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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.


Thanks for this, Mark. I have been anxious after the last shooting and unsure how to proceed but these words helped. May we all refocus on God's call to love our neighbor. 

Great post Mark.  Thanks for not going down a political rabbit hole rant.

Indeed, I think it is clear, at least for those us us who are "older" (and have seen societal changes) that "social bonds" are generally much thinner than they used to be.  I perhaps don't think that "America emphasizes individualism" (as if there is a government ad campaign for it), but indeed, the political freedom we have, coupled with our wealth, allows anyone who may be so inclined (by personality disposition or otherwise) to become socially isolated.  Today, neighbors not knowing neighbors but "minding their own business" is normal, even if decades ago, not so much.

And this isolation can be deadly, in many ways, this LV shooting being perhaps only one particularly dreadful manifestation of that.

That's a good point, Doug. Social isolation is bad for one's health, in general, and Junger makes that point eloquently. Your point raises a clarification I should add. When mass shootings happen, folks look for someone to blame. By suggesting that showing love to people who are socially isolated, and that if this were done widely it might reduce the number of rampage killings, I'm not saying that the people around all the mass shooters are to blame for their murderous behavior. For all I know, many of them may have tried reaching out, but had all their efforts rebuffed. Still, Scripture's teaching is that when someone in our own lives rejects us, we need to keep on loving anyway. 

For example, a CNN article quotes Sue Klebold, mother of a rampage killer, "I wish I had known then what I know now: that it was possible for everything to seem fine with him when it was not, and that behaviors I mistook as normal for a moody teenager were actually subtle signs of psychological deterioration. . . . I taught him how to protect himself from a host of dangers: lightning, snake bites, head injuries, skin cancer, smoking, drinking, sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction, reckless driving, even carbon monoxide poisoning. It never occurred to me that the gravest danger -- to him and, as it turned out, to so many others -- might come from within. Most of us do not see suicidal thinking as the health threat that it is. We are not trained to identify it in others, to help others appropriately, or to respond in a healthy way if we have these feelings ourselves."

I'm not enough of an anthropologist to know if individualism is stronger in the US than Canada, but other Canadian friends have told me the same, so I'm inclined to believe you. One Canadian friend suggested that the difference is already highlighted in our founding documents, with the US Declaration of Independence highlighting the individualistic pursuit of rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and the Canadian Constitution Act of 1867 emphasizing the collective goals of "peace, order, and good goverment." 

I'd suggest getting on the "Canada is superior" train isn't constructive.  The US Declaration of Independence isn't US law frankly.  The Articles of Confederation were adopted after the Declaration, which were scrapped for the US Consitution.  To quote the Declaration is rhetorically cute perhaps but that's about it.  The rant of "rugged American individualism" smacks more of Canadian snobbery than reality.

The US and Canada are quite different in quite a number of ways, the biggest of which I think is population (which then creates other differences).  Compared to the US, the whole of Canada is  a single state.  Indeed, I believe California bests Canada both in population and economic output.  All of which means that in general, Canadians may act more like a rural area than an urban area.  And indeed, the greater the population (the more urban), the less people know and interact with each other, and vice versa.  Which may explain why so few of these kinds of events (zero?) happen in farm country Iowa.

I agree that we should reach out to show kindness to others, although that may be viewed antagonistically by someone who wants to be "left alone". In the case of the Las Vegas shooter it may be too soon to fully analyze him. While he preferred to gamble alone with a machine, he did have a "girlfriend" and may have hired female companionship shortly before his rampage. There is plenty of room for speculation.

This kind of evaluation is outside of my area of expertise, but I think that the current social divisiveness and dehumanizing may be a factor in motivating mass killers. I agree with MLK that we should judge people as individuals. Today, many judge others by their race, gender, political orientation, social status, age, and even which side of the border (U.S., Canada, or Mexico) they are on, and there is a general denigrating (or extolling) of those in one group or another.

All members of an ethnic group are not criminals, or at least untrustworthy. All members of another group are not "a blessing". All members of law enforcement are not racists. Thinking like this leads to dehumanizing others, and think what dehumanizing has done in the case of the unborn. Not long ago abortion was generally considered abhorrent, now many openly defend "woman's right to choose" (to kill her unborn child), which is "only a blob of tissue" (that has fingers and toes and a beating heart), but can be dismembered for body parts, and if I disagree I'm anti-woman and an evil person. The abortion industry is kind of a rampage, too, but the victims are killed one at a time.

Other mass killings have targeted specific groups of people. The Oklahoma City bombing was a protest against government. The 9/11 attack using airplanes was religiously-oriented, as have been attacks by cars, trucks, and guns in Europe, and the Orlando nightclub shootings. These were perpetrated by people who needed to be loved, but may not have been lonely persons. The killers were all people who simply thought other people should be killed. Now we hear of individuals who weren't concerned about the victims in Las Vegas because of their perceived political orientation. (Check Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 106-107 on that. Are they also killers by that definition?)

I sadly think the CRCNA and the Banner have contributed to the current polarization and divisiveness by official pronouncements and reporting. An example of this is the denominational reaction to the disastrous Charlottesville rally and protest of this summer. Instead of saying, "A plague on both your houses", as I did, the excesses of Antifa and other violent counter-protestors who showed up with masks and weapons were ignored. Freedom of speech applies to all, regardless of how despicable their message, but that does not include physical violence or destruction of property by either side. We can't complain only about misbehavior by the bad guys on the other side and ignore misbehavior by bad guys we agree with.


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