Guns As Scapegoats
By Butler Shaffer
It is impossible for that which is free by nature to
be disturbed by anything but itself. It is a man’s own
judgments which disturb him.
Following World Wars I and II, formal and informal proposals were made for the military disarmament of nation-states. The war system has been so destructive of life that many naïve souls believed that some form of dumping weapons into the seas would bring about peace by depriving political systems of the tools of warfare. This same assumption underlies modern international efforts to dismantle – or to at least prevent increased production of – nuclear weapons, whose capacities for the mass slaughter of innocents were amply demonstrated to the world by America in 1945. That nuclear disarmament treaties would be unable to undo the knowledge of how to create such weapons, or to transform the disposition to use them, reflects the intellectual and spiritual emptiness of our species.
When, in college, I was introduced to the Stoic philosophers, I became aware of the self-directed nature of our anger. Do we get upset at the thug who victimizes us in some way, or are we annoyed with ourselves for not being able to prevent his attack? A virus may cause us more pain and suffering than did the injuries inflicted by the hooligan, but we do not become enraged at the germ. Why? What is the difference? The Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, provides this insight: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Is it not evident that the locus of our “judgments” and “estimates” of which the Stoics speak is our mind? Is it not to the content of our thinking that we must look for an understanding of most of the difficulties we have with others; of what we have made of ourselves? Carl Jung devoted much of his writings to helping us become aware of the nature of the “dark side” of the collective unconscious, and of how we respond to its energies. By virtue of our humanity, each of us has the capacity to engage in actions of which we would consciously disapprove. If adequately provoked, we might resort to violence, acts of theft, making dishonest statements, or such lesser offenses as avoiding responsibility for our behavior, being lazy or biased against members of other races, or not properly performing our work. That these “dark side” forces – our “shadow” – reside within each of us, does not mean that we are fated to act upon them. That most of us do not hit someone over the head with a baseball bat just because we may feel like it, shows that we do not act upon such shadow dispositions.
A practice that has contributed to the mass-mobilization of these “dark side” energies is our well-conditioned habit of identifying ourselves with abstractions. Instead of looking for meaning and direction within ourselves, we look to all kinds of identities; what Frederick Perls called “ego boundaries,” or Ludwig von Bertalanffy named the “ego barrier.” By attaching ourselves to our race, gender, nationality, religion, ethnic grouping, ideology, or any of a variety of other concepts, we create a division – and, hence, conflict – between our inner self, and the external abstractions we seek to become.
The well-being of institutions depends upon people having a dualistic identity in which we individually become the personification of the abstraction. The business conference attendee who introduced himself as “I am Xerox” was a perfect example of this trait. It is this mindset that produces the soldier who will storm an enemy fortification in the belief that he is saving his “country” (i.e., the extension of himself). The idea that, in blindly following a suicidal order, he is playing out his conditioning as a robotic mechanism, a tool to be exploited by the institutional order that directed his conditioning, never invades his mind. He will continue to delude himself that he is a “free individual,” just as ordinary Germans, after World War II, believed that “they thought they were free” under years of Hitlerian despotism.
If you identify your sense of being with an institution (e.g., the nation-state) then its glorious accomplishments as well as its evil consequences become quite personal. Those who adorn their houses with American flags, or dress up in red-white-and-blue “America: Love It or Leave It” T-shirts are doing more than simply participating in limited cultural celebrations such as Halloween trick-or-treating, or dancing around a May-pole. They are making a metaphysical statement about their sense of who they are; that they correlate their sense of being with an institution that defines itself in terms of enjoying a monopoly on the use of violence; and whose modus operandi is to coerce, steal, threaten, torture, terrorize, and kill whomever it deems suitable to the accomplishment of its purposes.
It is at this point that “dark side” voices, consciously-derived thought, and the spiritual dimensions of being human, enter into conversations within our minds. The political systems with which we have been trained to identify ourselves are destructive of life. The principal indictment of the modern nation-state is that, in its varied practices and manifestations, it no longer serves any life-sustaining purpose whatsoever.
“Life” is purposeful activity, but whose purposes are to be fostered? Whose “life” is to be supported by the social systems through which we cooperate with one another for our mutual benefit? Such questions bring us to the far deeper questions now percolating within many minds, particularly young men and women. Does “life” belong to the living, to be directed by, and serving the interests of, individuals; or – like systems of slavery – does life belong to abstractions we have been conditioned to revere, and whose powers derive from the weakness of our refusal to assert our claims of self-ownership?
When the American government admits that twenty-two military veterans of both current and earlier wars commit suicide every day, one can begin to get a sense of just how anti-life the war system is, even for those who survive its horrors. When one adds to such numbers the many others whose participation in sanctified butchery has left them physically, mentally, or spiritually crippled, the human costs climb exponentially. And what of the families: the spouses, parents, children, grandparents, and siblings, whose lives will be permanently shredded by deaths arising from “service” to agencies of unrestrained violence?
Those who have not yet cut their umbilical cords to the state will continue seeking explanations for the ubiquitous violence that permeates our culture, a destructiveness they are unwilling to attribute to themselves as personifications of the system created and sustained by their thinking. When troubled young men kill students at schools (and why do so many of these multiple killings take place at schools?), those who continue their attachments to institutionalism blank out. Their intellectual vacuity allows them to plumb to no greater depth for an explanation than to blame guns. Violent movies, TV programs, and video-games will also be blamed by some, just as long coats were so accused following the Columbine school shootings a few years ago. The idea that things can have a will to action, while humans lack the will to resist their seductive powers, is to resort to primitive thinking.
If we are to move beyond simple-minded explanations for both our personal and societal problems, we must be willing to explore what J. Krishnamurti called “the movement of thought.” It is more comforting for us to share Mark Twain’s sentiment that “nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” But if we are genuinely sincere in our purpose to help end mankind’s destructive ways, we must begin with our own contributions to collective madness. A beginning point might be found in Carl Jung’s works on “dark side” projections. When police officers or American soldiers gun down people as innocent of wrongdoing as these six victims of Elliot Rodger, few if any complaints are heard. The gun-control crowd does not offer up such killings as evidence for the need to rid the world of guns. These guns are being used on behalf of the state, an institution whose very nature is to have a monopoly on the use of violence. To even suggest that violence should be de-institutionalized in our world would be to raise the specter of a major paradigm shift in our thinking; the kind of transformation that worshipers of the nation-state would be unable to make.
And yet, as the aforesaid three-party conversation goes on amongst our conscious and unconscious voices, the energies of the life-force become increasingly vocal. Most of us are not violent and destructive people, but each of us does have a “dark side” which, as we have seen since 9/11, can be easily mobilized into a mob. Those who continue to identify themselves with the nation-state will be disinclined to see their revered system as any kind of wrongdoer, for to do would implicate themselves as wrongdoers.
Most people are decent enough to oppose the killing of others. Those who support the war system are able to rationalize the killing of innocents as “collateral damage” arising from the deadly nature of warfare. But when soldiers and police officers engage in the intentional killing of noncombatants unrelated to the conduct of war – or, in the case of police officers, of persons who pose no threat to others – most people would, at least privately, disapprove of such acts. But as such actors are doing the work of the state – which involves employing violence against others – it becomes difficult for those who identify themselves with the state to offer criticism.
At this point, “dark side” forces may get activated. Inner voices that might simultaneously condemn acts of murder when carried out by private persons, while excusing those done by agents of the state with which they identify themselves, generate a subtle confusion. How can the chaos that arises from trying to harmonize irreconcilable premises be eliminated? The method to which the unconscious mind has habitually resorted is to project the source of the conflict onto others; to find a “scapegoat” who can be punished.
I suspect that minds that are unable to withdraw from the collective mindset wherein these psychic conflicts are bred and nourished, may quite unconsciously find a convenient scapegoat in the tools of death employed by both private and governmental killers. The policeman and soldier who kill harmless persons, and the young man who indiscriminately murders strangers, all employ the same means: guns. Ahh, it must be guns that are causing all of this mayhem; getting rid of guns will restore peace to society, just as earlier hucksters of wishful thinking thought that sinking battleships, tanks, and bombers would end wars.
The recent killings in Santa Barbara were performed with a mixture of weapons. Three victims were killed by gunshot, and three others were stabbed to death with a knife. The special-interest gun-control lobby was quick to exploit the situation for their ends, totally ignoring the stabbing deaths. Why? Why have there been no campaigns against the ownership of knives, or poisons, or baseball bats, or hammers, or any other tool that could be used to inflict death? Why just guns? Is there a hierarchy of methods of victimhood we are supposed to respect?
Might the answer to this question lie in the fact that the state’s weapon-of-choice has long been the gun, whether in the hands of a soldier or police officer? As the state does not use swords, blunt instruments, or even stones in its violence against people, those who identify themselves with the state would be unlikely to find any inner conflicts over the private killings carried out with the use of weapons that are not used by the state.
“Stop the madness!,” screamed the parent of one of victims of these killings. I agree with this man, but suggest that the source of the insanity that plagues the world is not to be found in physical objects; in “things;” or at gun-shows, but in the depths of our minds. Many properly lamented the deaths of these young men and women who, in their early twenties, were on the threshold of productive lives. But I suspect that many of those who grieve over these crazed killings will see no connection with the institutionalized slaughter of equally young soldiers and foreigners in foreign lands. The phrase “support the troops” (which really means “support the war”) is a glaring symptom of our collectivized madness. If you doubt this, imagine the reaction most of us would have to a bumper-sticker that read: “support Elliott Rodger.”