We have all been horrified by the mass shootings that many consider an ‘American thing’. We often refer to them as tragedies. In his book, “From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Shooter”, (1) Seamus McGraw thinks of it this way: “a tragedy is not a good word, tragedy is something that happens completely out of our control, instead a mass shooting is an atrocity”. The book examines the history of mass shooting, the first of which was in 1966 at the University of Austin, Texas, which McGraw catalogues as the first modern mass shooting covered on live television. His wager is that understanding the myth around these mass shooters might help introduce something new, something that hopefully provokes action.
One common trait among the perpetrators is that the shooter has nothing to do with the victims. In his course “Everyone is Mad”, (2) Jacques-Alain Miller draws a brief theory of criminology distinguishing two types of crimes: crimes of utility and crimes of jouissance. If someone gets rid of a person who is causing him damage or stops him from progressing, this could be considered a crime of utility. However if the crimes committed by these mass shooters are to “kill the most people”, as one of the shooters revealed after he was caught, then according to Miller, this quest to be the most murderous–confirmed by the high-capacity firearms of choice–can be considered a crime of jouissance. Thomas de Quincey, in his book “Of Crime Considered as One of the Fine Arts”, calls these “crimes of pure voluptuosity”.
McGraw’s book goes on to explain why he thinks that “mental illness, bullying, traumas, or even brain tumors, as found in one autopsy, are not enough to explain these mass killings where the killer has no relation to the victims. A lot of the perpetrators do have a diagnosable mental illness, but many do not, and after all, “everybody has some form of madness”.
He argues that the perpetrators embrace the cultural phenomena of victimhood, individualism, and isolation, forming communities in the darkest places on the internet, in the extreme narcissism of our times, as if the shooters themselves were a symptom of our American culture at large. With psychoanalysis we can consider this idea of ‘claiming victimhood’ as the position that asserts a place of exception when life does not meet what one feels one deserves.
By offering prayers for the victims and their families, McGraw argues, society outsources any responsibility to act, since the event is something foreign, from an evil source that no one can control. Evil is a concept that obscures any possible explanation. It does not illuminate the problem. The evil outside has nothing to do with our society; it is something that we deny having any responsibility for or needing to act on. In other words, these forces are assumed to be out of our control.
The issue of mental illness is not enough to justify these crimes, since the majority of mentally ill people do not orchestrate mass shootings. These crimes are on a different level, which can only be the product of societies that fare well, says McGraw. How can we interpret this? When Lacan speaks of the decline of the name of the father it is not about the fall of the patriarchal father. This leads to confusion with regard to the form of violence that irrupts today in relation to the iron law of late capitalism.
Marcelo Barros, an Argentinian psychoanalyst, thinks that the forms of control and regulation today follow a paradigm of power based on the decline of the law that leaves out authority and is rather linked to the liberalization of different modes of jouissance, which conservatives deplore and progressives applaud. (3) This fall of the name of the father in our culture today is precisely what disrupts the possibility of putting a limit on the ‘iron rule’, to the push to jouissance of this ‘monolithic program’ without the possibility of equivocation.
The power of capitalism is a power without a master. Subjects are left to the free reign of the market. There is no authority or epic narrative to offer any mediation. The free trade and easy access to firearms made for war is a consequence of these circumstances.
When McGraw interviews a Chinese mass shooter serving life in jail and asks him whether “ a good guy with a gun would stop a mass shooting”–an argument made by many in the US about the ‘right to defend oneself’ and the need for everyone to carry firearms, including teachers at school–the shooter’s response was: “I thought I was the good guy”. This debunks the possibility of knowing in whose hands those guns will end up.
Most gun owners agree to put laws in place, but the only voices we hear are those that come from people who are not willing to compromise on this “very American right” or extreme religious groups who find comfort in thinking that we are all good and that the evil is just outside (of us)–an extimity that denies responsibility for one’s jouissance.
The savage killings continue. Political inaction continues.
1. McGraw, S. “From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Shooter. (University of Texas Press, 2021).
2. Miller, J.-A. “Everyone is Mad.” (Paidós, 2015).
3. Barros, M. “A New Paradigm of Power” Mutaciones del sujeto contemporaneo. (Gramma, 2011).