Louis René Beres is a professor of International Law at Purdue University. Born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II, he is the author of many major books and articles dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy.
In 1936, on the occasion of a speech by the nationalist general Millán Astray, at the University of Salamanca, in Spain, the hall thundered with the general's favorite motto, Viva la Muerte! "Long live death!" When the speech was over, Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the university, rose and said: "Just now I heard a necrophilous and senseless cry...this outlandish paradox is repellent to me." Yet, the cry that was repellent to the philosopher was also the driving passion of the Falangists, and is today the revealingly common ethos of America's mass murderers.
Macabre sentiments can animate certain severely disconsolate young people. In their impenetrably bitter circles, as we well know from the mass shootings in Colorado, Oregon, and Connecticut, there may exist a determined will to kill generally unknown other people, en masse. Whatever the differently preferred killing venues, there somehow emerges a uniformly irresistible urge to unleash lethal violence in crowds, to express potency, and, ultimately, to secure a plainly unsanctified "martyrdom."
Better to be remembered after an abruptly abbreviated life as a murderer who had displayed power, goes the prospective killer's twisted reasoning, than to be disregarded in a longer life that was insufferably weak. Paradoxically, therefore, it is through death, simultaneously self-inflicted and meted out to others, that the mass shooter plans to fashion a "living" memory. When he ostensibly explodes in what is really a controlled and mock paroxysm of rage, this aberrant killer lacks any readily identifiable targets or hatreds. For the most part, very significantly, there is no calculably logical connection between his particular set of grievances, and the names of his selected victims.
Why? Although it is no longer shouted out loud, "Long live death!" remains the telling undertone of both a devastating social loneliness and a vanishing personal autonomy. We wonder, as we should, about the recurrent mass killings, and about the rapidly expanding locus of their utterly vulgar defilements. But should we really be all that surprised?
Sometimes, young people, especially, are more afraid of being alone and inconsequential than anything else, even death. For a few, almost always young males, the paralyzing fears of social or professional rejection can become so overwhelming that they effectively crowd out the more widely presumed sacredness of human life. Here, as an imagined compensation for palpable "injustice," the murder of complete and harmless strangers, even young children, may suddenly appear appropriate. A perversely implemented fusion of homicide and suicide can thus become a uniquely grotesque celebration of death, sinister, of course, yet also reassuring as a presumptively fitting expression of "revenge."
Crime and mass murder are taking a lurid but somewhat predictable turn in America. Whether it is in the movies, or at the movies, in our so-called music, on television, in the mall, or at the elementary school, violence and death, notably if they are brazenly brutish and cold-blooded, are in conspicuous fashion. Historically, this worrisome development is not entirely unprecedented, but increasing numbers among us are now drawn to all that can beat, batter, and tear apart innocent and fully defenseless human beings.
Is it really any wonder? Virtually every American hero these days is acknowledged and acclaimed for the power to take away human life. Almost every Hollywood male superstar (and occasionally even a female star) polishes his name as some sort of assassin, the "good guy" as well as the "bad guy."
In the end, changes in the law won't matter much, although, of course, the easy availability to civilians of military-style assault weapons is hardly immaterial. The core problem for America, however, from the starkly compelling standpoint of lone-wolf mass murderers, is not fundamentally legal, political, or institutional. It is, rather, that we inhabit a relentlessly imitative and dreadfully conformist society, one that is deeply troubled, fervidly anti-individualist, deliriously unhappy, and obscenely dysfunctional. For those who fail to "fit in," the corollary anger can spiral into monstrous violence.
Today, almost every young person in this casually merciless land desperately wants to be well-respected and "connected." This person already knows that our vaunted individualism is merely a convenient lie, and that any "rugged" attempts to defy our mass society will end in humiliating failure. In a country where everyone is ultimately defined by what he can buy, it is already understood that meaningfully tangible rewards will come only to those who have finally learned to surrender their once-untransferrable individuality.
Some observations are obvious, but still need to be understood in a broader context. Each of the recent mass shooters was manifestly psychopathic, but this does not mean that each planned his annihilatory spasms in some sort of civilizational vacuum. On the contrary, such meticulous plans are never conceived in a neatly detached private universe.
In all the most recent cases of American mass murder, pertinent mental distress and disorientation were dangerously intertwined with a larger national landscape of ubiquitous violence. By intersecting with their own personal demons, this fractured and fragmenting landscape provided the indispensable environment within which otherwise unimaginably sinister plans could actually be concocted.
Where has America gone wrong? At its heart, the problem of young people who systematically and dispassionately shoot blameless and anonymous others stems from a society that proudly loathes an individual, any individual. Driven by an almost irresistible need to conform at all costs, we have now learned not only to tolerate mass society, but to glorify it. In consequence, functioning under carefully choreographed rhythmic urgings to worship every inane and distracting technology, we are now frequently more attentive to our "apps" than to our children.
Social networking has become much more than a helpful and pleasing set of relationship opportunities. It has become the new American religion. To act against its expectations is not just unacceptable. It is blasphemous.
For the most part, whether in business or in education, any American who would dare to affirm personal value apart from the larger "team" is promptly pushed aside. It is, nonetheless, precisely this sought-after absorption by a group that can corrode personal responsibility and authentic community. On occasion, as we have witnessed, it may even transform cruelty and mass killing into a singularly welcome vision.
"Long live death!"
To the darkly lonely one who feels himself unable to "belong," to find some sufficiently sustaining acceptance in the group, an inconsolable despair can become overwhelming. Again, the "remedy" for this gravely painful condition, a sort of residual "sickness unto death," may have to be found elsewhere, that is, in very ritually orchestrated preparations for mass murder.
Look around. Confronted on every side by synthetic food and synthetic feelings, some of our vulnerable children can become phobic toward anything that is deeply personal, and then become devoted to anything that will produce mordant excitement. Better to be notorious or infamous, calculates the would-be mass killer, than to remain "weak" and unbearably invisible. For him, the distinctly worst case scenario is not to become a despised murderer, but to endure an entire lifetime of anticipated neglect and insignificance.
Our "advanced" American society routinely instructs us to become more comfortable with robots, videos, cell phones, and computers than with each other. For all but a handful, romantic love has become faintly ridiculous, a distressingly quaint source of embarrassment. And why not? Our voyeuristic entertainments relentlessly proclaim the enviable triumph of every exciting excursion into violence.
We Americans do face certain serious threats from abroad. Still, we should not be encouraged to die, needlessly, from the inside. In order to turn away from the increasingly ascendant spirit of death, murder, and internal decline, it is essential that we should all first want to live, and to do so without suffering excruciating fears of social banishment or exilic exclusion.
Before all this can happen, we will first need to transform our suffocating public universe of banal chatter and empty witticism into an environment more generously dedicated to real life. In such an environment, we could all still learn again how to breathe.
Ultimately, the violent spasms of American mass killings are the predictable result of a society's pervasive loneliness, and of its correspondingly manipulated obsessions with death. If an alien were to touch down at any time from another planetary outpost, and begin to seek reliable information about the human species from available movies, video games, and television, its conclusions would be obvious. This bewildered alien would have to conclude that our earthling days are gleefully preoccupied with mayhem, rape, and widely-systematized forms of murder (war, terrorism, and genocide).
Somehow, collectively, we must now learn to recover a meaningful incentive to feel for all others, and, simultaneously, to conspire more openly against the disjointed cults of separateness, alienation, and despair. Otherwise, some of those among us who are most unhappy will still try to discover personal significance and affect in more-or-less random human exterminations.
True feeling and empathy require good people to behave as individuals, and not as blindly obedient members. Such behavior, however, is always scandalous, a threatening intrusion into the compulsively profitable worlds of commercial jingles, mass marketing, adrenalized competition, and celebrity adulation. Yet, even in civilizations on the wane, at twilight, worn and almost defeated, dignified life is sometimes given a second chance.
The terrifying wail, "Long live death!" is the estranged plea of a person who has literally lost his senses. To rescue our imperiled American society from its now all-too frequent confrontations with mass murder, we must first learn to reignite a common capacity to discover sacred and peaceful meanings within ourselves. As long as there are any among us who can feel alive, successful, and powerful only by gaining the approval of others, of those "outside," and at any cost, we shall hear the chillingly ominous cry: "Look at me….please.....I am here....I count for something."
Viva la muerte!
- Read Jamie Stiehm: Obama's Newtown Shooting Speech Was Best of His Presidency
- Read Daniel J. Gallington: World Is Watching U.S. Reaction to Connecticut School Shooting
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.