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How Does a Grievance-Stoking Culture Stop Mass Murders?

How Does a Grievance-Stoking Culture Stop Mass Murders?

Posted by Ed Folsom, October 30, 2023.

Robert Card, who shot 18 people to death and wounded 13 others in Lewiston, Maine, this past Wednesday evening, is dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It took roughly 48 hours to find his body, but searchers found it Friday night. According to news reports, Card was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve who suffered serious mental health problems and might also have been recently fired from his job. He spent a couple of weeks in a mental health facility in July. According to one news report, a relative told reporters that Card had recently been hearing voices. He also reportedly threatened to shoot up the Saco, Maine, National Guard training facility. People have been asking, “How could this happen here in Maine?”

This is the second high-profile mass murder in the news in the past few weeks. In between, there was a near miss. On October 7, a flock of Hamas terrorists invaded Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping a couple of hundred others back to Gaza, proudly raping and mutilating all the while. Hamas is the Islamic jihadist entity that governs Gaza. Its charter rejects any negotiated settlement of its grievances with Israel, declaring that the only solution is jihad, through which: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” That’s where Hamas is coming from.

In between the Hamas terrorist slaughter of October 7 and the Lewiston slaughter on October 25, there was a near miss of mass murder on October 22. Off-duty Alaska air pilot Joseph David Emerson was riding in the cockpit of a flight from Everett Washington to San Fransisco when he attempted to shut down the plane’s engines. The pilot and co-pilot wrestled him away from the controls and threw him out of the cockpit. Members of the flight crew handcuffed Emerson for the remainder of the flight. He has been charged with 88 counts of attempted murder. He told authorities he was suffering from psychological and sleep problems, and that he took psilocybin mushrooms and had a breakdown.

As to how last Wednesday’s events in Lewiston could have happened in Maine, mass murder on this scale seems particularly unlikely here because so few people here act on homicidal impulses. With a population of roughly 1.3 million, Maine logged only 29 non-vehicular homicides in all of 2022. And stranger murders, let alone mass murders committed by strangers, are the most unlikely of all. But this year, Maine had two other high-profile cases that involved people either killing or attempting to kill total strangers.

In April, Joseph Eaton, who was released from prison just days before, allegedly murdered his parents and the couple they were staying with, in Bowdoin (the same town where Robert Card lived).  Eaton committed the murders with a firearm or firearms owned by one of the victims, before driving south on I-295. In the Town of Yarmouth, he opened fire on a southbound vehicle occupied by a man and his two adult children. All three were shot but survived. Eaton later said he was paranoid that the vehicle was following him. He has a history of mental health problems.

In June, 24-year-old Marcel Lagrange, Jr., allegedly shot a mother and father to death with a handgun as they sat in their parked car in Westbrook. The couple’s 2 children were in the back seat. The murdered couple had recently moved to Maine, from Houston, Texas, to find a better environment to raise their children. They had never met Lagrange. When the shootings occurred, Portland Police were looking for Lagrange in connection with a report that he had threatened to harm a recent acquaintance earlier that day. Lagrange had a history of threatening to kill strangers to avenge grievances over perceived slights. He has a history of mental health problems and has pled not guilty by reason of insanity.

These are not the first bizarre cases of strangers targeted for killing in recent Maine history. For instance, in 2015, a 31-year-old trans person, Connor MacCalister, followed a total stranger, 59-year-old Wendy Boudreau, into the Shaw’s Supermarket in Saco. Once inside, MacCalister approached Boudreau from behind and slit her throat in a grocery aisle, simply because Boudreau looked like a vulnerable candidate for the murder. MacCalister had a history of mental health problems.

So, how did the October 25 mass killing in Lewiston happen here in Maine? Well, Robert Card had an impulse to commit mass murder. That impulse stemmed from a grievance, as nearly all murders, including mass murders, do. And nothing, either internal or external to Robert Card, prevented him from doing it.

The best thing we could possibly do to stop murder, whether individual or mass, would be to eliminate homicidal impulses. But some people are going to have homicidal impulses no matter what we do.

The next best thing would be to instill a moral code that causes people to restrain themselves from acting on whatever homicidal impulses they might have. Anyone who finds murder too morally repugnant to commit, and therefore suppresses the impulse to do it, doesn’t act on the impulse. Here, religion, culture and upbringing have critical roles to play. But beyond that, as we move away from inherent factors and factors internalized by the individual to restraints imposed upon the individual by the State, we move from the most effective to the least effective factors in whether a person commits homicide.

If a person experiences a homicidal impulse and isn’t constrained by moral repugnance from committing it, what else might stand in the way? We could have serious enough penalties for murder that the person calculates not to do it out of self-interest. In other words, the impulse is there, and moral repugnance doesn’t stop the person from acting, but the person holds back because the likelihood of punishment is so high, and the punishment is so great, that carrying through is too costly.

Obviously, operating at this level is less likely to work than if the person has no homicidal impulse to begin with or has internalized moral repugnance that makes murder unthinkable. This is especially true in the heat of the moment, when a person is least likely to calculate cost/benefit. Criminalizing the act and imposing certain and severe punishment probably has a stronger effect in reinforcing cultural stigma and custom, helping instill moral repugnance, than in deterring anyone who isn’t restrained by this internalized sense. Still, calculated self-interest probably plays some role in preventing people from acting on some homicidal impulses.

Suppose, though, that we are dealing with someone with a homicidal impulse, unrestrained by moral repugnance, who is so determined to commit the act that the prospect of the harshest penalty has no deterrent effect. Now what? Is it possible to stop murders by banning certain means that might be used to commit them? I ask because this is the solution that a great number of people propose for the problem of mass murders.

For a lot of people, the predetermined answer to what should be done to prevent mass killings, like those on October 25 in Lewiston, is to ban “assault” weapons and to pass more restrictions on who may legally possess guns and on when and where people may possess them. This, they advocate, will stop a person with an unrestrained homicidal impulse who is undeterred by the harshest of legal penalties from acting on the impulse. It’s as if passing an “assault weapons” ban and more restrictions on gun possession will render homicidal people unable to kill. But, are firearms restrictions really capable of disabling people from acting on their homicidal impulses?

Of course, it might be true that some people bent on mass murder would find it impossible to kill quite as many people if they were forced to improvise new ways to fire lots of bullets rapidly with firearms other than banned “assault weapons.” But even that assumes that (1) the ban would be effective at making “assault weapons” unavailable to people bent on homicide and undeterred by legal penalties; and (2) that such people would not find means other than firearms to commit any mass-murder they are bent on committing.

Assuming that making “assault weapons” illegal could make mass murder with firearms impossible, homicidal people could easily switch to vehicles as tools of mayhem (by driving a vehicle through a Wisconsin Christmas parade, or onto a crowded New York City bike path on Halloween, or by crashing a plane, for instance); or to improvised explosive devices (building bombs from pressure cookers and fireworks, and setting them off among spectators at a marathon, for instance); or to tactics long more commonly used to commit mass murder in other countries, like exploding suicide vests or explosives-laden vehicles.

What are “assault weapons anyway? The types of firearms commonly called “assault weapons” are a type of rifle, and rifles are used in only a small percentage of the homicides committed in the U.S. But when “assault weapons” are used to commit the mass murder of innocent people in schools, businesses, and public places, the results are so grotesquely spectacular that it tends to draw most of the attention focused on gun homicides. And, every time it happens, we hear the cries of the believers in an “assault weapons” ban that if we just banned them and passed more laws controlling firearms possession, the mass killings would stop.

When I was a kid, I never heard anything about mass school shootings. Other than old stories from the Prohibition era or news accounts of Mafia hits, I didn’t even hear much about people shooting bunches of people inside bars and restaurants. In the 1970’s, U.S. terrorists like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army regularly set off bombs in public places, and leftists frequently shot at police. During one 18-month period in 1971-72, there were 2,500 bombings on U.S. soil — roughly 5 per day. Overseas, terrorists such as West Germany’s Red Army Faction, Japan’s Red Army, and Venezuela’s “Carlos the Jackal” carried on similar activities. But it wasn’t yet a cultural thing to randomly target innocent civilians for mass killing.

In my High School, Bangor High, we had mandatory ROTC for Sophomore boys through the 1971-72 school year. There were lots of military rifles at the school (literal “weapons of war”) that we were taught how to field-strip and reassemble. Bangor High was constructed as a series of buildings connected by pedestrian ramps. Underneath one of those ramps was a shooting range, where I and many others fired .22 cal. rifles at targets during school hours. Yes, we fired guns inside a school, during the school day!

Anyone who wanted to go bird or deer hunting before or after school might keep a shotgun or rifle in a vehicle in the school parking lot. But either nobody at Bangor High had a homicidal impulse to shoot the place up or, if they did, they had a moral compunction against it or were deterred by legal penalty.

I don’t recall people using the term “assault weapons” back then. But there were plenty of guns around that would have made it easy to mass-kill unarmed school kids and teachers if the impulse to do it and an absence of self-restraint had ruled the day. Frankly, it was just unthinkable. At the same time, the U.S. murder rate back then was high. It rose from 5.2 per 100,000 population in 1960 to 9.8 per 100,000 in 1974, the year I graduated high school.   Some people seem to think the U.S. homicide rate has never been higher than it is now, but last year, 2022, it was 6.3 per 100,000. That’s 36% below the 1974 rate.

These days, though, the targeted mass-killing of innocent civilians is entirely thinkable to a shocking number of people who have the impulse to do it, are unconstrained by moral compunction, and are undeterred by the harshest penalties. And there are so many means available for the determined. It’s impossible to eliminate them all.

So, while it might be comforting to think that an “assault weapons” ban and more regulations on gun possession are the cure, that’s just a comforting delusion. Too many people have broken through the most effective firewalls against the commission of mass murder. The impulse to target innocent civilians for mass killing has become a pop culture thing. Why should we think that a ban on assault weapons and more regulations on gun possession is the firewall that will hold?

But let’s back up a few steps. What underlies the impulse to target innocent people for mass murder in the first place? Isn’t it nearly always a grievance? Isn’t the mass-killer almost always alienated, seeking vengeance, seeking to exact “justice” for injustices suffered? The person might feel personally affronted or persecuted, or might believe he’s avenging the persecution or exploitation of others, which might stem from paranoid delusions, political ideology or both. When these feelings or ideas underpin the homicidal impulse, they automatically knock down the first firewall against action – moral constraint. After all, a person who believes that targeting innocent people for mass murder is righteous does not believe that it’s morally repugnant.

Or, perceived grievances might leave the mass-killer nihilistic, eliminating any moral difficulty with mass killing and any moral constraint against it. In any case, there’s always an underlying grievance. Without that, there is no impulse to mass-murder the innocent and nothing to dissolve moral compunctions against it.

So, if you wanted to increase the number of mass killers, the best place to start would be to promote a culture of grievance. You might promote binary thinking, grouping people together and dividing the various groups into one of two absolutist categories: oppressors (evil) and oppressed (good). You might teach that all disparities in outcomes between groups are the result of oppression; that everything the “haves” (the oppressors, exploiters, colonizers) have, that the “have nots” (the oppressed, exploited, colonized) don’t was stolen from the “have nots.” This would leave people in the “oppressed” group aggrieved toward the people in the “oppressors” group over the perceived oppression, exploitation and theft, while the people in the “oppressors” group would be aggrieved toward people in the “oppressed” group over being unjustifiably marginalized as evil. This would plant the seed of grievance as widely as possible. And, it would maximize the spread of homicidal impulses toward entire groups of people, simply because of who they are. In fact, how better to promote mass killings than to mobilize masses against masses, solely based on who’s who?

To knock down any moral-compunction firewall, it would be an excellent strategy for religious leaders to preach that killing oppressors is morally justified, even required for piety. To get around any personal hangups about earthly punishment, religious leaders could instill in their aggrieved flock that loving death more than life is most holy, that martyrdom against oppressors is the highest calling.

Secular institutions — governmental, educational and cultural — would want to push the same “oppressed” (good) / “oppressor” (evil) binary; casting the moral justifications for violence against oppressors in terms of “social justice” and the struggle against oppression and exploitation. It would be best to imbue people with the sense of social justice described by the leftist mass-executioner Che Guevara, causing them to “tremble with indignation at every injustice.” To overcome personal considerations of punishment, the institutions would inculcate people with an ideology that lauds personal sacrifice in the cause of justice as the highest calling.

That’s the ticket for manufacturing more mass killers — lots of grievances (the seed), with lots of stuff to overcome moral compunctions and fear of punishment. While, on the other hand, if you were trying to reduce the numbers of mass killers, you’d want to pursue entirely opposite strategies. Otherwise, you might find yourself left to argue that the solution for mass murder is to make it illegal to possess a particular instrumentality sometimes used to commit it – because that’s all you’ve got.

At this point, we don’t know what grievances led Robert Card to commit mass murder this past Wednesday. We’ll probably never know for sure. But there’s little doubt that his homicidal impulses stemmed from a grievance of some kind. Just like Joseph Eaton’s homicidal impulse stemmed from a grievance, and Marcel Lagrange’s, and even single-person stranger-murderer Connor MacCalister’s.

Maybe magic-mushroom-pilot Joseph David Emerson didn’t have a grievance. Maybe he just experienced a psychedelic warping of reality that made crashing a commercial airplane full of people make sense. Maybe he’s an exception. But what Robert Card did, and what Joseph David Emerson tried to do, are the kinds of mass killings that really grab attention. People assume that their pilot won’t crash their plane on purpose. They assume that when they go to a bowling alley or a bar, no stranger will enter the place and open fire. They assume that no stranger will slice their throat when they grocery shop. And when someone counters that assumption, it puts people on edge about flying, going bowling, or going to a bar or to a grocery store.

That’s why terrorists are so fond of the tactic. That’s why Hamas terrorists, fueled by homicidal impulses rooted in grievance and justified by the teachings of Islamist imams, raped, murdered and mutilated random civilians in Israel on a Saturday morning, October 7, at a rave, in their homes, on a kibbutz, etc. No ban on a particular means of committing mass murder would have stopped them – none. And no assault weapons ban will stop mass murder here either, especially while the professional grievance-stoking machinery keeps on pumping up the likelihood of mass murder.