Mass Murder, Men, and the Decline of the State

By Dr. Vomact

Some deeds raise questions. Some speak so loudly, you might say they are themselves questions. The recent vogue of mass murders, done by a single individual who walks into a crowded public space and commences firing for no apparent reason belongs to this latter class. The press and public ask why anyone would do such a thing. They talk about how such bloody deeds could be prevented.

The answer to the latter question usually follows the obsessions or interests of those who supply it. Those who think guns cause violence use the disaster as another point in the argument against the very notion of an armed citizenry; the proponents of the Second Amendment argue that if everyone had guns, then such murderers would be stopped before they filled their self-imposed quota of death. Others, more wise, argue that these murders are symptomatic of a breakdown of the moral order, or–more specifically–of the decline of Christianity. One is sympathetic to this latter belief; indeed, if a murderer did not think suicide put him beyond accountability, perhaps he would have been deterred.

In the end, most public voices agree that the problem clearly shows a need for more “security”. The State, of course, agrees. As Martin Van Creveld has said (in many books, for example, The Transformation of War and The Rise and Decline of the State) the very reason for the existence of the State is to provide security for its citizens via its monopoly on armed violence. As this noted historian has also observed, the need for armed State violence (or protection therefrom) has declined in the last 50 years. Major States, armed with nuclear weapons, simply cannot afford to attack each other. After the collapse of the Soviet facade, this decline in demand for State security might have become obvious to even the least observant–were it not for the newly created demand for interior (“Homeland”) security.

Its new role as Homeland defender has created an abundance of new opportunities for (at least) the American State to exercise its mission to control; it has caused the profligate flowering of new bureaus and offices, and an influx of money and laws to revitalize those who were becalmed. Here is an instance of the principle that the currents of history never flow in one direction; for every current there is a counter-current, for every Robespierre a Metternich. Just so, those who think that Van Creveld’s announced decline of the State is synonymous with the fall of the State will have to wait, for the very forces of instability have raised a counter-current that strengthens the State.

We began with thoughts about the modern fashion of mass murder; it might not be apparent how these killings are connected to “Fourth Generation War”. Firstly, there is a connection in that the solution to both “random” mass murder and “terrorist” attacks is thought to be the same: more State security. More important is the nature of the murder-fashion itself; I said it was a question, and the question is this: How could they happen at all? Not “Why did he do it?”, but “Why is this possible; how can such a phenomenon exist at all?”.

Consider: it is 1950, and an armed man walks into a crowded department store and commences firing in a leisurely way. As his victims fall and lie bleeding, occasionally he stops to reload. He strolls along, shooting at whim until he wearies of the game and ends his own life. Can you picture it? I cannot. He would not have gotten past the third shot. Why? Run the scene backward. The shooter starts firing. Women scream, and turn to run, dragging children. A man nearby throws himself at the shooter, knocking him down. Others follow his example, and the shooter is quickly covered by pile of pummeling men. If he is lucky, he lives to be arrested.

In 1950, it was still considered appropriate for boys to be taught masculine virtues. Those virtues included bravery, strength, and a willingness to sacrifice. Men were taught as boys to respect women, and adult men were expected to protect both women and children. Like any social norm, it was not always nor perfectly executed: surely there must have been times when men on a sinking ship crowded ahead of the women and children in the rush to the lifeboats. The important point is, such men were regarded as failures, as cowards. Any real man had the right to shoot them like the dogs they were. According to the norm, most every young man dreamed of being a hero–of saving the day (and the pretty damsel in distress). Consequently, the odds are very good that in our imaginary department store scenario, there would have been at least one man who wanted to be hero. Probably, there would have been several; in any case, most of the rest of the able-bodied men present would have been galvanized–and shamed–into action by the hero.

You might say that our society is like a body without an immune system. As such, it is at the mercy of every predatory organism–be it an angry and deranged individual or a cell of 4th Generation warriors–who chooses to attack. Any group of people subject to such an attack have no defense, because no one has been taught to assume the role of defender. No one knows what to do, so the crowd is like a herd of milling sheep, letting the wolves take their pick. It was not always so; it is not of necessity so.

Can State security protect the sheep? Can an institution fill the void left by the collapse of historically sensible and healthy norms? Perhaps, for a time, the State can create the illusion that it is doing so. The State can subject the sheep to ever stricter controls, and tell them that they are the more secure for it. Indeed, the willingness of sheep to accept whatever measures the State dreams up seems unbounded–as long as what is done is done in the name of security. But illusion is not fact: the State cannot truly protect its citizens if they lack the will to protect themselves. One could, of course, hope that–given enough time–even the sheep will catch on. It’s not the way to bet, though.

Was Van Creveld wrong–is the State not declining? On the contrary, Van Creveld is surely right, for he wasn’t predicting the future–he only recognized what had already become fact. On the world stage, all States but the single most powerful State have already become just “one more gang in the street”. American power is still very real, though far more limited than Washington thinks. America cannot be ignored, but it can be fought, fooled, diverted, and–if nothing else–it can be out-waited. But power directed outward is not the same as inward control. As its outward power has weakened, the American State’s control over its own citizens has paradoxically strengthened. (The European Union also seems to have grown into a choking Sargasso of bureaucracy.)

I can’t predict the future. I can only say what is already obvious: we are in a time of increasing chaos, accompanied by a growth in State control. The second trend feeds on the first. However, control and pretense both have limits; nothing can grow without limit, nor exist forever in complete disregard of the truth. This aspect of the State, too, must fade.

[Dr. Vomact was born in Munich, capital of the Bavarian Free State. By an inscrutable whim of fate, he became an American; he hopes that his stylistic excesses will be excused because English is his second language. He studied at the University of California, and was granted a Doctorate in Philosophy by the University of Oregon in Eugene. After a few years of desultory and intermittent teaching assignments, he was cast forth like Milton’s Lucifer from the academic heavens, and has been a source of confusion and consternation among mortals ever since.]

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