Race, Class, Violence and Denial: Mass Murder and the Pathologies of Privilege

The senselessness alone would have been sufficient.

So too the sheer horror.

The devastated families, the tapestry of their lives ripped apart, would have been more than enough to make the events at Sandy Hook Elementary almost too weighty to bear.

Much as they were more than a decade before at Columbine, or in any number of other mass or spree shootings — over five dozen by one count, more than 150 by another — that have played out over the past few decades.*

There is nothing, one would hope (and even suspect) that could make the present moment any worse.

And yet sadly, there is, and it is something that one hears almost every time one of these tragedies transpires. Over and again, no matter how frequently they happen, and no matter how often the specifics of the latest event eerily mirror the last one and the one before that — the high capacity weaponry, the apparent mental and emotional instability of the shooter, and the relatively bucolic surroundings of the locale where the deed is done — it is said again and again with no sense of irony or misgiving.

And it is maddening.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen here.”

Or perhaps, “No one could have imagined something like this happening in our community.”

Or even worse, “This is a nice, safe place,” which of course was the same thing said about Springfield, Oregon, Pearl, Mississippi, Littleton and Aurora, Colorado, Moses Lake, Washington, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Santee, California, Edinboro, Pennsylvania, Paduchah, Kentucky, and pretty much every one of the dozens of places where the things that never happen appear to happen regularly enough to constitute something well North of never; indeed quite a bit up from rare.

To have said merely that these things are not supposed to happen, at all, anywhere, to anyone’s children would have been both appropriate and more to the point, true. Six year old children are not supposed to die, whether from gunfire or untreated asthma, whether from violence or inadequate nutrition and medical care. Parents are not supposed to bury their children. Period. And yet every year millions upon millions around the world do, including untold tens of thousands across the United States.

But it is not enough, apparently, to simply remark that there is something tragic and unexpected and uniquely unacceptable about childhood mortality, and to leave it at that, to punctuate this most obvious and banal truism with a period and be done. No, it is that additional four letters, that one hanging syllable, that modifier of our shock and amazement, which localizes its unacceptability in a particular space — here. Not there, but here.

Still, after all these years, and all these sanguinary calamities, there remains the utter surprise that yes, evil can visit the “nice” places too. What’s that you say? Childhood death isn’t just for the brown and poor anymore? Not merely a special burden to be borne by the residents of South Chicago, West Philadelphia, or Central City New Orleans? There is dysfunction and pathology and general awfulness where some of the beautiful people too reside? Yes precious, yes indeed. This time would you please write it down? Perhaps make it your Facebook status forever, so you won’t forget?

I don’t mean to be callous, and indeed I have shed plenty of tears for the families in Newtown, as I do every time one of these massacres takes place, and as I sadly know I will again. But Goddammit, it is the denial, the cocoon-like innocence of the bleary-eyed denizens of these communities that drives me to distraction. Precisely because I do care, and I know that that very innocence — which now for the umpteenth time we get to hear has been shattered — is more than just maddening, and far more than an academic point. It actually helps to make these kinds of gut-wrenching catastrophes more likely.

After all, to whatever extent we place the blame for these things on widespread gun availability, we should know by now that with 280 million guns in circulation, they can’t all be tucked into the waistbands of young black men who reside somewhere else; that at least some — and by some I mean a frightful lot of them — are surely stored in well-apportioned cases for display, in small towns and rural hamlets and suburban cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs and gated communities, by people who aren’t yet sure enough that their gates will suffice to keep the dreaded other (who never looks like their own disturbed son, but always someones else’s — darker and poorer) at bay. And so why are we surprised?

And to the extent we place the onus of responsibility on untreated mental illness, certainly we must know that emotional disturbance and chemical imbalance, the likes of which can, in some cases, lead to violent episodes, is no respecter of zip codes. Indeed, it may be precisely in those “nicer” places — to use the terminology to which we default whenever we speak of whiter and more affluent communities but would rather not admit exactly what we’re saying — where signs of emotional disorder, dysfunction and pathology are most likely to fly beneath the radar, in ways they never would in places where police, social workers, counselors, teachers and even parents are on constant lookout for signs of trouble, because they, after all, haven’t the luxury of being naive to the game.

Don’t misunderstand: It is certainly true that our entire culture has stigmatized mental illnesses — viewing them as somehow indicative of a weakness of will, or suggestive of an inherently dangerous tendency rather than the organic disorders they happen to be, and which usually do not result in homicidal rage — such that many who need help will not get it, their conditions remaining undiagnosed and untreated. But this dreadful reality has a special ring of truth to it in those places where people are particularly used to keeping up appearances, and where they have the material and social privilege that allows one to keep one’s dirty laundry in one’s proverbial closet rather than having it aired for all the world (as is normative in poorer places). Is it really so hard to imagine that in the “nice” and “quiet” communities where people are presumed to have their metaphorical shit together — and where being in firm possession of said shit is indeed a virtual condition of entry itself — those who manifest dysfunctional and pathological tendencies might remain hidden, unhelped, and precisely because to admit of their issues would be to cast doubt upon the unsullied virtue of Pleasantville and those who call it home?

It is just a theory, a speculative musing that you are free to accept, reject, or ponder further as you wish. I cannot prove it. I am not even sure that I believe it. But I can’t shake the nagging sense that it is more than a little possible. Surely we know it holds true in places like Littleton, where the Columbine killers had gone so far as to make a film in which they acted out the murders of their classmates and teachers, well in advance of their actual massacre; a film about which school officials were aware, but which failed to set off alarm bells in the way it doubtless would have had it happened in an urban school, or for that matter, had two of the handful of black kids at Columbine been the ones to have made it there.

And with reports coming out that the Sandy Hook shooter had evinced profoundly antisocial tendencies from an early age it is not unreasonable to wonder if such a child, in a community less stable than Newtown, and where any kind of odd and strange behavior is seen as a potential sign of trouble down the road (rather than being written off to nerdiness or geekdom) might have been intervened upon rather than left to his own devices and those of his mother.

Speaking of whom, can we really imagine a poor, urban, black or Latina mom successfully removing her disturbed child from the local public school so as to home school him, and then, in her spare time hauling him off to the shooting range to make sure he knew how to fire, among other things, an assault rifle? Once again, I am merely wondering aloud, but it seems something less than irrational to believe that maybe, just maybe, it was this family’s social position, their class status and yes, their race, which insulated them from the judgment and external control so regularly deployed against the poor and those of color who manifest drama in one or another guise.

They were from good families.

This is a nice, safe place.

Say it again. Say it a thousand times if it helps you get through your day, your week, your life.

But know this: the minute we as a nation lull ourselves to sleep, and allow ourselves the conceit of deciding that some places are beyond the reach of evil, of death, of pain — while others are not, and are indeed the geographic fulcrum of misery itself — two things happen, and both are happening now. First, we let our guards down to the pathologies that manifest quite regularly in our own communities — the nice places, so called — whether domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, or any of a dozen others; and second, we consign those who live in the other places — the not-so-nice ones in our formulation — to continued destruction, having decided apparently that in spaces such as that there is really nothing that can be done. They are poor, after all, and dark, and embedded in a pathological culture, and so…

At the very least let us agree that there is something of a cognitive disconnect here, linked indelibly to the race and class status of the perpetrators of so many of these crimes, when contrasted to the way in which we normally, as a nation, discuss crime and violence.

After all, when poor folks or people of color engage in criminal activity — including, in general, a disproportionate share of lethal street violence — everyone has a theory; and not just a theory but an analysis that in one way or the other implicates something cultural. For the right, it’s the culture of poverty, or perhaps some specific aspect of “black culture” — about which they know nothing but about which they also feel utterly qualified to speak — while for the left it’s the culture of systemic inequality, of economic marginality, or the cumulative weight of institutional injustice.

But when white people, and especially those from stable and even well-off economic backgrounds lash out in a manner often far more bizarre, indiscriminate, and apocalyptic than even the most determined street thug, it is then that the value of broader cultural critique vanishes faster than ethical judgment on Wall Street, to be replaced by a far more individualistic analysis. It’s the guns in that kids home, or the video games he played, or the Asperger’s, or the bullying, or he was a loner, or watched violent movies, or whatever. Because we cannot bring ourselves to ask the questions, let alone countenance the possible answers that we would ask and at which we might arrive were the vast majority of these mass killers black, or Latino, or God forbid Arab Muslims. In any of those cases — and everyone with even a shred of honesty would admit it — we would be talking not about the individual killer as an aberration, as a disturbed and disordered soul who had lost his way. We would be talking about the group or groups from which they hailed; about their cultures, their religion, their pathological communities.

But Adam Lanza was not Muslim. Not black. Not brown. He was a white man, like about 70 percent of all mass and spree killers in American history. And no one seems to think this is very interesting or worthy of comment. Indeed, for even broaching the subject, the always astute David Sirota has been attacked all across the interwebs for his temerity. Attacked by the same people who would demand a racial and/or religious group analysis of the crimes had they been perpetrated in these percentages by any of the above groups to whom seven in ten such murderers most decidedly do not belong.

And no, I’m not saying there is something about whiteness that causes mass murder. But neither is there anything about blackness that causes the kind of retail crime we still see far too often in this nation’s cities; nor anything about Islam that is intrinsically connected to terrorism. And I’ll be more than happy to drop the line of inquiry I have so indelicately opened here if the rest of America will shelve lines two and three. But so long as we have people who insist on an inherent linkage between race and crime on the streets of Newark, or religion and terrorism the world over, I’m going to keep my argumentative options open, thank you very much.

Beyond the racial angle, can we also agree that perhaps there is something about a distorted notion of masculinity at work here? Is it merely coincidental that most of the perpetrators in these kinds of slaughters are something other than the media-hyped image of a man? That they are, so often, noted to be geeks and nerds? That they were bullied or picked on, or just ignored? Just as young women who fail to live up to the culture’s constricting definition of an ideal heterosexual woman often develop destructive tendencies, usually directed inward regarding body image, might men too, who struggle to keep up with the notion of manhood sold by Men’s Health, Maxim — and more to the point gun manufacturers themselves who deliberately seek to link manhood to assault weapon ownership — seek emotional sustenance from deadly hardware, body armor and the capacity to kill not just the individual person with whom you have beef, but everyone in your general vicinity with a heartbeat?

Again, it’s just a theory, but so is every critique of the poor and those of color that has come down the pike in the last thirty years, or for that matter, forever. And it seems more than past the time when we ought to be willing to at least ask the questions, lest we be caught flat-footed, again and again and again, utterly paralyzed by the dysfunction that we continued to believe, against all evidence, would remain far from our placid environs, forever.

* There are different interpretations of what constitutes a mass murder killing or spree killing. Mother Jones recently compiled a list limited to those events in which more than three victims (not including the killer) were murdered. Other events, involving mass killings over several days (some of which were counted by Mother Jones but others not), or events involving 2 or three victims are included by others and result in larger estimates.

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