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?


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