Every time a rampage killing happens, like the recent horror in Las Vegas, people ask “Why?” By attempting to identify the factors that led an individual to commit such a horrific crime, we hope we might prevent such a crime in the future. People often say that mental illness is the common thread, but focusing solely on mental illness is simplistic and further stigmatizes people who have mental illness. Instead we need to look at ourselves and the kind of society we have created.
In his book Tribe (2016), journalist Sebastian Junger argues that humans evolved to watch out for one another. “The earliest and most basic definition of community — of tribe — would be the group of people that you both help feed and help defend.” (All quotations from Tribe are from Chapter 5.) Junger fills his book with examples from ancient societies, native American tribes, Israeli kibbutzim, and the wartime behavior of soldiers to illustrate his point. In the last chapter of this short book, Junger takes up rampage killings: “attacks where people are randomly targeted and four or more are killed in one place, usually shot to death by a lone gunman.” As of October 5, 2017, by this definition over 270 rampage killings have happened in the United States.
Junger says that few rampage killings happen in urban ghettoes but “in otherwise safe, predominantly white towns.” He contrasts rampages with gang violence. “Gang shootings — as indiscriminate as they often are — still don’t have the nihilistic intent of rampages. Rather, they are rooted in an exceedingly strong sense of group loyalty and revenge, and bystanders sometimes get killed in the process.”
Junger wonders whether the lack of strong social bonds may be an important factor in rampage killings. “The first time that the United States suffered a wave of rampage shootings was during the 1930’s, when society had been severely stressed and fractured by the Great Depression. Profoundly disturbed, violent individuals might not have felt inhibited by the social bonds that restrained previous generations of potential killers. Rampage killings dropped significantly during World War II, then rose again in the 1980s and have been rising ever since. It may be worth considering whether middle-class American life — for all its material good fortune — has lost some essential sense of unity that might otherwise discourage alienated men from turning apocalyptically violent. The last time the United States experienced that kind of unity was — briefly — after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years.”
Though I doubt he intends it, Junger’s attribution of human bonds to an evolutionary past becomes fatalistic because it implies that unless we are stressed by forces outside of ourselves, comfortable lives will keep us humans apart. Still, his assessment that rampage shootings become more likely when societal bonds weaken suggests something that we do.
North Americans, U.S. residents especially, prize our freedom and independence. We hold individualism in such high regard that individuals who run off the rails have no tether to society, no sense of group loyalty, no obligation to anyone but themselves.
In the section of Romans on our civic obligations, the apostle Paul writes, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8) This and many other Scripture passages emphasize our obligation to one another, in opposition to the American emphasis on individualism. Maybe this means something as simple as looking after neighbors who want to be left alone. Sadly rampage killings won’t end if we just do one thing. It may help to lobby for tighter gun controls and for better mental health care, but these efforts leave change mostly outside of our control. One thing every one of us can do is love one another, including the neighbor who wants to be left alone. Maybe, especially the neighbor who just wants to be left alone.