TJ | 7th Nov, 2017

Understanding Mass Shootings

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Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

An individual murder may seem random and inexplicable or even foolish and trivial,
but the outcome rips the social fabric, weakens the political power of the state, and echoes   through neighborhoods, regions, and nations.
— Eric Monkkonen

What is it that lines up the synapses in someone’s brain just so or maybe crosses them randomly so instead of functioning the way the are supposed to they create a short circuit with gruesome consequences? What is it that can make a human being pull the trigger when they are close enough to look the victim in the eye?

My wife’s mother was murdered the second year we were married. They have never found who pulled fired the .222 bullet that killed her so we are left with whys.  But they all come down to one: what would cause someone to snuff out the life of a defenseless woman?

The mother of the nine-year-old who was killed in the Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting expressed emotions not far from those we still feel:

I can’t even put it into words.  I can’t express the devastation and hurt and how we were so robbed of our beautiful, beautiful princess.

The Speculators

Now we are asking “Why?” Predictably the media and the politicians are milking this one for all the usual suspects.  The left blames the right and the right blames the left and the so-called middle blames both of them. Somehow connecting random dots into a condemnation of a particular political party or ideology seems as mad as the act itself. No matter what your ideology you can probably find somewhere on the Net someone willing to feed your hunch that your favorite villain was responsible.

Finger-pointing and conspiracy theories aside, what we do know is that even in that most political of murders–a Presidential assassination–the book on those who committed the crime is that almost all of them were people whose reasons for pulling the trigger remain as obscure as their backgrounds. What is needed is understanding.

This essay is about a journey to find that understanding, to try to get beyond the easy answers and the explanations that all of us have heard too many times.  Those who were shot and their families and friends deserve more than that.  The journey took me to some unexpected places where I rediscovered someone I had not expected to find.

I apologize for the length of the piece and the unusual number of direct quotes, but I thought you deserve to read what researchers have said in their own words. I wrote this essay because writing is one way I deal with powerful emotions.  Perhaps in some way it might help some of you reading it who seek your own answers.

The journey begins with one of the most eloquent jury speeches ever made, Clarence Darrow’s closing argument in the Leopold-Loeb murder trial. I went there first because Darrow’s summation is the best piece I know in which someone is trying to understand why people kill.

Hollywood has given us this false impression of Darrow’s final arguments as tightly constructed pieces of rhetorical fireworks, but in this trial Darrow seems to be thinking out loud, moving extemporaneously in fits and jerks the way our minds do when we are trying to grasp something horrible that we do not understand.

Clarence Darrow’s Loeb-Leopold Speech

The Leopold-Loeb case remains one of the most notorious murders in American history, the first so-called “Trial of the Century.” A bit of background. Darrow was trying to advance a theory that still intrigues death penalty scholars: anyone who murders, especially someone who plans a murder, is by definition insane because rational people, most people, do not behave that way.

Darrow’s summation describes the crime better than all the books and articles that have been written about it.

Here were two boys with good intellect, one eighteen and one nineteen. They had all the prospects that life could hold out for any of the young; one a graduate of Chicago and another of Ann Arbor; one who had passed his examination for the Harvard Law School and was about to take a trip in Europe,–another who had passed at Ann Arbor, the youngest in his class, with three thousand dollars in the bank. Boys who never knew what it was to want a dollar; boys who could reach any position that was to boys of that kind to reach; boys of distinguished and honorable families, families of wealth and position, with all the world before them. And they gave it all up for nothing, for nothing! They took a little companion of one of them, on a crowded street, and killed him, for nothing, and sacrificed everything that could be of value in human life upon the crazy scheme of a couple of immature lads.

The “crazy scheme” Darrow refers to is what continues to attract people to the case: Loeb and Leopold supposedly wanted to commit the “perfect crime.”  Alfred Hitchcock would later make one of his most brilliant movies, Rope, from the fabric of the case, a movie notable in cinema history because it takes place in real time, as if it were one continuous shot with no editing (if you have never seen it, I recommend watching it, if only for James Stewart’s spellbinding performance).

Darrow’s summation makes it clear motive does not commit the crime, whether the ascribed political motives of those who assassinated Presidents or the various motives ascribed to those on death row.

They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for their blood.

Darrow went on:

The best way to understand somebody else is to put yourself in his place. Is it within the realm of your imagination that a boy who was right, with all the prospects of life before him, who could choose what he wanted, without the slightest reason in the world would lure a young companion to his death, and take his place in the shadow of the gallows?

There are not physicians enough in the world to convince any thoughtful, fair-minded man that these boys are right.

Darrow then asked the questions that are probably going through everyone’s minds as they ponder the senseless acts of mass shootings. He couched it, as Darrow often did, in somewhat melodramatic tones around mother and child:

How came my children to be what they are? From what ancestry did they get this strain? How far removed was the poison that destroyed their lives?

Later he answers his own questions:

The mind, of course, is an illusive thing. Whether it exists or not no one can tell. It cannot be found as you find the brain. Its relation to the brain and the nervous system is uncertain. It simply means the activity of the body, which is coordinated with the brain. But when we do find from human conduct that we believe there is a diseased mind, we naturally speculate on how it came about. And we wish to find always, if possible, the reason why it is so. We may find it, we may not find it; because the unknown is infinitely wider and larger than the known, both as to the human mind and as to almost everything else in the universe.

Eric Monkkonen

Darrow made his argument in 1924.  Since then we have been trying to understand what Darrow called “the operation of a diseased brain.” Someone who spent his life researching why people pull the trigger was Eric Monkkonen. Reporters, pundits and bloggers speculating about shootings would do well to read Monkkonen’s work because it would clear the air of some false notions about violence.

In his the seminal study Murder in New York City Monkkonen analyzed two centuries of homicide data from New York. The book questions the assumption that violence is an urban phenomenon (New York’s homicide rates were lower than the national rate for the first half of the last century) and that it is a product of poverty (New York violence rates were low in some of the worst slums and most perilous economic times).

In a posthumous essay published in the February 2006 volume of The American Historical Review he would also add guns to the list, writing:

Whether or not the United States has had a gun “culture” strikes me as a bogus issue: it seems nearly impossible even to define this idea—for then or now—without imposing such qualifications as to make the inquiry fruitless.

To assume that an absence of guns in the United States would bring about parity with Europe is wrong. For the past two centuries, even without guns, American rates would likely still have been higher.

To bolster his case he produced the following table:

What Monkkonen did discover about violence in America is that homicide rates in Europe have been falling for centuries while this in this country have gone the other direction. The graph below of homicides in England and Scandinavia illustrates that decline:

His essay asks a question that is again being raised in the wake of recent mass shootings.

The United States has long been a wealthy, democratic, and well-educated nation, so the fact that its rates today rival those of the poorest nations makes no sense and contradicts the experience of other well-off nations.

Monkkonen also found violence statistics that show murder is mainly a problem of men, a problem for which men must accept responsibility. He proposed:

If men take charge of anything, it must be of the notion that real men don’t kill, that self-respect means shrugging off the insult, and the better manliness accrues to him who does not fight. (p. 182)

In the conclusion of Murder in New York City he echoes Darrow, admitting there are no easy answers to murder in America:

We start with the good sense to know violence is complex and multicausal, and that no one has all the answers. Cycles suggest violence is like an epidemic, one offender having “caught” it from another. (p. 181)

In his posthumous essay Monkkonen hypothesized there are four causes of violence in America, mobility (which cut long-standing community ties), slavery (it condoned violence based on race), federalism (a “fragmented and piecemeal system” results in differences in law enforcement, penalties and convictions) and what he termed tolerance, which he views as the reluctance of jurors to convict.

Rather than see jury acquittals as a failed prosecution, one can instead see the benefit of a doubt reflecting a reluctant tolerance.

Unfortunately, Monkkonen was never able to follow up on the insights in his essay.

The Politics of Murder

One who did was Randolph Roth, a history professor at Ohio State who has written a provocative book on murder in America, American Homicide. Roth is currently director of the Historical Violence Database which is dedicated to the memory of Eric Monkkonen. Using the same exhausting statistical methods as Monkkonen, Roth explored the social and political dimensions of violence. What he found has some very unsettling implications. He noted:

Disillusioned by the course the nation was taking, people felt increasingly alienated from both their government and their neighbors. They were losing the sense that they were  participating in a great adventure with their fellow Americans. Instead, they were competing in a cutthroat economy and a combative electoral system against millions of  strangers whose interests and values were antithetical to their own.

Sound familiar? It could describe America today, except Roth was writing about the state of the nation after the Civil War.

By looking at the relationship between murder statistics and politics, Roth  found:

The statistics make it clear that in the twentieth century homicide rates have fallen during the terms of presidents who have inspired the poor or have governed from the center with a popular mandate, and they have risen during the terms of presidents who have presided over political and economic crises, abused their power, or engaged in unpopular wars.

Reflecting on contemporary America Roth writes:

Political leaders bear the greatest responsibility for the nation’s political life and for the homicide problem it has caused. But given the polarization of politics in the United States today and the divisiveness of the issues that Americans face, it will be difficult for leaders of either party to rebuild faith in government, especially in the eyes of the poor, who are most at risk of committing murder and being murdered.

Right now a lot of you are probably nodding your heads in agreement, but what I did was set a rhetorical trap because in the heat of this moment we need to be careful of who is quoted and how. The above quotes were all cherry-picked by the media and reviewers of Roth’s book.  Perhaps the most unsettling one was a 2009 review by Raina Kelley in Newsweek. She wrote

Roth’s book also offers a warning about our volatile political rhetoric. Words can have real-life, even violent, consequences. Homicide is a vivid reminder that politics isn’t just about winning—it’s also about how you treat those who lose.

Reading all of these quotes out of context, one would think Roth drew a direct connection from political rhetoric to violence. He does not, which is perhaps why few quote him. Roth attempted to clear up in misunderstandings in an essay , “Maybe It Was My Fault: Responses to Misunderstandings by Reviewers of American Homicide.” He begins with a quote the reviewers left out:

America became homicidal in the mid-nineteenth century because it was the only major Western country that failed at nation-building.

He then goes on to define exactly what he means by nation-building:

Successful nation-building requires more than legitimate government. It requires comity among elites, strong institutions, security, inspired leadership, and a sense of community that transcends differences over religion, gender, class, race, ethnicity, etc.

Diverse societies can have low homicide rates if they are successful at nation building, but they can be successful only if their nations are inclusive and democratic.

Where Roth does make a connection between politics and violence is at the conclusion of his book, but he couches it in far different terms than the media. I quote him at length because it is extremely relevant to the current discussion:

American Homicide ends on a cautionary note, warning that politicians who defame their opponents for personal or partisan advantage can make a society more homicidal than it would otherwise have been by undermining trust in government and public officials. It also stresses that divisions can be hard to overcome: even a great centrist politician like Abraham Lincoln, who reached out to friend and foe alike and eschewed defamatory politics, was unable to lower the murder rate in his politically polarized society and became himself a homicide victim.

Violence and Mass Shootings

The script for the latest mass killing has become so routine that one does not even have to know the facts to fill in what happens. It begins with the inevitable analysis of the killer with the usual reports about his strange behavior–“troubled” is the usual phrase. At some point everyone will have to confront the question Clarence Darrow tackled in the Loeb-Leopold case, but if recent history is any indication without Darrow’s eloquence or his arguments.

Darrow somehow asks the impossible–that we hold back our inevitable feelings about the killer to try to understand the larger issue of why people kill.  Monkkonen was particularly aware of that difficulty.  At the end of Murder in New York he writes about how we must remember both individual stories and the larger issues.

The challenge, both for thinking and feeling, is to keep both–the stories and the patterns–in sight. (p. 183)

So, if we put the pieces together, what do we have?  If you read Eric Monkkonen’s last essay the common thread among his causes is that all involve our ties to and attitudes towards one another.  Roth makes a similar point in his essay on the reviewers:

One of the strongest correlates of murder is access to respect—the belief . . . that one’s position in society is or can be satisfactory and that one can command the respect of others without resorting to violence.

What this journey has taught me is that each of us must do what we can to lower the cultural thermostat that now seems out of control. We can resolve to be more civil with each other, to be respectful of the other side, to seek common ground rather than conflict and to live our lives by the one commandment that is common to all religions–we must treat others as we wish others to treat us.

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