition

Shooting rampages have evolved into so perversely NORMAL acts of human violence in America that it's worth looking at them in the context of a larger historical pattern.

The shooting rampage at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado is only the latest in a series of incidents that intrude  with numbing frequency on the American social landscape. So regularly do they crop up that the time may well have come to examine these events through anthropological lenses, to see it as a kind of routine social fact, as an unfortunate practice lamented by many, baffling to all, yet grudgingly accepted by not a few. It is a tradition, albeit a bad tradition, just as, say, racism, or human sacrifice once were ordinary institutions in a not-too-distant past.

Shooting rampages have a set of constants. They always involve a heavily armed individual (on occasion, a pair) who sets out to take out his frustrations on whatever person happens to be in his gunsights. They flare up in public places: schoolyards, classrooms, offices, churches, bars, and only recently, a movie theater. Numbers of dead and wounded are somewhere in the low double digits. Next, a suspect is either  apprehended, or he commits suicide. (It is seldom a "she.") Then the pundits deplore it. Informal members of the NRA sect engage in all sorts of logical legerdemain to rationalize it. Liberal politicians, out of fear of being attacked or losing votes, remain largely silent about it. NRA officials issue no comment on it. In short, the same components are to be found solidly in place, time and again. And one simply waits and watches out for the next episode of this sort, like a TV series. Such are the elements, then, of a recurring ritual behavior.

Random shootings, I might add, have become so commonplace a feature of American life that only those large-scale rampages that claim multiple lives attract much attention. Whenever a "mere" one or two or three individuals end up killed in an analogous episode in, say, Iowa or Nevada, the incident rates barely a sidebar in the national press.

Shooting rampages have evolved into so perversely NORMAL acts of human violence in America that one might begin to  tentatively place them within a larger, comparative-historical pattern. Hence, the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice. The Spanish Inquisition held public burnings. Russia's Czars encouraged pogroms. The white South had its lynchings of blacks. Islamic extremists stage suicide bombings. And modern America has its random shooting rampages.  

Of course, essential differences separate these phenomena. The violence of Aztec priests, Spanish Inquisitors, and Russian Cossacks was state-sanctioned. Southern lynch mobs were racially motivated, and their local laws aided and abetted their actions. Suicide bombers, in turn, seek religious salvation and glory. By contrast, in keeping with secular America's long-standing, free-wheeling, anything-goes, individualistic traditions, shooting rampages take place via the spontaneous will of a free individual, whose lethal arsenal has been enabled by NRA lobbyists, Second-Amendment exegetes and purists, powerful gun manufacturers, friendly gun salesmen, and free marketeers in general. (Not surprisingly, libertarians are against gun control in any form.) 

The institution's wellsprings, then, are private, even though its consequences are public. It is also a form of perverse therapy, of catharsis, of asserting one's individuality when things might not be going well for some lonely, troubled, perhaps demented soul. (The phrase "disgruntled employee" comes to mind.) As in all the above practices, somewhere, someone--the gods, the State, white pride, the immortal soul, a guy's irrational yearning for fame, dignity or revenge--gains, even as others die.     

Shooting rampages, then, are the violence that results from modern-day, extreme libertarian practices and traditions. They are--to recall the immortal words of 1960s black activist H. Rap Brown--"as American as cherry pie." There is no sign, moreover, that this tradition is going to recede during our lifetime. Perhaps a team of foreign anthropologists could come to America and study this signature ritual practice of ours, perhaps dispense some practical advice. It is a virgin field for future researches.

Gene H. Bell-Villada teaches Spanish at Williams College. Among his twelve published  books are “García Márquez: The Man and His Work;” a memoir, “Overseas American: Growing up Gringo in the Tropics;” and most recently, “On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind: What the Russian-American Odd Pair Can Tell Us about Some Values, Myths and Manias Widely Held Most Dear.”

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