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General News    H2'ed 11/4/18

Bob Koehler On Pittsburgh, The Other, and Our Killer Culture

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My guest today is author, activist, and peace journalist, Bob Koehler. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Bob.

peace journalist, Bob Koehler
peace journalist, Bob Koehler
(Image by courtesy of Bob Koehler)
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Joan Brunwasser: Your recent piece, Mass Murder and American Historyis a powerful one. What motivated you to write it now?

Bob Koehler: Hi, Joan. It's always great to have a conversation with you. The current column is about the mass killing in Pittsburgh last week -- 11 people killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue. I wrote about it because I feel I have to. I have to open up my grief and my awareness to ask yet once more, why??? This is about the 40th mass murder I've written about since I've been doing this column. I am obsessed with the idea that such horrors occur in a context. They aren't simply the work of a lone nut, an evil thug. The killings emerge from our culture of violence and I feel duty bound to look at this every time such a horror occurs. When we wage war, the violence comes home. Mass murders are one way in which it happens.

JB: Wow. 40 columns on mass murder! Talk about dark. So, give us some context. How is this attack similar and different from the other too numerous mass murders occurring on American soil on a numbingly regular basis?

BK: Every killing, mass or otherwise, is unique because each stolen life is unique. But these killings always occur in a context. They may be the work of "loners" -- as the media always portray the killer if he's white, and if he's not he's probably portrayed as a terrorist -- but psychologically speaking, these loners are not acting alone.

Almost six years ago, after the Sandy Hook killings, I quoted sociologist Peter Turchin, who pointed out that the defining characteristic of mass murder is not that it's senseless or random, but that the victims were depersonalized and became symbols, to the killer, of a profound social wrong. In the case of this latest horrific incident, at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the murderer was anti-Semitic, who blamed the Jews for aiding immigrants, who were "invading" white America. So the victims were symbols of a terrible thing that was happening to this country.

In an essay called "Canaries in a Coal Mine," Turchin wrote: "The rampage shooters see themselves as moralistic punishers striking against deep injustice." He called it the "principle of social substitutability" -- substituting a particular group of people for a general wrong or malevolent "other." Now, what ties this killing with all the others is that each one of the mass murderers was waging his own personal war. Turchin went on: "On the battlefield, you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you've never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. . . . Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable."

They are symbols of the social wrong, the enemy, the Other. This begins to get at the social context in which all mass killers act. We wage and celebrate and glorify war, and war always comes home one way or another. Whether the killer is a total loner or part of some collective, e.g., a white nationalist, he is taking his actions from the playbook of war. The rightness and goodness of war is something we grow up with, something that surrounds us -- on television, in the movies, in the gaming world. In the context of war, killing is necessary and without negative consequences. We are killing the source of our troubles. We are killing what is wrong. This is what every mass murderer thinks he is doing.

JB: This hole we have dug for ourselves is so deep and dark, it's hard to see how we can climb out. How do you continue to write about this, time after time, without imploding? Sometimes, it's just hard to get out of bed in the morning.

BK: This is not an easy question to answer. As long as I'm still breathing, I have to do something -- I have to find a way to contribute to healing and awareness. The world is a place of joy and wonder, too, even in the worst of times. I still manage to be inspired by Martin Luther King's quote: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." That means I still have to do my part to bend the arc toward justice -- to create peace. This is never easy or simple, nor is the task ever finished. But every deep wound we incur makes me believe more strongly in doing the work of healing.

JB: We progressive activists have been agitating for good, for what feels like a really long time. I wasn't being facetious when I asked what keeps you from imploding. Can you talk about that a bit? It might inspire those of us in the trenches struggling to hold ourselves together in the process. As a bonus, it'll help us to understand better what makes you tick. Are you game?

BK: Wow, this is a challenging question, Joan. I think the key word in the MLK "arc of the moral universe" quote is LONG. The arc is long, long, long. We can't just think in terms of graspable human history. Cynics win in the short term. The civil rights movement of the '60s ended Jim Crow America but racism totally regrouped, around the prison-industrial complex, the war on drugs, etc., etc., creating a new sort of second-class citizen called the felon/ex-felon, and of course it was African-Americans and other people of color who were in the crosshairs.

Also in the '60s, I thought -- Bob the hippie, just coming of age -- we were in the process of ending war in my lifetime. The Vietnam War collapsed in a heap. The country was tangled in "Vietnam Syndrome," i.e., the public hated war. But the forces of corporate darkness regrouped and now we're aswim in endless war. The arc's bend seems endlessly disappointing. The only way past it is reaching beyond human history, believing that in spite of all the horrors we spew, we -- not just humanity, but the whole universe, all its components -- are evolving.

Consciousness is evolving. Much of the human race is still trapped in small thinking, in scapegoating and win-lose and the projection of evil onto The Other. But the energy of transcendence is absolutely present as well. Restorative Justice -- moving beyond punishment to healing -- is a movement across the whole planet. That's one example of bubbling transcendence. Environmental awareness, a rediscovering of the wisdom of the world's indigenous people " a reconnection with the circle of life " this is all happening at the same time that war and "consumption of the commons" -- destroying the planet for the sake of profit -- is happening. This is not simple, but I throw my heart and faith and belief into the healing energies that are occurring on this planet and do what I can to help them grow. This is, I hope, kind of a beginning of an answer to your question.

JB: Thanks. It is. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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