Culture of Fear

May 27, 2014 at 9:40 pm (Politics) (, , , , )

Friday, one Elliot Rodgers decided to go shoot up innocent people at a school; in this case, UC Santa Barbara.  Unlike most of his fellow former oxygen burners, there’s not really too much question about “why” this time.  He left behind a 140 page manifesto explaining why for those who might have that question.

Not that it prevented certain individuals from speculating that maybe there was another reason, like this expert who provided the worst psychological diagnosis since Francis Tumblty was accused of being Jack the Ripper.

Short version:  After a lifetime of being rejected by women he never asked out, Elliot Rodgers got told to move out by his mother and decided that the only logical response was to take a gun and go ventilate a sorority house and anybody who might happen to be nearby.

Now, you may be thinking of several other logical responses to his situation.  Say, actually asking a girl out, or maybe trying to find a new place to live.  But then, you’re not inside the head of Elliot Rodgers, who in the opinion of this commentator was a textbook case of an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.

Of course, this commentator is not an expert.  So for a moment, let’s refer to a true expert, Dr. Kathleen Ramsland. As you might notice, in addition to being an expert on profiling, she can also tell the difference between “homosexual impulses” and a man saying “I wish girls would be attracted to me,” clearly marking her as one of the top in her class.  While she doesn’t provide a diagnosis (doing so would be highly unprofessional in such a case, which is why I did it), she does discuss the ability of the police to assess the risk that Elliot posed a month before his attack.

Her professional assessment?  Nobody could have predicted it that far in advance.

So, if nobody could have predicted it, what else could have prevented this tragedy?  And so the usual suspects come out….

Stricter gun control laws?

Restricting any weapons at all?

More people with guns on the UCSB campus?

Striking down the patriarchy and eliminating rape culture?

These are all things that have been seriously advocated to deal with tragedies like this, the Milwaukee day-spa shooting, and the recent senseless murder of a girl for refusing a prom date.

Christ, I’m getting really, really sick of always having new examples of senseless, violent tragedies to cite.

At any rate, the last of those comments came up in particular related to this case, because of Rodgers’ manifesto blaming his rampage on rejection by women.  Women who, I point out again, he never even bothered to ask out.  Shortly after this dangerous lunatic’s motivations were revealed, a hashtag was born, #YesAllWomen, trying to draw attention to the widespread cultural and societal flaws that encourage men to view women as property, trophies, and prizes instead of humans.  Others lashed out in response, pointing out things like that if a woman had just slept with Rodgers, he wouldn’t have done this.

That guy?  The guy who said that?  He should shut the fuck up, he’s not helping anybody.

As for the justifiably upset women who are blaming this on societal flaws… I’m sorry.  I really am sorry that there are so many assholes out there who have serious mental disorders.  So sorry that we, men and women, black and white, queer and straight, have been raised to live in fear.  And we have, on both sides of any divide.  Women fear, not without justification, that they might be raped.  Men fear, not without justification, of being falsely accused of rape, maced, or ending up on a sex offender registry because they unknowingly made somebody uncomfortable in the wrong way.

If a little old white woman crosses to the other side of the street when she sees a large black man coming down the street towards her, is she being racist?  Or is she afraid of him the way she’s been taught to be afraid of men who could easily overpower, rape, and kill her?

If a cop is on patrol and a black kid takes off running away from him, reaching into a pocket, is he justified in suspecting that the boy is reaching for a weapon and opening fire?

Or, when it turns out that the kid was unarmed and making sure he hadn’t dropped his wallet when he started running from a cop he thought was going to harass him, was the cop racial profiling?

Fear is a powerful emotion.  It motivates people to act, and it literally impairs decision making ability.  Fear results in quick, hastily thought out decisions made with a minimum level of data.  It encourages tribalism, banding together into like groups to stand against those who are less like you.  We’ve evolved to be really, really good at making snap decisions based on a minimum amount of information, which works really, really well when you live in a tribalistic society faced with enemies who are the dreaded other.

It doesn’t work so well when you live in what is supposed to be a civilized society that embraces the differences between people.  Society, civilized or not, always presents threats.  Those threats are harder and harder to recognize, but our primitive, hard-wired brains try to pick up on the patterns the same way they’ve always done it, and they look for differences.

He had a gun, he was dangerous.  That guy has a gun, he might be dangerous.  People without guns aren’t as dangerous.  We need to prevent people from having guns.

He hated women, he was dangerous.  Men who view women as less than them are dangerous.  These men are not being punished.  Society must secretly agree with these men and we need to stop that to make our lives safer.

The majority of violent crimes are committed by poor people.  Poor people are dangerous.  Most people of other races I see are poor people.  Poor people are dangerous, and need to be kept away from good people who aren’t poor, especially poor people who don’t look like me.  There’s a poor person who doesn’t look like me; he could be a threat to me, I should be on alert.

You see how that can all go horribly, horribly wrong?

But here’s the problem.  We’re all reacting on instinct.  Largely obsolete instinct.  That instinct may be right sometimes, but a lot of the time it’s going to be wrong.  Occasionally, it’s going to be tragically wrong, as in the Trayvon Martin case.  Occasionally, it’s going to be manipulated, as in the case of the Iraq War.  Occasionally, it’s going to be partially right… but not really get at the problem.

Because here’s the thing – none of those cases are looking at the root cause.  They’re looking for early warning signs, and picking them out on the basis of fear.  In the middle ages, it wasn’t blonde guys with blue eyes you had to be afraid of, it was raiders who wanted to raid your village and take your stuff, and were willing to leave you a corpse to do it.  If the raider was a brunette, he’d kill you just as dead.  If the merchants coming to town were blonde, all they cared about was selling you things.  Of course, the next blondes to show up might want to kill you and take that stuff, but that was what happened living in a raiding zone.

Ultimately, is it blondes who are dangerous?  Or is it people who want to kill you for your stuff?  Maybe if there was some other way for them to get that stuff, they wouldn’t want to kill you for it.  But, when the other guy has a sword and is trying to stick it in you, there’s not much time for rational discourse.  These days, there’s more time for rational thought, rational response to threats, but we’re still reacting with instincts that were fairly useful up until just an eyeblink ago in the grand picture of things.

We need to get beyond the culture of fear.  We need to stop reacting on gut instinct, and look at the actual root causes.  Why?

We’re living in a world with thousands, even millions of bombs just floating around the streets, looking for something to detonate with.  Some of them are time bombs, and they’ll go off eventually no matter what.  Some of them have fuses and are looking for matches.  Others will be set off by being tipped, or by a radio signal, or a cell phone, or a code word, or what the Hell ever.  Most of them have multiple detonators they could use, they’ll just go off when they find the first one that’ll work.  Some of the bombs are just packed with blasting powder, won’t do too much damage unless you’re right there.  Others are packed with nails, screws, radioactive isotopes – something that makes them more damaging than normal.

The problem with how our society handles things right now is that every time one of these ‘bombs’ goes off, people try to find ways to stop the explosions… but they try to do it by banning matches, or by regulating radio signals, or by banning timers, by getting rid of the detonators.  Or they try to ban nails and screws and PVC pipe, try to reduce the damage that they’ll do when they go off.

But nobody seems to want to stop wasting time playing whack-a-mole with detonators and shrapnel long enough to find the goddamn bombs, defuse them so that nothing else is going to set them off, and then stop the person making them.

There are people who are really sick.  Some of them are violent.  Those who are, can be just one little trigger away from blowing up and hurting somebody.  Maybe that trigger’s going to be reading through Catcher in the Rye.  Maybe it’s going to be watching Natural Born Killers.  Maybe it’s going to be playing Manhunt 2.  Maybe it’s going to be a lifetime of being too scared of rejection to actually try and get a date.  Maybe it’s going to be finally working up the courage to ask a girl out, and getting shot down.  Maybe it’s going to be a fight with his sister, or violent political rhetoric.  Maybe it’s going to be a brain tumor, or the fear of crippling poverty, or the whisperings of an angry God into the ear.  Maybe it’s getting turned down for a promotion.

My point is that people who have violent tendencies are always going to be out there.  They’re always going to be dangerous.  Maybe Elliot Rodgers wouldn’t have mailed a 140 page manifesto about his feelings of rejection out if he didn’t feel that his value as a man was based on his ability to fuck or fight.  Maybe he came to that conclusion because of deeply ingrained fucked up values in society, maybe he came to it because he was a deeply disturbed individual who took the wrong message out of society.

But something else still could have set him off.  Maybe a breakup.  Maybe losing a job.  Maybe getting kicked out of school.  Maybe watching a movie that he thought glorified violence.  He would still have been a threat to society for his entire life, if he had the sort of underlying mental disorder that seems to have been there.

We can keep playing whack-a-mole with the things that could set off people like Elliot Rodgers, Ted Bundy, Albert Fish, Andrew Cunanan, Harris and Klebold.  We can keep trying to disarm them, to make it so that when they do go off, they don’t do as much damage.

Or we can devote those resources to finding out what is wrong with these people.  Finding out how to detect the dangerously violent more quickly, how to improve threat assessments.  How to improve a mental health system that literally turned away Jeffrey Dahmer as “just having fantasies,” rather than treating him.  How to improve a legal system that handed an escaped victim back to him to be butchered.  How to get people to seek the help that they desperately need, or improve treatments so that they benefit more from that help.

How many tragedies does it take for us to ask what’s really causing them?



  1. lwk2431 said,

    “Or we can devote those resources to finding out what is wrong with these people”

    Guns And Drugs

    We are drugging our children on a massive scale and the profits of companies selling legally prescribed drugs to do so are enormously profitable, over 100x more profitable than the industry that sells firearms to civilians. Some of those drugs are known to have serious side effects including violent ideation.

    Re “poor people,” the following are facts, not racism.

    Per FBI stats for 2011 where the race of the offender was known it was black over 52% of the time despite blacks being less than 14% of the population then.

    A recent study of voting districts compared to violence and crime showed that two factors outweighed all the rest. The most accurate predictors of violence were 1) inner city with high population density and 2) over 35% black population.

    The U.S. overall has a homicide rate of 4.7 per 100,000. New Orleans has had a rate over 50 per 100,000 for a number of years. The Ninth Ward in New Orleans is probably more dangerous than some war zones. You will see the same pattern over and over again in the U.S. Many parts of the U.S. not in those inner cities actually are quite safe even by European standards.

    The fact is, and you can read brilliant black authors like Thomas Sowell to validate this, liberal policies have destroyed the black family in those areas in the last 50 years. Combine that with a War on Drugs and it is not hard to understand.



    • wolfemann said,

      And here’s where assumptions come into play.

      You bring up drug issues with Rodgers et al; do you have any proof that they were on prescription medications at the time? In particular, any meds that link to the violent ideations that you mention?

      As for the statistics, how does poverty factor in? My point was precisely this: We’re hardwired to pick up on easily identified characteristics that link to and predict behaviors. Race is easily identified; income and money not so much. Hell, here’s an example.

      The vast majority of violent offenders eat meat, nearly 100% of them. If you were to run a survey, or statistical analysis, or a multi-year observational study, you would find this to be true. So, clearly eating meat is an indicator of violent behavior!

      Except that something like over 90% of the population eats meat in this country. You’re assuming causation where what you have is correlation. So, how much of it is racial, and how much of it is crippling poverty combined with being packed in together like sardines? What’s the percentage of violent offenders who are very near or below the poverty line, and how does that compare to *their* share of the population?

  2. Vorex said,

    It’s taken me a while to comment to this because I wanted to make sure I had things together.

    I was entirely with you right up until ‘There are people who are really sick.’ And that’s where we part ways. Not because it isn’t true, of course there aren’t profoundly disturbed people out there, but because the assumption is that we can prevent that from being so.

    In this sense Mr Rodger is an excellent example. It wasn’t just that he had a swift assessment by police. Anyone would agree that’s inadequate. But he had been under the care of various professionals since he was eight. He was repeatedly assessed in the educational system. He was bought to the attention of police by his parents. He maintained a blog and published a manifesto well in advance of any violent outburst.

    This is not a case of someone going unidentified. He was identified repeatedly, by the educational system, by several professionals with whom he spoke, and by himself when he posted his ideation online.

    There seems to be two responses to such a case. In (A) psychological care in the US is so poor that even a lifetime of care can’t identify a person likely to invoke an event, in which case anyone could be a perpetrator and something must be done to reduce the impact of events. In (B) psychological care is fine but, despite long time care, this individual had a specific psychological event that drove his to kill … which implies something should be done to reduce the impact of events.

    There is no measure that would be more effective in reducing the impact of these events than eliminating firearms.

    It’s certainly true that people are troubled, or disturbed, and that the messages they receive form those around them contribute to that. But when one of those messages, and a very strong one, is ‘it’s your constitutional right to shoot people when you feel threatened’ is mental health the problem … or is encouraging people to kill one another the problem?

  3. wolfemann said,

    Please bear in mind that a lot of that information hadn’t been out when I originally wrote the post. Though I wonder about the part about his parents, as I’ve heard information that his mother actually refused to have him committed when social services tried to get him into mental health.

    But at any rate… sadly, psychological care here in the US *is* pretty much that poor, courtesy of multiple factors. Not the least of which is the fact that in response to overcrowding and underfunding of the mental health system, the response of governments throughout the nation was to cut funding! Wasn’t that brilliant? Oh, and turn all those non-functioning schizophrenics out onto the street with a month’s worth of meds, they’ll be *fine*….

    However, I would like to bring up one point in particular:

    [quote]But when one of those messages, and a very strong one, is ‘it’s your constitutional right to shoot people when you feel threatened’ is mental health the problem … or is encouraging people to kill one another the problem?[/quote]

    First, let me go on the record – I am NOT, I repeat NOT in bed with the folks who think we shouldn’t have background checks and that the mentally ill should have access to whatever sort of firepower they want. That is what we *real* gun rights advocates refer to as “stupid, counterproductive, and would you please shut up and stop hurting the cause.”

    Or, alternately, “the NRA line, because they’re funded by people who sell the firepower.”

    I also don’t support Stand Your Ground laws, which are the sort of things you’re talking about with the message of “you can shoot people if you feel threatened.” Again, the line of the crazy people. However, pulling SYG laws into the mass shooting debate is like saying that you’re allergic to citrus when you’re discussing the merits of apples. They’re related to the overall topic of “fruit,” but it’s separate from the apple argument.

    None of the mass shooters like Rodgers have had any contention that they were threatened, or that they felt threatened. The only argument you could make for a multiple shooter who did claim to feel threatened was Bernie Goetz, and that’s a REALLY long tail to a different topic entirely (and pre-dates SYG laws by a good 20-30 years.)

    I’ll say this much: When the police will state that they have no obligation to try and protect you, that it’s their job to investigate afterwards and try to apprehend the criminal, it does you damned little good when you’ve got a mugger with a knife who knows that dead people can’t cancel credit cards. Even if the police do feel that it’s their obligation to try and protect you, it doesn’t help when somebody busts down your door looking for money they can use for drugs, unless the police are right there.

    And if the police are an average of 8 minutes away, that’s an awful long time to wait if your boyfriend is coming after you with a knife. Ask Marissa Alexander, who is still shamefully being prosecuted by a broken legal system.

    But as for people like Rodgers and Lanza?

    Yeah, we need to make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on firearms. We also need the appropriate tools to prevent straw purchases on their behalf, and to ensure that they do not have any prohibited weapons when they are identified, as the Milwaukee spa shooting demonstrated. I’m with you there.

    But in order for that to work, you need to be able to identify the dangerous people, and to have the necessary tools to deal with them. Our current system does not have those tools that it desperately needs, and I think that it needs to be the top priority to fix.

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