Over two decades ago, I traveled to a city in the Russian provinces called Rostov-On-Don to interview a psychiatrist named Alexander Bukhanovsky.
Bukhanovsky, now deceased, was famous. If you’ve seen the movie Citizen X, about the capture of serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, Bukhanovsky was the guy played by Max Von Sydow. He was the Soviet Union’s first criminal profiler.
One of the first things he said was that both Russia and America produced disproportionate shares of mass killers.
“Giant militarized countries,” he said, “breed violent populations.”
Bukhanovsky at the time was treating a pre-teen who had begun killing animals. He told me this young boy would almost certainly move on to killing people eventually. He was seeing more and more of these cases, he said.
Nikolas Cruz, the 19 year-old just arrested for shooting and killing 17 people in Parkland, Florida, supposedly bragged about killing animals. He reportedly even posted photos of his work on Instagram.
There will be lots of hand-wringing in the coming days about gun control, and rightfully so – it’s probably easier to get a semi-automatic rifle in this country than it is to get some flavors of Pop Tarts – but with each of these shootings, we seem to talk less and less about where the rage-sickness causing these massacres comes from.
On the rare occasions when we do talk about it, the popular explanation now is that guns themselves cause gun violence. As the New York Times put it after the Vegas massacre, “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”
But even then, what are we talking about as a root cause of the violence? Commerce? Advertising? We have companies that make a lot of guns, sell a lot of guns, and then – what? Is it just statistics from there?
It’s here, when Americans talk about what actually drives people to kill in huge numbers, that we show off our amazing incapacity for introspection.
Deep-seated racism is the most believable of the many motivations Americans typically trot out to explain their gun-violence problem. But from there it just gets dumber and dumber. Everyone from Donald Trump to Ralph Nader has tried blaming violent video games (“Electronic child molesters,” Nader called them).
After that, it’s movies, where we’ve been told by academics that the amount of gun violence even in PG-13 movies has doubled since 1985 and started surpassing the levels in R-rated film.
OK, sure. But what about the fact that we’re an institutionally violent society whose entire economy has historically been dependent upon the production of weapons?
And how about the fact that we wantonly (and probably illegally) murder civilians in numerous countries as a matter of routine? Could that maybe be more of a problem than 50 Cent’s lyrics? No? Really?
Apart from a few scenes in Bowling for Columbine, this is an explanation you won’t hear very much. Military spending is the lifeline of virtually every federally-elected politician in the country. You’ve been to trained seal shows where the animals get a fish every time they perform? The same principle works with members of Congress and defense contracts.
The U.S. is more dependent than ever on a quasi-socialistic system that redistributes tax dollars to defense projects in even fashion across both Republican and Democratic congressional districts. A few times a year, you’ll spot a news story about someone in the Pentagon trying to refuse a spending initiative, only to be told to keep building by Congress.
In an era of incredible division and political polarization, military killing is the most thoroughly bipartisan of all policy initiatives. Drone murders spiked tenfold under Obama, and Trump has supposedly already upped the Obama rate by a factor of eight. The new president apparently killed more civilians in his first seven months in office than Obama did overall, making use of our growing capacity for mechanized murder.
“We are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now,” a CIA official reportedly told a subordinate with glee some years back. Another CIA vet told the Washington Post the agency had become “one hell of a killing machine.”
Maybe this is just hippie-ish whining about the military, but if we’re talking about where the rationalization of violence comes from in our society, Jesus, how can you not look in this direction?
I vividly remember the spectacle of Dennis Kucinich being laughed at by reporters on the campaign trail during his quixotic presidential runs. He got the most abuse whenever he talked about one of his favorite ideas, the establishment of a “Department of Peace.”
Kucinich never said we couldn’t have a defense department. He just happened to believe we should should make nonviolent conflict resolution an “organizing principle in our society.”
He introduced a “Department of Peace” bill in 2001 and it languished in legislative purgatory until his retirement in 2012. The bill called for the establishment of a “Peace Academy,” modeled after the military service academies, whose graduates would have to perform five years of public service after graduation.
The corresponding Peace Department’s goals were to be aimed at transforming the way we look at the world, and would: “…promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights; strengthen nonmilitary means of peacemaking; promote the development of human potential; work to create peace, prevent violence, divert from armed conflict and develop new structures in nonviolent dispute resolution…”
This is a completely sane and rational idea. It’s even beautiful prose, for a congressional bill. Yet it was continually held up as exhibit one in the case against Kucinich as a crazy person.
When he retired, the Washington Post wrote a patronizing little obit for his peace dream, calling it the “Hope Diamond of liberal ideas: pure, breathtaking, and highly impractical in the real world.”
Why is it impractical?
Why are peace and nonviolence impossible to embrace as national values? Why is this the last taboo?
The people who point at pop culture as the reason disturbed kids and lone-wolf madmen go on killing sprees are half right. But images of violence are less the problem than the messages behind them, which are profoundly intertwined with deep-seated cultural ideas about the virtue of military supremacy and the political efficacy of violence.
Hollywood churns out one film after another in which the hero is a reluctant but highly skilled killer, an “unstoppable killing machine” (there’s that phrase again) like Wolverine. Reluctantly deadly: This is how we like to see ourselves.
One of the weirdest genres involves the super-powerful Randian wealth creator who as a secret hobby masters hand-to-hand killing techniques, and saves the world by bypassing laws and ass-whipping bad guys using awesome military technology.
Christ, both Iron Man and Batman are literally military contractors during their day jobs. Even journalistic movies like Zero Dark Thirty turn into upper-class parables about how the only way to save American lives is through violence, even torture.
The other incredibly popular genre is the revenge tale, in which the otherwise peaceful family man (who just happens to have also been a government-trained super-killer – beware, “I do this for a living!“) is forced to go around the world ripping heads off to save his daughter/son/wife whomever. Hell, even the president turns into an unstoppable ass-kicker from time to time (who can forget Harrison Ford’s “Get off my plane!” scene).
These aren’t just scenes from bad movies. They’re foundational concepts in our society. We’re conditioned to disbelieve in the practicality of nonviolence and peace, and to disregard centuries of proof of the ineffectiveness of torture and violence as a means of persuasion.
On the other hand, we’re trained to accept that early use of violence is frequently heroic and necessary (the endless lionization of Winston Churchill as the West’s great realist is an example here) and political courage is generally equated with the willingness to use force. JFK’s game of nuclear poker with Nikita Khruschev is another foundational legend, while Khruschev is generally seen as a loser for having backed down.
We just don’t believe in peace. We don’t believe in nonviolence. The organizing principle we’re going with instead involves using technological mastery to achieve order by killing exactly the right people.
This is despite the fact that “precision” killing turns out to be less than precise in reality, whenever anyone bothers to check. And we don’t dwell on the misses, like those millions of Indochinese men, women and children we once massacred with bombs and chemicals and evil little pellet-mines. It’s always the enemy who doesn’t value human life, who thinks “life is not important,” as General William Westmoreland – one of the early users of the term “body count” – once said about “the Oriental.”
Gun control? I’m all for it. But this madness won’t stop until we stop believing that killing makes us strong, or that we can kill without guilt or consequence just by being “precise.” What beliefs like that actually make us is insane and damaged, and it’s no surprise that our kids, too, are beginning to become collateral damage.