Why do so many of us insist we need to have military-grade assault weapons?
This question has haunted me for decades, and I am surprised that so few on our national scene have asked it. I also wonder why so many of us are afraid of losing them.
These shootings have been a darkness descending-revealing the toxic fear, hate, and exhaustion most of us are feeling around us. Forty plus years of practice as a psychoanalyst have taught me that most of us can live without a father or a mother, but we cannot live without a world that makes sense to us. The darkness these shootings are symptomatic of is shaking our foundations, along with the familiar moorings we have used to define ourselves and a good life. The acceleration and relentlessness of these shootings is turning our world upside-down.
As I mull over these questions and thoughts, I certainly believe that suggestions like gun control, waiting periods, background checks, mental health support, and other such ideas are important. It is important to at least treat the symptoms of a problem and alleviate pain rather than not treat it at all. Yet the questions I’ve asked point toward deeper societal causes and the need for us to look for the difficult answers we’ve been avoiding. The real answers challenge us to ask ourselves how and why we, as a culture, produce these shootings. The real answers show us that our democracy is standing in need of some radical revisions.
As my thinking continues, I wonder if too many people in our society fear in their hearts that “I don’t matter”? For a teenager that sentiment is the despair of feeling blocked from knowing one’s self, from having self-respect and autonomy. For adult shooters it is the fear of having lost those things or having them taken away.
Fear and Denial
The reality is that most of us have no clear awareness of our alienation, the degree to which we don’t feel that we matter in the big picture. I’m talking about me and you, not just the shooters or members of hate groups. Our denial makes this condition in our society more powerful. We have been living in a toxic sea of anxiety and fear for decades. Through denial and the illusions of positive thinking that things are getting better, we have become adjusted to living with toxic stress, dread and worry. We are failing to realize how much those emotions dehumanize us, and we have become like fish who don’t realize they are swimming in a very polluted ocean.
At a subliminal level most of us know the reality is that we don’t feel safe. Our jobs do not feel secure. Our streets do not feel protected. Medical costs can wipe us out. College costs can bury us and our children for decades. Getting a job at any age, at any level, has become a challenging, humiliating experience. And the list goes on, leaving us feeling like we don’t have any power in our democracy; nor in general, do we feel that our government at any level cares about our welfare.
Could it be that this demand for assault weapons in our society is trying to teach us how much we fear the ruthlessness that dominates our world? Doesn’t the NRA offer a community for people who are afraid and want a solution? Don’t too many of us want and feel the need for a gun simply because deep inside ourselves we want to have a personal sense of empowerment as a human being?
Of course, other developed nations aren’t shooting each other at the same rate we are because they have addressed most of these fears. Their answers aren’t perfect, but they have better job security, better management and safety nets when jobs transition, better healthcare, livable minimum wages, better support for families, university and vocational training, and dependable vacations. What stuns me is those are capitalist countries that are more democratic than we are. Those countries do a better job of supporting their citizens to reap the reward of hard work, have faith in the future, and keep their communities intact. I must also note how strange it seems to me that whenever these kinds of social programs are discussed, many politicians ask, “How can we afford all of that?” In fact we are the richest country in history, and the other developed nations are already affording them.
The Roots of Mass Murder
If we are dehumanized to the point of feeling totally alienated from ourselves, our emotions, our potentials, and our ability to belong to and function in our social tribe, we tend to become destructively evil. Alienation-the extreme, isolated, and hopeless state of dehumanization, of feeling invisible even to oneself-causes a profound inner rage. It can result in the urge, or the compulsion, to destroy life, social structures, and even one’s self. Alienated individuals can become trolls on the internet; if they are cut off far enough from themselves and society, they can become murderers and serial rapists. Their aggression is malignant. When alienated people come together they become gangs, hate groups, cults, and terrorists. Alienated citizens can also vote against their own self-interest out of rage, despair, and the blindness of fear.
Of course, the first step in solving any problem is to recognize it. This means we must have the courage, the courage to face the true sources of these murders: the toxic fear, dehumanization, alienation, and hopelessness our culture is generating. Then we must act. We must be willing to be strongly aggressive and determined in the service of life-valuing each other.
The Sources of Real Safety
The source of real safety in our society, safety that cannot be assured with weapons or even police power, is the feeling that “I matter”. As a nation we need to change our values so that all feel they matter in their local communities as well as in the big picture of our society. In the face of this need, our politicians are proving another basic fact to us: there will be no meaningful gun controls, no real efforts to reduce our fear of each other and join us together as a national community until we separate wealth and large corporate influences from our politics. Until we have meaningful campaign finance reforms, we can forget about our government seriously considering any of us as sacred, or encouraging liberty, equality, and opportunity as real values. We must act and we must vote; the fight against vested interests that dominate our government will be a long hard one. Our challenge is not to become great again. It is to face our failures and become greater than we are today-greater in vision, greater in compassion, greater in love and respect for each other, for life, for the world we live in, and in concern for the safety of our children.
I have published more of my writing on this subject in my book Students Under Siege, and in this video lecture:
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris, Book Excerpts and Resources
, 2019, anxiety, fear, gun violence, mass shooting, violence in America
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