Lawrence Powell, Contributor
Heading into our family Christmas celebrations, when there's time to reflect on what it all means, it's no wonder so many of us suddenly feel punched in the stomach by this terrible news of the Connecticut elementary school massacre - in which 20 young children and six adults were gunned down mercilessly by Adam Lanza, who also shot himself. (He had killed his mother earlier at home.) There are no words to express what the holidays will now be like for those left behind.
How could this happen? Instinctively, we draw our children tighter to us, and hug them longer. In the week since the Newtown shooting, more details have emerged about the young killer, and his mother, father and brother. But the details do not satisfy. Everyone senses in their gut that this wasn't just a personal family drama. There are deeper cultural maladies at play here.
Since I'm an American myself, I'll go ahead and say it. The culture itself is sick. It's not just a few isolated individuals. This keeps happening, over and over. There is what crosscultural psychologists would call a 'culture syndrome' on the loose here. This latest American incident is one in a long string of similar ones, far too numerous to be a product of just erratic individuals alone.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has compiled a list of similar mass killings that have occurred since 2005 in the United States (US). That list goes on for more than 60 pages. In 2011 alone, the Centers for Disease Control reports that there were 15,953 murders, 11,101 of which were attributed to firearms.
More insane every day
To place this in perspective, among affluent industrialised nations, the US has a murder rate that is eight times larger than Norway's - where earlier this year, mass murderer Anders Breivik gunned down an island full of trapped politicos. In Norway, that was viewed as a unique and shocking event. In the US, such scenes are commonplace.
During this past year, we've seen 12 major 'mass shootings' take place in the US so far, including the July 20 massacre in Aurora, Colorado, in which an armed 24-year-old graduate student entered a mall theatre during a midnight showing of 'The Dark Knight Rises' and opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 58. In most of these mass shootings, the guns had been legally purchased.
One of the founders of the post-Freudian 'social' school of psychoanalysis, Erich Fromm, wrote a very thoughtful book many years ago titled The Sane Society. In it, he focused on the increasingly neurotic, psychopathological nature of modern American life. His book title was meant to be ironic, in two senses at once. First, we usually think of individuals, not whole societies, as being sane. And second, he actually meant to imply that American society was becoming increasingly insane. His main thrust was that psychological problems, family disputes, and resultant violence always develop within the context of a broader way of life, not all by themselves.
As Fromm, and many others since, have pointed out, we need to diagnose and then treat the entire culture - through sophisticated social analysis, and societywide public policies. This is a collective ailment, a matter of societal ideology, mass culture, and yes, politics. It's not simply crazy or immoral individuals misbehaving in isolation.
In the decades since Fromm made his observation, progressive reformers have been pleading until they're hoarse, over many years, with Democratic and Republican policymakers to please, please do two things - restrict access to high-powered weapons, and make social workers and mental-health services more readily available to families who need help.
But historically, American society was built on an individualistic, every-man-for-himself, self-reliance, minimum-government ideology - one which sanctifies individual rights to bear arms, over collective safety. This priority is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. In such an extreme liberalist culture, public massacres like Newtown keep happening, and will go right on happening again and again.
So it's a culture syndrome, with Americans repeatedly chasing their tails - looking for solutions within the American Way, when the American Way itself is the source of the problem. The entire culture seems to be in denial about this, not fully conscious of the uncomfortable reality that these repeated horrific massacres are not merely a matter of abnormal, exceptional freaks, but keep happening because the society itself has become ill.
Though facing this uncomfortable reality goes against the grain for many Americans, and especially for Republicans, a broader society-level therapy, then, would require intervention on at least two fronts - gun access, and mental-health care access. To succeed, reformers would have to overcome tremendous political and cultural resistance with respect to both. And that would take political courage. (Obama, for example, if he takes up the reform mantle now, may be risking loss of cooperation in the fiscal cliff negotiations with Republicans.)
Reluctant welfare state
Experts in comparative public policy will tell you that the US has 'the most reluctant welfare state' in the modern industrial world, one that has been particularly Scrooge-like during Republican administrations. Compared with most other modern industrialised societies, the US invests far less in social services (including mental-health care) to assist its citizens in navigating life stresses - roughly half what nations like Norway, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany and France devote to helping theirs.
Not accidentally, this 'missing' portion of the US national budget, which would ordinarily be spent nurturing citizens through their family-life traumas and illnesses, instead goes heavily to pay for massive national defence ventures that typically involve a capacity for organised violence, weapons, and munitions. The culture, as a whole, then, as reflected in its national budget priorities, shows a strong preference for aggression and violence, over nurturance and social capital building.
Over time, this chronic social neglect, in the name of individual self-reliance and avoiding big government, inevitably takes its toll on family life. More emphasis on 'big government' investments in family security, for citizens at home, and less policing of the world with threats of violent force abroad, would certainly go a long way towards restoring sanity within American society.
Also, one has to keep in mind that this cultural obsession with guns is symbolic of 'defending my freedom against a tyrannical government'. Hence, in the American context, worship of guns becomes a sort of civil religion to some. This cult of defensive paranoia originated in the late 1700s Revolutionary War against the British. At the time, it was a rational response to colonial tyranny. But it is obsolescent in today's world, and will obviously have to yield at some point to the realities of modern 21st-century global, interdependent life. It no longer makes sense to stockpile private arms in case tomorrow you might have to shoot at British redcoats from behind trees.
Fromm was right. It is not sane for a society to worship an individual's right to bear arms, to the point where it undermines everyone's collective security, including young children's. And it's not sane to be so afraid of your own democratically elected government that you won't even let it fund the health of families and, in particular, their mental-health care needs. With underfunded mental-health support, and easy access to firearms, there's a fuse and a powder keg in every American household waiting to find each other. In the Lanza household, they did.
Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of
Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University
of Auckland, New Zealand, and former senior lecturer in the Department
of Government at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and