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Mass Killings: A Historically Constant Human Tragedy
No, mass killings are not "the cost of liberty," but they are a tragically constant reality of the human condition.
Last week, my newsletter was a largely straightforward defense of thoughts and prayers in the wake of tragedy. Unfortunately, many people on social media and beyond took it as an insensitive swipe at those who point out that after tragedy, and specifically after mass shootings, too many people and many politicians offer “insincere” thoughts and prayers instead of getting behind “common-sense gun reform.” Such reform, they argue, would help stop such tragedies, and thoughts and prayers are meaningless and disrespectful without such reform.
In this newsletter, I decided to pull out a draft I put together several years ago where I address mass shootings (and mass killings in general). I do so to invite people to take a broader view of the tragic realities of the human experience, and to hopefully help them recognize that thoughts and prayers are indeed a more effective response than shortsighted policies that fail to take into account the realities of human nature and of the dangers of an absolute government monopoly of violence. Any response that increases our shared sense of reality and promotes unity and healing in the wake of tragic circumstances is a far more productive and functional response than waving bloody shirts and demanding support for partisan priorities.
In recent modern history, we’ve seen pressure cookers, fertilizer, trucks, knives, guns, and hijacked airplanes used by depraved individuals to kill people. It should appear beyond dispute that these crimes are not merely consequences of access to weapons or would-be weapons.
Mass killings are some of the most premeditated crimes. Those who plan and perpetrate such crimes are acting upon far deeper and concerning realities than just ease of access to the means to carry out their designs.
The fact is when someone gets it in their heart that they want to kill, they are going to find a way to do it. Unfortunately, as we can see in the many stabbings that have occurred in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, an inability to obtain a firearm doesn’t magically turn a would-be murderer back into a peaceful, law-abiding citizen. Nor does an inability to obtain a firearm necessarily mitigate the death that can ensue.
The two worst mass shootings in modern American history are the 2017 Las Vegas Shooting (58 dead, 413 wounded) and the 2016 Orlando Nightclub Shooting (49 dead, 53 wounded). In terms of police officer deaths, the worst instances were the Dallas Shooting (5 officers killed) and the 2009 Lakewood Shooting (4 officers killed).
The 2016 Nice Truck Attack in France rivals both of the mass shootings above (86 dead, 458 wounded), as do the 2004 Madrid Train Bombings (193 dead, 2,000 wounded) and the 2015 Paris Attacks (131 dead, 413 wounded). As for officers killed, a Paris police station came under attack in 2019 and four officers were killed, with a knife.
All of these are rivaled by 9/11, which resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths and over 25,000 wounded (many of them first responders). The terrorists who hijacked the planes were armed only with box cutters and clay.
Beyond the above high-profile attacks, those of us in the West rarely connect the circumstances of mass shootings in our countries with the continued violence and mass killings perpetrated continuously in developing countries. The reality is mass killings are something we see throughout history, in every generation, and in every corner of the world.
The tragic fact is that the psychological conditions that lead to mass murder are uniquely human realities. History documents them in the earliest written records, they’ve existed in every century, and they presently exist in every country of the world. This is not uniquely American.
And, if we can be frank for a moment, despite these heart-rending attacks, things are largely much better today than they have ever been throughout history. It was only a few centuries ago when government had a total monopoly on violence and the tools to commit violence. Before human rights, including the right of self-defense and the right to bear arms, became enshrined ideas of liberal government, mass killings were not only shockingly prevalent but were often state policy.
Even in American history, where such rights were ostensibly valued, mass murder and campaigns of violence have been perpetrated or enabled by the government, often as a direct result of disarmament.
Wounded Knee remains the largest mass shooting in American history with over 250 killed and 51 wounded, and began as an order to disarm the Lakota Indians camped there.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, southern states enacted Black Codes that, among other things, effectively made carrying firearms illegal for African Americans. This enabled a literal reign of terror as the Ku Klux Klan killed and assaulted thousands of African Americans disallowed from owning the means to protect themselves. (Even today, the 2nd Amendment rights of many African Americans, who predominantly live in inner-city areas with highly restrictive firearm laws, are mostly non-existent. This likely plays a role in African Americans facing the most government-directed and criminal violence of any other segment of the American population).
Again, I can’t state it more clearly: this is typical government behavior for most of human history. Most wars and conquests concluded with pillaging, raping, and murder. Most regimes kept their populations in check with brutal and indiscriminate violence. For most of human history, the ownership of weapons was a unique privilege of the ruling classes.
As I mentioned earlier, this constitutes a total government monopoly on violence. History is rife with examples of such a monopoly utilized to perpetrate crimes far more devastating than what we generally see today committed by individuals.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not one of those “this is the cost of liberty” types. I don’t throw up my hands and assert that “nothing can be done.” I am only pointing out that far too many people are looking at the issue of mass shootings from an extremely narrow understanding of history and of the crimes themselves.
If we want to craft ways to truly combat mass shootings, we have to recognize and understand certain realities. Mass shootings are only a narrow subsection of the broader category of mass murder, and such crimes have occurred throughout history and across all human civilization. This isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon that only exists as a pernicious consequence of toxic gun culture. The idea that re-establishing the government’s absolute monopoly on violence and the control of weaponry will end mass murder is verifiably false, given the examples of history.
I am willing to concede that we can enact some modest measures to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and would-be criminals. But such measures should only be a very small part of a broader vision to ensure adequate security of likely targets, better proactive enforcement of existing laws, and swift responses to actual attacks.
The constant and consistent focus on legal gun ownership is the most significant thing standing in the way of real solutions capable of mitigating what is, unfortunately, a constant reality of the human condition. Because all of our political capital is being spent either in attacking or defending the rights of the law-abiding, there is very little oxygen left in the room to consider dealing with the crimes, the criminals, and the undercurrent of human reality that are what ultimately needs to be faced and dealt with.