Author: Robert Koehler
For the full article:
by Robert Koehler
by Robert Koehler
“Many people think that the fight for America is already lost. They couldn’t be more wrong. This is just the beginning of the fight for America and Europe. I am honored to head the fight to reclaim my country from destruction.”
This is how the El Paso killer ended his white supremacy screed, posted just before he “went in” and killed 22 “invaders” who were shopping at a Walmart’s store this past weekend. And, as everyone knows, half a day later another armed maniac wearing body armor and sporting a semiautomatic went on a shooting rampage outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine and wounding 26. And a few days earlier, a gunman killed three people, including two children, at a festival in Gilroy, Calif.
So what else is new? Should we sing the national anthem?
Something is terribly wrong in this country of almost 400 million guns — wrong beyond solution by gun control or increased security measures . . . at shopping malls, schools, garlic festivals, churches, temples, synagogues and everywhere else. Americans are killing each other at an average of one mass shooting a day. How is this possible? What poison is permeating the social infrastructure?
Nearly seven years ago, after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, sociologist Peter Turchin called the nation’s mass murders, which have been increasing at a dizzying rate over the last half century, “canaries in a coal mine.”
He wrote: “The reason we should be worried about rampages . . . is because they are surface indicators of highly troubling negative trends working their way through deep levels of our society.”
In other words, tragic and horrifying as such events are in and of themselves, they are also collective signals of some deeply embedded flaw in the social infrastructure that must be discovered and addressed. Racism is only part of it. Guns are only part of it.
Consider the media consensus after the El Paso shootings that it was also a “hate crime.” Was this supposed to ramp up its level of seriousness? Innocent people are dead no matter what you call it. Pondering whether it should be considered a hate crime seemed as nitpicky to me as pointing out that the shooter not only killed 22 people but parked his car illegally before entering Walmart.
Here’s what it was: a dehumanization crime. In every mass shooting rampage that has ever taken place, the killer had no personal connection to his victims. They weren’t people, they were either symbols of a social wrong with which he was obsessed or, at best, collateral damage.
Turchin called this “social substitutability” — substituting a particular group of people for a general wrong, proclaiming them enemies because of their ethnicity, religion, presence in a classroom or any other reason.
Engaging thus has another name. It’s called going to war.
“On the battlefield,” Turchin wrote, “you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you’ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. . . . Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable.”
They’re gooks. They’re nips. They’re hadjis.
Writing in the wake of a mass murder way back in May (in Virginia Beach), I noted: “War is a combination of dehumanizing and then killing an enemy along with any civilians in the way (a.k.a., collateral damage), and then glorifying the process: that is to say, it’s mass murder plus public relations.”
When we celebrate war, salute it and revere it, we’re not celebrating the corpses in mass graves or the bomb-shattered cities and villages and wedding parties. We’re not celebrating the radioactive fallout, the birth defects caused by depleted uranium or the global military’s unfathomably large carbon footprint contributing to the environmental collapse of Planet Earth. We’re not celebrating PTSD and the high suicide rate among vets.
We’re celebrating the waving flag and the national anthem, the glory and the bravery and the heroism. All this stirs the heart — especially the heart of a young man — like little else. All of which brings me back to the El Paso killer’s screed. He was going off, fully armed, to a shopping mall to kill moms and dads buying school supplies for their kids in order “to reclaim my country from destruction.”
He was playing war. My guess is that they’re all playing war, in one way or another. Whether or not the mass murderer is a vet — and a large percentage of them are — they are giving meaning to their lives by turning their anger and despair into a military operation. When we mix racism in with the easy availability of lethal weaponry, it turns into terrorism, which is to say, collective lunacy — a lunacy surpassed in its scope and human cost only by the lunacy of war itself.
So my question is this: Why can’t we talk about this at the national level? How many minutes of the last two Democratic presidential debates were devoted to the defense budget or nuclear weapons or the 21st-century phenomenon of endless war? Tulsi Gabbard, a vet, used about a minute of her time to address the issue, taking a clear stand against our regime-change wars. Otherwise . . . nada.
Does anyone think that lockdown drills in the public schools or security checks at shopping malls (a recent New Yorker cartoon depicted a woman in a grocery checkout line removing her shoes and putting them on the conveyor belt) will keep us safe? Does anyone believe that our current political system is capable of addressing the prevalence of war and the trillion dollars-plus we hemorrhage annually for “national defense” and prisons and “border security”?
Does anyone doubt that the mass murders will continue?
Robert Koehler (firstname.lastname@example.org), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.
PeaceVoice gives Stephen Klinger a chance to respond:
By Steve Klinger
With much respect for Bob Koehler, a journalist whose insights and rhetoric I admire with equal measure, I don’t think “Dead Canaries” takes the coal-mine post-mortem analogy to its deepest level. Not only are human canaries dying, victimized by killers Koehler describes as deluded participants in their own version of some sort of global war; killing each other is only one manifestation of the death spiral they foretell.
The analogy is a bit strained to begin with because the canaries are brought into the mines and are more susceptible than their human counterparts. What we see happening with the epidemic of mass shootings and the dehumanization the shooters reflect is even more chilling than the conditioned behavior of victimized birds or the collateral damage wrought by soldiers at war.
These canaries, if you will, are killing each other in rage, desperation, inchoate furor at their very condition. We need not only a post-mortem but an autopsy of their brains, down to the cellular level. What I believe it will reveal is a host of ills that amount to an existential pathology: Humans, led by Americans, the most uninhibited culture in the petri dish, are acting out in some convoluted biological backlash at their sense of their own impending doom, and thus helping to fulfill it.
The biggest problem is climate change. The deniers can invoke Jesus and shout as loud as they like; we all sense the slope down which we have begun to slide: the careening weather extremes, the shifting seasons, the relentless ratcheting of warming days, rising seas, food-growing challenges that already are bringing famine to some areas, fire and flood, the vast melting of Greenland and the poles. The mass migrations have only just begun.
Existential threats awaken our tribal instincts; it’s not only racism and xenophobia that inspire our fears: These migrants are not fellow humans trying to escape suffering, they tell us; they are rival creatures invading our space and hell-bent on taking our stuff.
Even if we don’t acknowledge it, we sense the natural, if largely manmade, upheaval around us, and it makes some of us act out, each in his/her own way. The internet and mass media accelerate the communication cycle exponentially. Copycats and crazies abound and network. The bastard monster child of capitalism run amok, otherwise known as the NRA, ties our money-driven politicians into knots and floods the market with assault weapons, transmogrified into icons of civil liberty that only the most cynical of legal minds could fashion into flimsy justification.
The frustrated non-elites, the blue-collar/true-collar believers in the American myth, who saw the corporatists ship their jobs to cheaper labor markets or orphaned them to robotics, were more persuaded by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who sparked their fear and anger, than Amy Goodman or Rachel Maddow, who appealed to their better angels.
And in this toxic environment, the celebrity cult figure now our president fumbled his way to power and adulation as king of the miscreants—the meanest, cruelest, crassest, most narcissistic and sociopathic jackass the powers behind him (including an entire state of Russian oligarchs) could find and promote.
So now it’s not only the crazies with AR-15/AK-47 penile extensions, but ordinary folks who will run you off the road, elbow their way past you in the supermarket lines, litter your country roads and city streets with the wrappings of the carb- and alcohol-laden consumables that are killing us/them, while here and elsewhere terrorists of all stripes thump their holy books while taking more innocent lives.
In Koehler’s lexicon, we are all just the first birds to breathe the toxic fumes, but not just of the human phenomenon of war among our own kind. We are, I would say, the advance guard of the auto-immune-afflicted victim-perpetrators of nature’s grand evolution experiment. Homo sapiens: big brain and cool thumbs, but socially primitive, prone to greed, and fear-driven to the point of mass self-destruction.
No matter, the planet has remarkable capacity for healing and adaptation, and if not the planet, then the cosmos. Somewhere, a creature may arise that can take sentience to a higher level, a canary uncaged that won’t poison its fellow birds.
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