Omar Mateen's killing of more than 50 people and wounding of 50 more in Orlando has sparked a debate over its significance, one that reflects the evolution of American liberal thinking. The world, left wingers have increasingly believed over the last few decades, is divided into privileged straight white males on the one hand, and women, gays, and nonwhites on the other. Many instinctively reduce any issue to yet another instance of white male oppression. In this case, I am sorry to say, the terrible killings have touched off a round of what I can only call competitive victimization. While the President and the two candidates to succeed him talk about the killing as an instance of lone wolf terrorism perpetrated by an American Muslim, some gay commentators claim the killing was mainly an expression of American homophobia. This morning, the New York Times quotes several academics arguing that the most significant thing about Mateen is that he had beaten and tried to control his first wife, and suggesting that political Islamic fundamentalism is more than anything else an expression of the impulses behind misogyny. And on Facebook, I have even seen a banner claiming that this was not the biggest mass shooting in American history, that that honor should go to the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which more than 70 people died. I would like to suggest an alternative approach.
My own view of mass murderers has largely been shaped by the insights of the late Alice Miller, a German psychoanalyst who discussed the impact of childhood on later life in several books, most notably For Your Own Good, which includes extensive discussions of both Hitler and other Nazis and how they became who they were. Miller, as it happens, was a Jewish holocaust survivor herself, but in all her many books, I am quite certain, she never referred to herself as a Jew, and it was only in her obituary that I learned that fact. Like Hannah Arendt, she believed she was writing for all mankind. She argued that childhood could produce mass murderers in at least two ways. There were those like Hitler, who was beaten repeatedly by his own father but who could never acknowledge the feelings those beatings produced in him, and found the Jews and others a convenient outlet for his rage. And then there were the lesser Nazis, whose childhoods had taught them, in many ways, that their own feelings did not matter and that their duty was simply to submit to authority--and who could therefore collaborate in the Holocaust without experiencing any strong feelings at all.
I have no doubt, myself, that stories of tragic childhoods in one way or another lie behind every mass killing about which we read today. Bigotry, I believe, provides an outlet for hatred whose real objects--parents, siblings, or other caregivers--cannot be acknowledged. Ironically, many of the most dangerous people, as Miller showed, insist that they revered their parents and were well brought up--because they had been successfully trained to suppress or ignore their own anger and rage. Many great revolutions in modern history, from France in 1789 through Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933, has provided opportunities for men and women to act out their rage. So does the Islamic revolution that has claimed adherents by the thousands in Muslim nations, and by the dozens in the West..
The terrorist urge to hold people under one's control exercising the power of life and death recreates, for the victims, what we all experienced at one time or another as small children when others held absolute power over our lives. If those others used it well and with love, we can grow up to be healthy adults; if they did not, we can spend our whole lives in fear, with the temptation to pass the fear on to some one else. Ideology and specific prejudices may provide convenient targets for these feelings, but they do not provide the drive to rule and kill itself. I am often struck that amidst all the widespread discussion of men's violence against women, there is hardly ever any discussion of the violence the male perpetrator may have suffered himself as a child, either at the hands of women or of men. Many seem to prefer to believe in male original sin. Meanwhile, the many terrorists who commit suicide to kill others are telling the world, among other things, that their own lives do not matter. Some one else must have persuaded them of this already.
Sadly, it now seems clear that radical Islam has enough adherents within the US to generate one or more mass killings a year for some time to come. Despite Secretary Clinton's promises and Donald Trump's fantasies, it will probably be impossible to identify them in advance. (FBI stings have sent a number of totally innocent Americans to prison for joining in supposed conspiracies started by the FBI itself, but one report states that an FBI informant tried and failed to entrap Omar Mateen long before he acted.) Regardless of who individual killers choose as victims, we shall evidently have to expect occasional headlines like this weekend's for some time to come. We could, I believe, reduce the scale of the slaughter by re-instituting a ban on the sale and possession of semi-automatic assault rifles, but that has become politically impossible. Alas, more mass shootings of innocents--especially, perhaps, in red states--will be necessary to get Republicans to rethink their subservience to the NRA and gun manufacturers on this point.
Terrorism threatens public order and the security of every citizen. Its containment deeply interests us all. Meanwhile, we desperately need President Obama's realism about what we can and can't do, both here and in the Middle East, to prevent ourselves from doing more harm in a misguided effort to do good. Terrorism is a fact of life as it was in the United Kingdom for much of the last part of the twentieth century. It will claim more victims. But no one--least of all Muslims--is safe from it, and no one should lay claim to victimhood for any particular act of terror.