Binghamton and beyond: A deeper look at those who just snap

A series of mass killings in recent weeks has given some the impression that things are falling apart in this country.

On March 29, eight people were murdered in a nursing home in Carthage, N.C. There followed the killing of 13 people at an immigrant service center in Binghamton, N.Y., last week, in turn followed immediately by two other violent incidents: the murder of five children by their father, whose wife had told him she was leaving him, and the murder of three policemen by a man in Pittsburgh who was reportedly worried that Obama was going to take away his guns and also angry because his mother had complained about his dog not being housebroken.

In reality, this kind of incident is not new and is not by any means confined to the United States, having happened within the last couple of decades on every continent and multiple times here. We have seen the following similar incidents over the last several decades:

* The murder of six people at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, in 2008.

* The murder of 32 students and faculty by a deranged student at Virginia Tech University in April 2007.

* The Westroads Mall shooting in 2007 in Omaha, Neb., leaving 9 dead.

* The Capitol Hill Massacre in Seattle in 2006, in which a 28-year-old man killed seven young partygoers because he didn’t approve of their lifestyle.

* The 2005 murder of seven people at the Church of the Living God in Brookfield, Wis., by a man upset by the preacher’s sermon.

* The 1991 murder of 23 people in Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Texas, by a man said to be angry with women in general.

* The 1984 murder of 21 people in a McDonald’s restaurant in the San Ysidro section of San Diego by a man who had lost his job because of physical problems.

* The shotgun murder of nine people in a welding shop in Miami in 1982 by a man who was unsatisfied with work they had done for him.

* The famous “Texas Tower” murder of 14 people by Charles Whitman in Austin, in 1966.

Readers may think of other incidents; my point is to show that this is not a new phenomenon, but a recurring pattern.

Blaming ‘capitalism’ is too simple

Some on the left may be quick to blame these incidents on “capitalism” or “capitalist alienation.” This is too easy and too simple. Countless millions of people are alienated and oppressed by capitalism, and vast numbers of people hate their bosses, but they don’t, as a result, go and slaughter their relatives, neighbors, co-workers and themselves. They organize, march, demonstrate, vote and go on strike. They may even organize revolutions, but all these things are sharply different from the very individualistic acts that have shaken communities such as Binghamton.

Nor is there a clear pattern of political or ideological motivation in the killings, other than a fascination with firearms and war on the part of many of the killers (but they are not alone in that fascination). Jiverly Wong, the Binghamton murderer, killed immigrants but was himself an immigrant who had become angry at the United States because he lost his job and he thought people were making fun of his accent. Most of the killers have been white and have killed other whites. Exceptions to this were the shooting of a number of minority people by a follower of the racist Creativity Movement, Benjamin Smith, in 1999, and the massacre of 14 women students at the University of Montreal in 1989 by a man opposed to women participating in higher education. The 1984 incident in San Ysidro involved mostly Latino victims and an Anglo killer, so we may suspect a racist motive there too.

To find any social patterns, we have to delve more deeply into the individual cases. Biographies of these mass murderers, gleaned from news reports, suggest a few commonalities.

Institutional, social, personal failures

* They all had psychological troubles before the final, catastrophic incident. In case after case we see individuals who might have been perceived as “quiet” or “polite” by outsiders, but who were saying and doing things within their intimate relationships which indicated that they felt themselves persecuted and were in danger of exploding. In many cases they or their relatives had been calling for help for quite a while.

Some, such as the man who killed two security guards at the U.S. Capitol in 1999, were clearly psychotic, in his case with bizarre delusions about cannibals invading the world. Another example would be the killer of seven people at California State University in Fullerton, in 1976, who believed that pornographers were forcing his wife to act in porno films; this is a frequent type of psychotic delusion. Almost all could be called “mentally ill” in the broader sense.

But either there were no institutional systems in place to give them the help they needed, or the institutions utterly failed to understand the danger until it was too late. Intake procedures in mental health institutions they or their relatives contacted did not respond with sufficient alacrity. Their families felt overwhelmed and unable to cope with their escalating problems.

* In many cases, they ran into difficulties on the job, or lost their jobs, which led them to believe that not only bosses and supervisors, but also co-workers, were against them, were laughing at them or trying to humiliate them. (In cases of youth who commit mass murders, their fellow students in school are often seen as the persecutors. This opens up the whole other topic of the dynamics of bullying and social cliques, which we don’t have space to go into here, but which urgently needs attention.)

* In some cases the triggering incident is the breakup of a marriage or a love relationship, and the target is the lover or spouse along with his or her kin and friends, who are perceived as having interfered with the relationship. Crimes of passion in the context of love triangles are the stuff of literature, but what is distinctive about these cases is the effort to massacre a whole group of people seen as somehow to blame for the problem.

* The act of mass murder also is often basically suicidal, as more than one of the mass murderers has suggested, done in order to go out in a blaze of glory and “take some of the bastards with me.” The killers either commit suicide by shooting themselves after their killing spree, or commit “suicide by police” by creating a scenario in which it is nearly inevitable that they will be killed by law officers.

* There are very few cases of multiple murderers, the two shooters at Columbine High School in 1999 being an exception. Despite the number of fire-eating extremist right-wing cults in the country who may, in a general way, contribute to some individuals’ paranoia, the killers are generally loners. Thank goodness, mass murderers are not roaming around in packs yet.

* The vast majority of the murders are carried out with firearms, often of the most sophisticated type. The killers, who are not career criminals and may not even have a criminal record, have found it very easy to get hold of pistols, rifles and even automatic weapons. They have shown up at the site of the planned mass killing armed to the teeth, dressed in camouflage or black “ninja”-style clothing, and in the case of Jiverly Wong, wearing body armor.

We can’t simplistically say that “capitalism” drove these people to kill, because many other people have suffered worse oppression under capitalism and have not lashed out in this outrageous individualistic way, but have rather sought the solution in collective struggle. These are atypical, mentally ill and socially isolated people who react in a way that is destructive to themselves and others. They may think of themselves as “rebels against the system,” but they are not.

But capitalism is an enabler

But we can say that capitalism makes this sort of thing possible, for several reasons.

First, the individualistic ideology of capitalism makes it hard for such people to find the kind of social support that they need as their mental processes begin to spiral out of control. In our society, it is nobody’s business but their families’ to deal with the early stages, and families are not equipped to handle such individuals.

Second, the mental health institutions that should be the “first responders” in these cases are in total disarray. Thanks to the attacks of the right on the social welfare budget, these institutions also are unable to bring to bear the resources that would take such persons off the street and make sure that they get treatment (a difficult thing in itself) and do not become or remain dangers to themselves and others.

Violence in TV, films, games? Right-wing agitation?

Does the prevalence of violence in TV, film and games play a role? It may, but again, millions of people have watched the “Rambo” and “Death Wish” type of movies without going over the edge. So if violent entertainment plays a role, it is most likely through triggering an already developed predisposition to violence, not through making people violent in general.

How about right-wing agitation against minorities, immigrants, gays, “liberals,” etc? There have been incidents of attacks on these groups clearly related to agitation by the ultra-right, but none of the bigger massacres fit this pattern, up to now, though evidently the Pittsburgh police shooter may have been influenced by media ravings about the 'New World Order.' It is easy to imagine a scenario, for instance, of the ranting of people like Lou Dobbs or Bill Hannity driving some mentally unstable person over the edge and producing a mass killing, but this is so far mostly a potential.

Guns, guns, guns

But finally, the gun culture and the easy access of all kinds of people to powerful firearms is a factor in almost every single case.

The gun lobby (the National Rifle Association and its political stooges) makes two absurd claims. First, they claim that if such people did not have guns, they would use some other weapon, such as clubs or knives. But you can run away from someone who comes after you with a knife, but much less easily from someone who attacks you with an AK47 or a Glock automatic pistol. Nobody can outrun a bullet. So the availability of guns facilitates the murders and ups the casualty level.

The second claim of the gun people is that if everybody were armed at all times, there would be less violence because nobody would be able to get a shot off without being instantly riddled with bullets himself. First of all, many or most of the mass murderers do not mind being shot dead themselves, as their intentions are suicidal as well as homicidal. I’m betting that distributing guns to everybody in the country, including small children as some seriously suggest, will greatly increase the incidence of violence.

What is to be done? Make it far easier to find psychiatric help for people who are going off the deep end, and far harder for them to get hold of guns. Right now, it is easier to get a gun than to get help for a serious mental health problem, so what do we expect?