American Sickness; American Denial

Sadly, we have seen another dreadful spree killing followed by the typical array of responses from commentators evading the underlying sociological and psychological causes. We hear abundant talk about the “culture of violence in America,” in addition to political posturing about gun laws and access to adequate mental health care. These are not irrelevant factors, to be sure, but they are not causal. It is like explaining the persistence of inner-city poverty by pointing towards the substandard public school systems therein, rather than recognizing these factors as intertwined and related to a larger sociological malaise: namely, inequality. As I wrote in response to the Batman rampage this summer: “The first tragedy is the violent act, and the second is the unresponsiveness of society. Both of these are rooted in a hyperactive ego, aggravated by the forces of alienation, de-socialization and the heightened automation of American existence.”

Batman killer James Holmes and Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza were both described as introverted and reclusive by peers. This description has been a constant through the decades of these incidents. Furthermore, the perpetrators have generally had no known history of violent aggression, or even a recorded history of mental illness. Despite this, many liberals advance the psychological-deterministic viewpoint that more robust mental health care would end these recurring episodes. Surely, there are a whole host of reasons the United States needs to invest in public preventative psychiatric care, but this misses the core cause of these massacres.  In fact, the underlying problem plaguing the offenders is unlikely to get captured by mental health workers, because their subdued personality makes it so the first readily visible sign of malaise occurs with their violent release.

Furthermore, psychological disorders do not exist in a vacuum. They are a reflection of dysfunction within society, especially when this is recurrent. I am certain that the pharmaceutical industry would love for psychiatrists to invent a new branch of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) with suggested treatment of some cocktail of mind-numbing pills for all patients exhibiting warning signs of introversion. However, this would be equally as destructive as this nation’s frivolous war on drugs, or its war on “hyperactive” children. There is no patch to cover up this blemish on the Disneyland Empire, where all is meant to be jubilant behind the white picket fence. You cannot simply apply varnish and scrub away at a deep-seated sickness.

The fact is that Americans are in a state of denial about their condition. They glance the other way or proffer the aforementioned solutions, refusing to allow for the possibility that we are innately infected. The malady at work here goes to the very heart of what it means to be an American. Specifically, we are an ego-driven society wherein empathy is viewed as weakness. What’s more, a rational and measured tenor tends to get swallowed up in the boisterously egomaniacal personalities that predominate. This is a setting particularly harsh on introverts, and notably male introverts. A quiet and rational composure is viewed as un-cool, if not wholly un-masculine. Meanwhile, smart children and adolescents are often disparaged as “nerds” or “dorks.” Our culture treats its dynamic and intelligent members as “weird” outsiders.

This denigration of the smart kids further promulgates through this nation’s virulent anti-intellectualism. One of its manifestations is that Americans discourage meaningful conversation. They prefer talking in incessant platitudes and trivialities. So when someone pipes up with “I think these spree shootings point to a more intrinsic societal problem . . . ,” you are bound to get scoffed at or mocked. Otherwise, you might be accused of cynicism, despite being the guy who is actually trying to help an increasingly desperate situation.

Before we can help, we need to recognize this problem as being firmly entrenched. Next, we need to understand the psychological dynamics at work. For one, these outbursts are driven by ressentiment: the externalization of personal resentment in an ego-driven outburst. The perpetrator first feels frustration over his perceived role as an isolated outcast, to the point of being overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness. He may then recognize his psychological descent, but feel too ashamed to seek help. The American man is not supposed to admit emotional failings, a sure sign of weakness. At this point, egoistical man, alienated and replete with feelings of resentment, becomes fatalistic man, and the rampage occurs.

The perpetrator has suspended disbelief, but so has society. The murderer believes that any consequences of his act, including death, are worth the price of achieving the ultimate release. Meanwhile, society believes that it still functions. The whole is legitimized by the foolhardiness of its incumbent parts. In this way, society echoes the madman. It externalizes its resentment of the violent act by dismissing it as aberrational. “Nature creates crazy people, and there is nothing we can do about it.” And this process continues ad infinitum. Egoistical society serves as the stage for the resentful fatalist: each mutually dependent and self-reinforcing.

Violence itself is undoubtedly a part of the problem, but only insofar as it serves as release. These young men were attracted to violence because it makes the loudest bang. They probably lack the sadistic tendencies of the American troops laughing as they fired away at innocent civilians from an Apache helicopter. They do not get off on violence the same way as cops smashing a baton upon the head of a dissident or malcontent. The killing spree perpetrators have merely resigned themselves to violence. Isolated, alone, and feeling inadequate, the bloodbath is their way of coming to life.

Our next step is advocating proactive steps to address the underlying illness. As already mentioned, there is no panacea, since we are dealing with a complex social issue that runs to the very foundation of the culture of this country. The solution will require changing attitudes and behavior patterns over a long period of time. It will require disempowering the petty and smug archetypes that currently prevail here. It will require fighting back against bullies of all sorts, so that the American child is not born to think that might makes right. It will require that people learn to have an appreciation for the value of intellectual rigor and thoughtful criticism. It will require that we stop living in a perpetual state of denial, wherein people sincerely believe that this is the great Hopetopia. It will require fighting back against the hyperactive ego and the attendant forces of alienation and social isolation that feed the psychological resentment that ultimately leads to this violent release. It will require that we become a more functioning society: one that proactively addresses its problems, cares for its vulnerable, salutes (rather than disparages) its dynamic members, and doesn’t occupy the bulk of its time with lecturing the remainder of the world about how great we are. In other words, we need to stop being so American, for the well being of children the world over: from Pakistan to Connecticut.

Matt Reichel is a freelance writer and PhD student at Rutgers University. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Matt, or visit Matt's website.