Thursday, June 16, 2016

A way to think about terrorists

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.


the bicyclist said...

"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. "

Wow. Here we have a mass murder, and your response is to manufacture a reason to empathise with men who are violent towards women? You're a privileged white man, like me. Unlike me, you are profoundly threatened by the idea that the system has been rigged in our favour, and the obvious conclusion that many of us must have succeeded at the expense of more able people who were disadvantaged by being black or female. Get a grip, man. This tragedy is not an opportunity for male self-pity.

Bozon said...


I confess that I am afraid that talking about terrorism generically (as if it were meaningful to talk about terrorism as only one kind of phenomenon), mass killers,and political leaders like Hitler and Stalin involved in organized violence against both their enemies and their own people, is much more than can be usefully discussed together. There are too many different kinds of things going on with these different categories of phenomena.

all the best

Gloucon X said...

Alice Miller's work is outstanding and very important. But where do we get our ideas that violent child rearing is a good thing--anyone heard of the phrase, spare the rod? And where do we find open condemnation of homosexuals, and even calls that they be put to death (hint: Leviticus 20:13). That's right folks, our holiest books tell us to beat children and kill gays. When God says to do something, a lot of people will take it seriously. They always have.

From ISIS web page: “the religiously-sanctioned penalty for sodomy is death, whether it is consensual or not. Those who are proven to have committed sodomy, whether sodomizer or sodomized, should be killed…”

ed boyle said...

Heavy subject. I saw a clip on TV with a USA fundy preacher saying all gays should be killed as part of an antireligion comedy skit on west german TV on same day as massacre. Unplanned but too late to remove for viewer sensitivity. Lots of males out there would have done the same or approved of it. Religion I believe simply is us confirming our own natural bias. Homosexuals would create a religion and God to their own liking and in their image if they could have a majority culture somewhere long enough. Truth is relative. Patriarchalism religion was a male creation. Matriarchical religions and societies were before writing and agriculture.

Most mass shootings are by white males on antidepressants. Sue gun manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. 50 people were shot dead in Chicago separately over memorial day. Who needs a mass killing if we are all angry and armed? Mateen has been quoted as saying he was angry at afghanistan bommbing by USA. How many wedding parties bombed by mistake and collateral damage must be accepted to get one bad guy in a village by bored joystick holding 'pilots' in Florida. Where is revenge? Orlando. Bataclan. We are being held responsible for our govt. behaviour just as we held them all responsible for 9/11. Hitler saw all jews as stereotyoe shylock. As if everyone were responsible for minority behaviour. Nits make lice said President Harrison as general during indian wars. It always ends in genocide, nowadays called ethnic cleansing. Odessa mass murder of hundreds through ukrainian neonazis supported openly by western democratic governments against Russian ethnics. 500,000 dead children due to lack of medicine, food in Iraq under sanctions regime. Thanks to USA democratic led government. This is imperialism. 10 million dead central africans due to Belgian colonial racism. List is endless.

I said to my wife yesterday it is all zeitgeist. People like mateen or normal muslim women suddenly wearing all blacks with an eye slit would not be doing that in another decade. We follow crowd behaviour. Extremismus is a meme spreading until a generational conflict occurs. Perhaps WWIII will be a decision of west vs. east and north vs. south and of Islam against other religions. Look at venezuela now falling apart. If in 10 years our industrial societies fall into same trap due to negative interest rates and demograhic problems, mismanagement then elected officials will make Trump look liberal. Finding foreign and internal enemies and creating jobs through miltary is best way out of a crisis. We are in early days of this phase. If USA, China, Islamic religion survive this at all is a good question. This planet was not made for billions of hominids. Mechanisms to reduce ecological stress usually look similar to Orlando massacre, Shoah, Ruanda. Excuses for massacres can be found in freud, nietzsche, Koran, Bible or childhood suffering. Even the Bhagavad Gita seems a justification for warlike behaviour. Killing is in our genes.

DAngler said...

If I were to hypothesize, it would be more along the lines of Gloucon X's commentary -- that religion tells the terrorist his/her actions are acceptable; but I think it also links into your thesis, that it is child victimization that often desensitizes the adult who commits these atrocities. I just add, "in the name of their beliefs". To say it another way, savagery begets savagery. If Dad savaged me, then that is how life should be; savagely punish those who trespass against my beliefs.

As for the comment that you're a privileged white guy engaging in male self-pity, I think the commenter confuses an attempt to understand (not the same as empathize) with an attempt to excuse. Although he may not agree with me, I apologize for him.

Unknown said...

When you take verses in the Bible you come up with the idea we are supposed to kill homosexuals. But, if you Know the Bible you would realize the Jesus death on the cross paid for our sins. We now live under GRACE! In Old testament days they did kill these people. Now because of God's grace and mercy we can ask and our sins will be forgiven. No person knows what God knows about any person. I would never ever say who goes to hell and who doesn't! The only sin that is unforgivable is turning against God. So don't blame this on God or the Bible.

wmmbb said...

According to Wikipedia, by way of contrast the Australian mass murderer, Martin Bryant who was subject to extreme bullying as a child from other children, appears to have lacked insight into his behavior. He nevertheless felt acutely the resultant rejection from others.

As for the US, sadly I predict within a period of time, perhaps no more that two years, and while gun deaths will continue but not be newsworthy, there will be another carnage by a solitary male with a easily acquired automatic assault weapon. The sales of these weapons must not be stopped, or the buyers subject to cursory scrutiny. Gun sales are too profitable for the manufacturers. All the related palaver and nonsense related for example to "well ordered militias" is purely smoke and mirrors.