The Root of All Evil

After the terrifying attack in Orlando, too many are looking for easy solutions. What (really) causes killing?

An American-born Muslim on a terrorist watch list walks into an LGBT club with an AR-15 and sprays over 100 bullets, killing 50. If you wanted the perfect crime to galvanize both the right and the left into their usual tired talking points, you could do so with no greater efficacy.

All the usual drums are banging: More guns. Fewer guns. More exacting immigration policies. Greater support for the LGBT movement. Extreme toughness on ISIL. It’s all there.

And to say they’re “usual drums,” speaks to an even larger point: the phenomenon of American violence in the 21st Century is only growing more common — and more violent. Whether it’s an elementary school at Sandy Hook, a college at Virginia Tech, a movie theater in Aurora, church in Charleston, or a club in Orlando — whether the perpetrator was white, black, Christian, Muslim, atheist or Asian — we’re running out of corners of the country and pockets of people yet to feel the catastrophe of a cold-blooded killing.

But, why? Why here? Why now? To answer this question of what causes our increasingly violent society, one would think we could investigate causes. But that’s a bit more problematic than we’d like it to be:

“Do you know that Congress will not allow the Center of Disease Control to study gun violence?” President Barack Obama stated during a PBS NewsHour forum.

We live in an era of unprecedented, impenetrable amounts of data. We live in the golden age of metrics. We have yet to fully understand what’s causing our society to crumble into a pool of blood and ash.

Much violence in the U.S. is attributed to the prevalence of gun ownership. Indeed, guns are enjoying a golden age of their own:

Guns are nothing new in the United States. They’re a cornerstone of the Constitution and helped overthrow the British Empire some 240 years ago. But why so many now? And what causes people to use them in ways that send so many parents and children grieving?

A 2013 Pew Research Center Study asked U.S. Citizens why they owned a gun.

The entirety of this increased margin can be attributed to people feeling they need protection. A full 48% of U.S. gun owners say the primary reason for their purchase was or protection — a 22% increase compared to all other factors since August 1999. There’s also been nearly a 300% increase in total gun ownership during that same time frame, which means a substantial portion of the U.S. feels the need to protect themselves. But from what? To better understand what gun owners feel they need protection from, it’s best to take a look at who’s doing the buying.

Of those in the same study who owned a gun, men were three times as likely as women to have access to a firearm. Whites were twice as likely as blacks and three times as likely as Hispanics to own a gun. And those living in rural areas were twice as likely to own a gun as those living in urban or suburban areas. Age, education and area of the country didn’t much matter.

White. Male. Rural. These correlate with gun ownership, but these factors alone do not cause it. And they certainly alone don’t explain the preponderance of gun violence. But this group feels the need to protect themselves. But, why? And against what?

To answer this, we need to understand the things that cause white men living in rural areas to feel compelled to arm up for their own safety.

A recent Chapman University survey reported by the New York Times suggests the Americans increasingly think the United States is a scary place to be.

Government corruption. Cyber-terrorism. Terrorist attacks. Espionage. Bio-warfare. Economic collapse. A plurality of U.S. citizens are scared of the very institutions meant to protect them *and* breakdowns of those same institutions. But there’s more once you exit the Top 10.

U.S. Citizens are afraid of many things. Of note:

  • 36.5% afraid of gun control
  • 32.0% afraid of civil unrest
  • 29.7% afraid of illegal immigration
  • 28.9% afraid of robots replacing humans in the workforce
  • 18.2% afraid of whites no longer being a majority

All of these figures are more substantial than the 16.4% of U.S. Citizens afraid of a “mass shooting.” (And, alarmingly, more than the mere 6.8% who are afraid of clowns.)

When Franklin D. Roosevelt said “The only thing we have to fear … is fear itself,” he may have been even more correct than he intended.

One can infer that there’s a high likelihood this bucket of fears sits comfortably within the realm of fears held by white, rural males who’ve purchased guns. They’re often stereotyped as angry and hateful.

But the word “afraid” is an interesting word. It suggests — or, more bluntly, is — “fear.” It isn’t anger. It isn’t rage. It’s fear.

And these men are clearly afraid. In an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Jennifer Carlson interviewed Michigan gun owners, their responses were telling, suggesting that these men were losing a grip on what they once held dear:

“Before, it was all blue collar, shop workers and a little bit of welfare. Now it’s all welfare, and things are different.”

Frankie told me that in the 1970s he “got a job at General Motors, and they were hiring people off the street with zero education, and they could work 20 years, and they could make a living. You can’t do that now.”

“The child’s born. Mortgage, marriage. I have a kid. I’m paying for all this stuff on a truck driver’s wage…. I wanted to protect them all, so then a firearm comes along.”

She summarizes:

As men doubt their ability to provide, their desire to protect becomes all the more important. They see carrying a gun as a masculine duty and the gun itself as a vehicle for a hardened kind of care-work — caring for others by shielding them from danger, with the threat of lethal force.

There’s no doubt that white males in rural areas have done comparatively worse than their traditional baseline in 21st Century United States. That’s why there’s a populist rally to “Make Donald Drumpf Again.” There is a certain group of people that this “America” was great for, and it’s the group of people who aren’t doing so hot as of late, the group of people who’d be likely to pick up a gun. This group could be very willing to blame those who’ve gained quite a bit this century — women, LGBT and immigrants — for what they themselves have lost. There’s now an African-American in the White House, robots doing the jobs they used to do and women hired as their colleagues and superiors at the jobs they have now.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt said “The only thing we have to fear … is fear itself,” he may have been even more correct than he intended.

Fear begets fear. It’s contagious. In the throes of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, computer scientist Emilio Ferrara wrote a program to mine Twitter for conversations about the disease and analyze their emotional sentiment. In his findings, he discovered that “Fear-rich” tweets triggered re-tweets twice as fast, on average, as neutral posts or posts conveying other emotions such as happiness.

Fear-induced stress is at the root of mass hysteria. When we hear or read about a threat — that vaccines cause autism, that immigration begets terrorism, or that an explosion at the White House injured Obama — our bodies respond to it as if it were real before our conscious minds can evaluate its truth. And because we feel threatened, we’re more likely to believe that we are, and to share our fears with others.

An American-born Muslim on a terrorist watch list walks into an LGBT club with an AR-15 and sprays over 100 bullets, killing 50. If you wanted the perfect crime to galvanize both the right and the left into their usual tired talking points, you could do so with no greater efficacy. Now we’re One Nation, Under Fear.

It is this fear-based misinformation and policy that spreads following attacks that do more harm than good. And it leads to fear-based behavior like affiliating with terrorism, purchasing an assault rifle, acting without civility or decorum.

Where there is fear, there is no easy solution, and in the absence of easy solutions, exploitation of that fear spreads and leads us further into an unknown, where the deluge of data we could use for good is preceded by a tsunami of rumor that doesn’t serve anyone or solve anything.

And that is something we should all be very, very afraid of.

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Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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John Gorman

John Gorman

Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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