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American Culture and the Psychology of Mass Shootings

By       Message Alan James Strachan     Permalink
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How are we to understand the psychology of the gun violence that afflicts American society?

Peter Michaelson goes to great lengths to describe the aberrant psychology of an individual who would slaughter innocent strangers, in an article recently published by Buzzflash on the "The Psychology Behind Mass Shootings" [click here

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What mainstream psychology ignores about mass murderers:

While such an analysis can provide important insights and is a necessary contribution to reducing such violence, it is at the same time extremely one-sided and unfortunately displays a bias that is typical of mainstream psychology. This is particularly evident when Michaelson writes, "our suffering is produced through inner conflict --we have nowhere to turn for relief but inward."

Imagine telling a child who is being sexually abused by his caregiver that his suffering is simply a result of inner conflict. Or explaining to victims of superstorm Sandy who are being denied aid by squabbling Republicans that they will just have to seek inner relief. Then try to convince African-Americans that the bigotry they have experienced the last 200 years is strictly a result of and must be addressed on the level of their individual psychology.

While it is true that, as Michaelson wrote, "We have to learn that our negative impressions, impulses, and emotions are not  caused exclusively by external factors, even when life is difficult and seems unfair" so that we will learn to "stop projecting on to others," it also is true that external factors have a profound influence on our inner psychology. Michelson's bias leads him to pathologize rampage shooters at length, but apart from a few remarks about gun control he says next to nothing about our society that glorifies, propagates and turns a blind eye to violence.

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In an interview, psychologist James Hillman remarked:

I am attacking the theories of psychotherapy. . . . It makes every problem a subjective, inner problem. And that's not where the problems come from. They come from the environment, the cities, the economy, the racism. They come from architecture, school systems, capitalism, exploitation. They come from many places that psychotherapy does not address. Psychotherapy theory turns it all on you: you are the one who is wrong. What I'm trying to say is that, if a kid is having trouble or is discouraged, the problem is not just inside the kid; it's also in the system, the society.   

Newtown shows us - ourselves:

The murdered children at Newtown hold up a mirror to our collective psyche. In that mirror we see President Obama killing innocent children with drone strikes, the mainstream media remaining virtually silent about this policy, and Obama's counterterrorism advisor Bruce Reidel likening such killings to mowing the lawn: "You've got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back."

All of this is but a part of our demented policy of perpetual war, aided and abetted by both political parties as the latest amplification of the military-industrial complex's iron grip on our society. Violence and murder is our business, and the tone-deaf National Rifle Association wants to make sure that anyone within our borders who has the urge to murder has the means to do so as effectively as possible.

These are but a few of the countless examples of the violence rampant in our society. Michaelson's analysis does us a disservice by overemphasizing the individual psychology of mass killers and virtually ignoring the society that models such behavior and arms its citizens. As a collective , with our $525 billion yearly military budget, we clearly are displaying the "murderous instincts," "profound inner weakness" and "lack of self-regulation" that Michaelson pins solely on individual shooters.

When an individual kills innocent civilians, we call it murder and insanity, and anyone foolhardy enough to defend such behavior would be rightly vilified. In contrast, when our government routinely kills innocent civilians, we either deny it is happening or liken it to "mowing the grass," and anyone who defends such behavior calls themselves a patriot.

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Certainly it is important to recognize that the Newtown killer was mentally disturbed. The deeper healing will come, however, when we admit that in many ways he is a reflection of our own profoundly dysfunctional society -- and then decide to do something about it.

Alan James Strachan, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist, teacher and author of the book-in-progress, America on the Couch: Dreams and Nightmares of Democracy , .


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Alan James Strachan, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist, author and teacher, and Janet Coster, M.A., M.A., is a transpersonal counselor, spiritual director and workshop leader. This article is adapted from their book-in-progress, America on the Couch: (more...)

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