the wrong questions

[estimated reading time 11 minutes]

there was an article in the times this morning (yes, the new york times — if you’re reading anything written or recorded in the united kingdom, you’re doing it wrong and i’m absolutely serious about that) bemoaning the fact that the person responsible for a recent mass-shooting was able to purchase an assault rifle despite having been mentally-unstable to the point of intervention recently in high school. and that is definitely troubling. but they’re asking the wrong question. why was he permitted to purchase an assault rifle while mentally unstable? well, because you can purchase an assault rifle. the answer to the question is as obvious as it is stupid. and there is exactly where the problem begins.

people have become conditioned to ask the wrong questions about violence. the question is not why he was able to purchase the weapon in his circumstances but why he was able to purchase the weapon at all. the question is not why he was able to plan violence without anyone noticing. it was why those who did notice didn’t do anything about it. and the question is, more generally, not why he wanted to perpetrate such an act of violence but why anyone would think of that as even a potential solution to the problem they are experiencing — perhaps in an even broader sense why they feel there is a problem in the first place and why they feel they should do something about it. why, in other words, is violence a possible answer to anything?

so let’s ask those questions.

1 why was it possible to buy an assault rifle?
2 why was it possible to discuss violence and nobody intervene?
3 what is the problem he was seeing in the world?
4 why was violence seen as a possible solution?

the first one has a simple answer but it’s as mindless as it is irrelevant. he was able to buy an assault rifle because it’s legal in most of the united states to do it. there are restrictions and perhaps he didn’t meet all the requirements, though i suspect if he didn’t he was very close. but again the question has an implication that makes it rather less functional in terms of understanding the greater issue. what do you use an assault rifle for? it’s a military device. its purpose is simple. it’s the purpose of all firearms. killing or at least hurting living beings.

given the generalized disregard for life in the western world, i expect this is somewhat unsurprising. the vast majority of people in the modern west daily cause the mass-slaughter of non-human life not just for their consumption but their pleasure. while that is disgusting and reprehensible, that is less the concern in terms of violence than a much larger issue of failed morality. the disregard for human suffering and death, however, has been made very clear by the recent pandemic. two years have passed so far and more than a million people in the united states alone have been relegated to worthlessness by causing their deaths instead of preventing wave after wave of infection through tight controls on movement and infection. the government didn’t care. the people supporting the government didn’t care. the message was clear — if you’re not in my family and you’re not my friend you don’t matter and my money, my job and my pleasure are far more important than your survival.

then we ask the question why someone mentally unfit to have a device built to kill people was permitted to acquire one? if you want a device designed to kill people, are you not automatically mentally-unfit? in all seriousness, there are only two reasons to own a weapon. one is to collect them as objects of art and i know a few people who do this, usually with historical weapons. and they can certainly be beautiful. the other reason is to kill people. it really is that simple and most people who own weapons do it because they think they’ll have to use them for their intended purpose, not just to decorate their homes. so instead of asking the question why someone likely to use a gun to kill people can buy a gun it’s probably far better to ask the question why it is permitted at all to have a weapon in the general public.

i strongly believe in the abolition of the military. very strongly, in fact. but while there is a military it needs weapons. but military and law-enforcement are the only legitimate uses for deadly force. if that’s the only place people should be permitted to kill, why are we giving anyone else the increased ability to do it? sure, you can kill someone with your hands. or an ax. but an ax’ primary purpose isn’t to cause death. unless you’re a tree. that would be like saying you can stop the abuse of prescription drugs by returning to a system of medication that uses nothing more advanced than herbs — the medication is useful enough for the side-effects on society to be unpleasant but necessary. in terms of guns, though, that’s more like the addition of heroin to the standard list of items at your local drugstore. it’s not just unnecessary. it’s unthinkable. yet we do it all across western society.

beyond having a gun, though, people plan attacks. whether they do it in their heads or with others is often unpredictable and depends on their particular situations but it is often the second. these discussions sometimes get reported to the authorities or mental-health intervention teams and are stopped before they become violent and people are killed. but all too often they are not. is it because people don’t take these discussions seriously? in the climate of the last few decades, i suspect that is far less-frequently the case than people like to pretend when they’re trying to absolve themselves of guilt in the aftermath. much as the holocaust was perpetrated by willing participants and facilitated by willing onlookers across the whole western world who felt it wasn’t just desirable but justified — those who didn’t want to do it were perfectly happy to watch it happen. it was open antisemitism on the part of the actors and thinly-veiled antisemitism on the part of everyone else who knew it was happening — and it was reported in the public press repeatedly so anyone who says the world wasn’t aware is either lying or stupid.

so the question is why didn’t these people who were aware of what was being said (in this and other instances) say nothing. and the answer is as troubling as it is obvious. it’s because they desired the outcome they thought was likely. either they didn’t care people were going to be killed or they wanted it to happen and the distinction between being ok with death and desiring death is a question of minimal darkness rather than one of direction. are we talking about extremists or simply people who love violence? are we talking about those who desire death or those who find it entertaining? are these people who enjoy the suffering of others in general or these target populations in particular? i suspect you know the answers as well as me.

which gets to what is potentially the most painful of these questions to ask — what is the world’s problem identified by the violent perpetrator in this and many similar events? there are several candidates. the obvious answer, though perhaps not the correct one, is the existence of black people in a country they believe should only be filled with whites. it’s part of the answer, i suspect, though not the whole story. what we’re talking about isn’t just white-supremacy. we’re talking about american exceptionalism and racial gradation theory and that is far more complex than just “i hate black people” or “white people are better”.

let’s take a moment to look at the complexity of this argument. it’s not that i support it. very extremely the opposite, in fact. but it’s important to recognize the argument to be better able to fight against it. the argument looks like this. western countries are inherently and historically dominated and controlled by white majorities subjugating non-white groups. these countries are economically and militarily (the first because of the second, in fact) more successful and this is because they are run and populated by whites. as a result, whites are better. this is compounded by the notion that evolution was progressive so as the original people (likely dark-skinned) moved out of africa the new populations (with lighter skin) developed more so the black races are more evolutionarily-primitive and deserve to be subjugated. before going on to the exceptionalism argument, it might be useful to take careful note of the fact that these assumptions are based on blatant lies and i suspect most of the people teaching them and a lot of those accepting them and embracing them know they’re lies — that’s not how evolution works and skin color isn’t about evolving abilities but latitude. the closer you live generation after generation to hot, sunny climates, the darker your skin will be. travel in a place like north africa and you’ll see the gradations of skin color approximately following the distance from the equator. it’s not as obvious in the united states for three reasons — mass-migration on a short time-scale, frequent relocation within a span of generations and a generalized mixture of skin color to begin so a non-homogeneous population baseline to compare.

the exceptionalism argument follows much the same trajectory. america functions on a somewhat different platform of government and economic planning than other countries. it has been successful. it must be better. so americans and the american way of doing things is better. of course, american in this context is usually a filler for “white, anglo-saxon protestant american” because in the minds of people with this type of argument you can’t be a real american while being non-white or non-christian, for example. a black muslim might be a citizen. a secular chinese person might be a citizen. but an average dude from alabama or rhode island is an american, passport-irregardless. this avoids a very clear historical truth, though. america is successful by accident, not design. what were the other possible dominant economic and military powers in the world at the time when america was asserting its dominance? russia? just destroyed by the war. all the major european powers? they just spent the first half of the century destroying each other. japan? bombed into submission by an aggressive american government using mostly-european technological advances paid for by american money. china? just went through multiple revolutions and conquests by an american-encouraged imperial japan after centuries of fighting over tea and opium against the british and facing internal rebellions perpetrated by supporters of christianity to subjugate the ruling dynasty. american won because it was doing things right? not even slightly. it won the economic and military game because it was the only one left standing in the middle of the twentieth century and that’s when the game ended because continued war on a global scale was unthinkable. not that it’s stopped. just that it’s stopped being called that. it was like climbing to the top of a mountain that’s only as high as your house, planting a flag and declaring yourself the winner while everyone else is still asleep then building a fence around the mountain so they can’t climb it at all. it’s not difficult to climb. not at all. and in this case china has done is far more thoroughly, which scares many of these extremists — and those who sadly listen to them.

so they see these as problems. people who aren’t white being treated as equals. having jobs. having rights. having anything or even being there. and they want to fix it as if that’s their worst nightmare. as if it even has an impact on their lives.

which is where i think the largest problem actually appears. not that they think this is a problem but that violence is the solution. why?

i suspect there are three reasons — extreme thoughts, culture and acceptance.

we know these people are extremists. but i think the notion that violence solves problems is extreme but generally accepted in modern society. the first reason it’s seen as a solution, though, is that violence is the most extreme possible answer to any question. thinking about something is very quiet. talking about it is less but quite peaceful. yelling about it is less peaceful but still nonviolent. violence is the end of that line. so we can talk about these people as extremists. but that just absolves us and our societies of guilt. and that’s neither fair nor the majority of the truth.

our culture is a massive part of the reason these events happen. violence is seen as an acceptable answer to problems. i suspect i know what you’re thinking — i’m going to complain about violent movies and video games. actually, no. while i think those are symptoms of the problem, they’re certainly not the cause. there was plenty of violence in the world in america and everywhere else long before the advent of movies, television and video games. though in many ways it has become worse since their invention. that link isn’t nearly as causal as people like to believe, though. i’m not a fan of violent movies and games but i don’t think eliminating them would have a significant impact on our current situation.

why do i say they are a symptom? it’s because of fulfillment of desire. companies spend literal billions of dollars producing movies and video games that are extremely violent for one reason and it’s not because they want our streets to be more violent or have more guns on them. at least i hope not. but i can’t imagine large-scale enterprise having an interest in that unless disney and ea games have been significantly investing in the global arms trade. they’re doing it for the same reason companies make anything else — it’s profitable. and it’s profitable because people are prepared to spend money on it. a lot of money. all the time. there are few more profitable industries than entertainment, though it takes huge investment and comes with massive risk. which leads us to a very dangerous question. if people, most of who spend a large portion of their lives complaining they don’t have enough money, are prepared to spend untold quantities of that money watching movies and buying games that are violent, what’s the attraction?

from the beginning of the world, humans have used violence to solve their problems in a way animals never did. animals attacked each other for evolutionary reasons. humans did it for emotion. they felt disrespected or afraid. they lashed out in anger or jealous or rage. not to guarantee their survival or protect their children but because they wanted to. take a second to think about that. they used violence because they wanted to. in anger or frustration they turned to fists. those fists became knives and swords, eventually guns and bombs and chemicals and biological agents. lust and jealousy, anger, frustration, sensations of disrespect. they started to see violence as a valid way of getting what they wanted. this is why revolutionary leaders preaching nonviolence were so shocking and so feared by governments whose whole way of dealing with the world was either violence or the threat of it returning, either from outside (like the roman empire) or directly from that government (like the soviet union). you may be thinking ghandi but the mahatma was far from the first to preach nonviolence. turn the clocks much, much more in that direction and you’ll see nonviolence preached by the buddha and everyone’s favorite spiritual figurehead, jesus of nazareth, perhaps the most misunderstood of history’s significant figures and a teacher whose lessons in love, acceptance and peace were some of the most profound and meaningful things ever spoken. my respect for jesus knows no bounds. sadly so many who pretend to speak for the “white american christian population” haven’t just missed the main points (love, acceptance, peace) but have subverted his messages and turned him into a warrior king, which he didn’t just not become but specifically talked about why he wasn’t.

of course there are plenty of nonviolent protestors in the modern world who deserve our respect. martin luther king jr and thich nhat hanh immediately come to mind but there are thousands of leaders in the black and latinx communities in america, for example, who espouse these methods. not those who commit violence, though.

but what’s most troubling isn’t either of these. the extremism is part of humanity. not good but frequently present through history, at least in small portions of the population. the violence is part of human history and we have a duty to eliminate it that has been avoided and ignored for far too long. but it’s the acceptance that’s most terrifying in the modern popular context. there was a mass-shooting this week. and what do we do? we accept it. we accept that violence and just shake our heads. we think “oh how sad” and move on with our days and do nothing. this is more serious than a pandemic of virus or a war. this is our whole society turning its backs on a problem with an obvious solution. because we don’t want to give up violence as a possible answer.

don’t like the government? revolt. don’t like the way things are done? fight. don’t like the guy next to you in the bar? call him out and hit him in the face. want sex from someone who isn’t receptive? force them onto the ground and do it anyway. violence is inherent in our culture and society and we accept it as part of everyday life. we don’t scream about it or try to eliminate it in a real and coherent way because we want to reserve ourselves the option that when we get angry, when we feel trapped and disrespected and when we don’t get what we want we can turn to our fists or even our guns.

so we are to blame for what happened. we’re always to blame. because in our collective desire to give ourselves a justification for our own past and future violent thoughts and actions we have justified and accepted those of others and validated their thoughts on the matter by simply not changing. we are saying violence is valid. it’s ok. it’s a possible solution to problems.

shame on us.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.