Another Day, Another Mass Killing: Confronting the Causes of Young Men’s Rage

As we wake up to yet another spasm of hideous violence in the world—this time more than 75 innocent Bastille Day revelers mowed down by a truck driven at high speed along a packed sidewalk—I can feel myself reeling off into that terrified little-girl mindset, a cellular memory of always being afraid in crowds, always being afraid of violence lurking around the corner, always seeking the safety of my own little room, my own little bed, hiding under the covers.

But I am well into midlife now, and I can’t hide under the covers anymore. I have to accept adult responsibility for the violent world we live in. If young men are angry enough to risk their own lives to kill gay Latinos in a nightclub—to kill Parisian youth at a rock concert—to kill police officers—to kill young men of color—to kill, kill, kill—what does that say about the society they grew up in? Whether they grew up in Tunisia or Florida, they are part of the same global society that I live in too, and the anger that leads to the killing is real and must be addressed. Adding more anti-terrorist squads, sending out more drones—these are tactics aimed at the symptoms, but do nothing for the causes of the violence.

Virtually nothing is ever said about causes of these young men’s anger and fear and how/why it prompts them to actions of violent hatred. And yes, I am putting racist police who kill innocent people in the same boat as the racist terrorists. Difference of ideology, difference of scale, but same result: innocent people dying.

I’m also being deliberate here in my use of pronouns. Every single mass shooting in the U.S. has been perpetrated by young men, and I have yet to hear of a woman cop being charged with an unjust killing, although there have been some young women coerced into becoming suicide bombers in other places in the world. For the most part the terrorists have other uses for the women—as sex slaves. The question that seems primary to me is a simple one: what is causing so many young men to become so violent?

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I believe that every baby comes into this world with the capacity to become a loving human being. We may have different propensities to kindness or cruelty, but these can be worked on in the nurturing process. Bloodthirstiness and criminal violence is not genetically programmed, at least not yet. But it seems to be overtaking more and more of our young men, worldwide. What’s up with that? Where is it coming from?

Social indoctrination. Boys are being trained to love violence and to see themselves in the role of the aggressor. This is happening everywhere a boy has access to a violent video game, and with guidance from adults in places like radical Islamic madrassahs and radical gun-rights enclaves in the US. It’s happening all over the Internet, wherever violent fanatics hang their hats. The result: a steady beat of mass killings by fanatical young men with guns, acting out of a perceived sense of righteousness.

Ready availability of weapons. Ours is a world awash with weapons. The countries that manufacture the weapons decry the violence at the same time as they gloat over the profits of selling the arms—to their own people and abroad. The violence won’t stop until we deal with this contradiction and restrict weapons to the hands of trained peacekeepers, turning the giant factories to manufacturing implements of peace instead of weapons of war.

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Poor education and lack of opportunities for young men. Young men need challenge. They need opportunities to shine and excel and receive the admiration of their peers. These days too many young men must make do with vicarious pleasures: rooting for sports teams, playing video games. In the end they have to pull away from the screen and confront the fact that their lives are going nowhere. They don’t have the education or skills to get satisfying work. They’d rather be unemployed than work in demeaning jobs. They take out their frustrations on their girlfriends or on each other…and end up in prison, or dead. A few break that general mold and go out in flames, taking a handful of innocent bystanders with them.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There is so much good work to be done in the world. We need to improve education, offering retraining to young men who need it, and develop a new international public works program like Roosevelt’s post-Depression Civilian Conservation Corps, which put thousands of young men to productive, society-building work. It doesn’t have to be just manual labor, although the strong backs and firm muscles of young men would be welcome on myriads of civilian projects. We also need young men to write and sing and dance and entertain. We need young men to develop better video games that are about the human power to create, rather than our compulsion to destroy. We need loving young men to guide our boys.

Nothing I’m saying here is new, or rocket science. I’m just so frustrated at our current way of responding to violence with fear, dread and retaliation, instead of with resolve to get to the bottom of what is causing young men to act out in this deadly way, over and over and over. I’m frustrated with the political deadlocks in the U.S. that make it easier for a young man to buy an assault weapon than to get a driver’s license. I’m frustrated with the kneejerk responses to terrorism that blame entire communities for the rage of a few individuals.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said so many times, in so many ways: Violence will not be stopped by more violence. It can only be stopped by loving attention to the sources of the rage.

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Loving people, we can’t hide under the covers. We have to connect and communicate with each other across all the artificial barriers that divide us, and resolve to do everything we can to confront the problems we face as local communities and on a global level. This just can’t go on.

After Charlie Hebdo: Tuning Out, Tuning In to the Violence that Beseiges Us

When the news of the Charlie Hebdo attack flashed into the headlines last week, with all its chaotic blood, gore and terror, I had a surreal feeling of detachment and déjà vu. Similar scenarios have been hitting us so often in recent months and years—the Boston Marathon bombing…the Times Square attempted bombing….Sandy Hook Elementary School…. Virginia Tech…Ferguson….the list could go on and on, and that’s just the incidents on American soil.

How do we cope with the constant background noise of violence against which our lives play out in the 21st century? How do we avoid either extreme: numbing out/tuning out, or becoming overwhelmed with fear and grief?

If you thought I might have the answer, I’m sorry to disappoint. I don’t know. It seems to me that I go back and forth from one reaction to another, depending on my mental resilience when the latest instance of violence surges into my awareness.

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo, 87, came out of retirement to draw this tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, published in Le Figaro newspaper. Uderzo was where Uderzo is quoted in Le Figaro as saying: “I am not changing my work, I simply want to express my affection for the cartoonists that paid for their work with their lives.”

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo, 87, came out of retirement to draw this tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, published in Le Figaro newspaper. Uderzo was where Uderzo is quoted in Le Figaro as saying: “I am not changing my work, I simply want to express my affection for the cartoonists that paid for their work with their lives.”

If I’m feeling strong and stable, I can hit a balance, which seems like the healthiest response; I can honor the victims with appropriate grief and anger at the perpetrators, while maintaining the psychic distance I need to go about my daily business without being blown away by fear and sorrow.

Is this really “the healthiest response,” though? Or am I kidding myself here? How can it be healthy and sane to be so compartmentalized that I am able to acknowledge the pain and suffering on one hand, while at the same time going on with my life in an ordinary way?

Digging a little further into this, I have to ask: who does it benefit for me to be able to carry on with a stiff upper lip, remaining calm, cool and collected in the face on ongoing tragedy? Does it benefit me, or the status quo of the society I live in, which has generated this endless loop of repetitive tragedy?

What would happen if one day we all suddenly started to feel fully empathetic with the victims of violence—and not just gun violence, or military violence, but also rape, domestic violence, violence against animals, violence against the forests and the waters of our planet?

In the #BlackLivesMatter and #WeAreSenecaLake protests, and now in the #JeSuisCharlie meme and rallies in Paris, we are seeing a hint of the powerful force that can be unleashed by human compassion.

What if I, and other Americans like me, started to actively fight the conditioning that has made us believe that the healthiest, sanest response to ubiquitous violence is to turn our gaze away and keep moving?

What if we began to lean in to the deep wellsprings of compassion and empathy that are our birthright as human beings, and act out of the power we find there?

What if instead of accepting the constant static of violence as a given of modern existence, we began to actively tune in to it, in order to serve—each one of us—as antennae capable of picking up the signal and disrupting it, transforming it from cacophony to an entirely different, new form of activist harmony?

In their own satirical way, the Charlie Hebdo team was engaged in doing just this. They were holding a mirror up to our sick society, and forcing us to gaze at ourselves and recognize the extent of our own complicity in the violence that besieges us.

I believe, with Arundhati Roy, that another world is possible. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. But on a typical, violent day, all I can hear is the labored thumping of my own heavy heart.

Photo c. J. Browdy, 2015

Photo c. J. Browdy, 2015

9/11 beyond the hype: What are YOU going to do about it?

Someone asked me today, What do you remember about 9/11?

I remember that at the moment the Twin Towers were hit, I was walking down to the Simon’s Rock College Center from the parking lot, on my way to my morning class—Sophomore Seminar.  It was a gorgeous September day, cool and bright.

My first indication something was wrong was inside the College Center, where there was a strange aura of people scurrying around, consulting with each other in the halls.  I quickly caught on to what at first seemed like a malicious rumor: a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  An accident?

But then no—a second plane had hit.  And the building was on fire.  People were jumping out of windows.  It was a terrorist attack.  Another plane had been hijacked.

And so, within an hour, the whole ghastly event unfolded.  The world that had seemed so safe, predictable and sane to me just minutes earlier, rocked crazily on its axis.

I met my students in the classroom, told them the news, and we all went over to the Lecture Center to watch CNN on the big screen.  The beautiful sunny day faded into the darkness and virtual screenlight.  The towers, falling over and over.  The people, jumping out of the flames to their deaths.

The firefighters, covered with eerie white ash.  The streams of people walking uptown, away from the Towers, like refugees leaving the scene of a genocide.

Manhattan is my hometown.  I have many memories of visiting the Twin Towers.

As a child, I remember when they were built, two identical towers rising on the skyline, bristling with huge cranes rendered tiny by distance.  I remember riding the elevator to the observation deck, the sick, scary feeling in my stomach as the elevators accelerated to a speed I didn’t want to fully imagine.

The wind up there, laden with the faint salty tang of the nearby sea; the tourists pointing cameras at the Statue of Liberty, or uptown at the rows of orderly buildings broken up by the green oasis of Central Park.

I have very fond memories, too, of eating dinner at Windows on the World, and the even more exclusive Cellar in the Sky, restaurants that my parents took me to for special occasions, like my 20th birthday.  At Cellar in the Sky, in addition to the fabulous food, you would get a different exclusive wine for each of seven prix fixe courses, ending up with a deep snifter of fine cognac with dessert.  We would leave the restaurant tipsy and glowing with a sense of well-being, the animal satisfaction of being relaxed and truly well-fed.

All gone, after 9/11.

What I lost on 9/11 was far more than just a physical place holding pleasant memories.  I lost my naïve belief that bombings and terrorist attacks only happened somewhere else in the world, never in my hometown.  I lost my sense of privileged aloofness from the rest of the world.

Mind you, by 2001 I was already a college professor, had already finished a dissertation that focused on personal narratives by human rights survivors from Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as North America.  I should not have been so naïve.

But somehow, until the Towers crumbled, it did not fully hit home to me how inevitable it was that the arrogance of American imperialism abroad would boomerang back around to hit us.

And it certainly did not occur to me that this strike would be used to initiate a regime of “homeland security” that brought our country closer to fascism than we had ever come before.

Ten years later, I am still feeling the pain that spread out from Ground Zero like the low ringing of a gong.  It is the pain of all of the peoples exploited by American-led capitalist imperialism, for whom World Trade is synonymous with oppression.  It is the pain of the widows, widowers and orphans, left not only by the terrorist strikes, but also by the ensuing vengeful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The pain only deepens as I begin to understand the extent to which the effects of Western imperialism have hurt the natural world, and destabilized the delicate ecological balance that has made our planet so fruitful.

9/11 hurt America, yes.  But America has been a leader in a global assault on our planet, on a scale that dwarfs the Al Qaeda strike.

 I would never support Al Qaeda, or its methods.  But neither can I support American-led corporate capitalism, with its chemicals and clear-cutting, its cowboy swagger as regards regulation, that has inflicted us with BP-style disasters replaying again and again in excruciating, devastating slow-motion.

 

What I lost on 9/11 was the sense that none of this had anything to do with me as an individual.

9/11 launched me on a difficult period of self-reflection, in which I realized the extent to which my own privilege as a member of the ruling elites had blinded me to my complicity in the oppressive system that spawned the anger that led to the World Trade Center attacks.

Once you realize your own complicity, you can either wallow in unproductive guilt, or you can roll up your sleeves and resolve to do whatever you can to make a change for the better.

History has shown us that it is the insiders–the wives, sisters and daughters of the masters of the universe—who have tremendous power over the men who love them.  In our day and age, women too can be “masters”—that is, members of the ruling class who control our society.

I think the question for us, ten years after 9/11, is a simple one.  What are you going to do about it?  Are you going to support the status quo, which may benefit you and your family greatly, but which ultimately leads to greater social instability, through political and environmental vulnerability?

Or are you going to be a change agent, someone who is not afraid to speak truth to power and insist on positive change?

On 9/11, there is no more important question to be asking ourselves.

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