“Were I like thee I'd throw away myself.”
--Shakespeare, Timon of Athens
(A PDF of this entry may be found here: http://admala.org/...)
Never-ending, it seems, is the pundit’s search for the right tone when treading on sacred ground, when broaching the difficult subject: murder, in this case… mass murder—for the most part, of innocents—by a maddened, masked gunman at that. It is almost too cliché to be real. He speaks of, he is asked to imagine what is generally called ‘a parent’s worst nightmare’. He speaks of and is asked to imagine a horror that he, as well-adjusted American, is not often made to face: naked human aggression—brought to our doorstep, what is more… there to take innocence. He speaks of evil, of an “unconscionable evil”; he thinks of the Devil for lack of a correlate. Of course, notwithstanding his search—for the right tone, for the right words—he feels justified in assuming a posture of righteous indignation. And he is right, is he not? Of course he is right. He has to be right. (Protocol does not allow for the alternative.)
It doesn’t matter that he’s right in so far the victims of this outrageous attack are concerned—they are, most of them, dead. That he is right, I doubt matters in any way to the parents of twenty first-graders, twenty targets of a military-style assault conducted, absent a military, by a single, very unstable young man. The truth of his assessment—an assessment of ‘evil’ in this case—if it matter at all, it matters to those who have the benefit of observers’ distance; it matters to us. It is the basis of our prosecution. We formulate the moral outrage that moves hearts, minds, and the fourth estate. (Justice, if it exist, exists in our image.) What we are asked to do… by whom, who knows? we know now only that we are obliged to do something… the task that has been handed to us is the assignment of blame in this case, an assignment to be made in advance of and in a more visceral manner than anything like an official verdict.
Blame is the unquestioned spirit of American internal politics. Blame inspirits the unwieldy mass that is the American body politic, and at a level far deeper than that of the frame and the organs. If not unfit, this body is fit for blame. Blame lives in the quick of its flesh; it burns in cells and in synapses. It is the stuff of its mitochondrial soul. In the body, which is to say ‘with us’, blame is ubiquitous. It colors our mores as well as the sound of our voice. It shines as the violent gaze, the eye-beam of the would-be vigilante. And when it shows itself in a court of law, it always bears the name of Justice.
‘Justice’ of course, is the operative word here. Understand that it is not my intention to suggest that the shooter in question here—one Adam Lanza, 20, of Newtown, CT—that he is not done (appropriate) ‘justice’ in being held legally accountable for his actions— to the extent, of course, that it is possible to hold a dead man accountable. Notwithstanding a long history of mental illness—including Asperger’s or a similar developmental disorder and numerous episodes of (presumably) non-psychotic, violent outbursts—we haven’t heard much evidence to suggest that Mr. Lanza was as categorically ‘insane’ as, let us say, a Jared Lee Loughner. (Of course, Lanza did not leave behind the kind of digital footprint that Loughner did in advance of Tucson. If he was as delusional and paranoid and is Mr. Loughner, it was never recorded on Facebook or YouTube. Lanza never served word salad at a public forum. And, at the time of this writing, Lanza’s hard drive has been reported unreadable by authorities: destroyed, presumably by Lanza himself, at some time before the shooting of his mother.) Whatever the nature of his conscience—perverse, inverted or otherwise—Lanza was ‘responsible’ for his actions in so far as concerns the law. Understand, too, that I do not mean to suggest that the mother of Adam Lanza is either morally or legally at fault for what happened. It will be remarked, of course, that, notwithstanding the presence in her household of a mentally unstable family member, this woman not only kept assault-style firearms in her possession but introduced the former to them, reportedly as attempt to inculcate her own survivalist ethos. Hers was a tragically and cosmically stupid approach to a real dilemma. (And, consequently, a practice in keeping with NRA reasoning.) In no way, however, did she transgress authority; the weapons in question were purchased perfectly legally and the quality of her care of her son has yet to be questioned.
Understand that, when we talk about ‘Justice’, we are referring to is what matters to us. And that is who has blame and by which standard. It is as a certain vitality that our justice is manifested; it is as hunger. Our need to fix blame is an appetite—a collective one to be sure—an appetite which, whetted by reason and law, is always set on the carnival, set on the kind of red meat that is constantly provided both by our demagogues and by the Hollywood dream-work. In this respect, what we are looking for in the Sandy Hook gunman is not necessarily what comports with the reality. What we need to see in the case of one Adam Lanza is not simply a bad situation—cause, perhaps, to address a ‘systemic failure’—blame of systems and procedures too often is an evasion of individual accountability—we need to see patent evil. We need a Lanza that lives up to his mask. We need the shooter to take the form of a crazed mujahid who, just as he is ready to blow his load, crashes into the Principal’s Office screaming “Allahu Akbar!” (Paradoxically, in marked contrast to the nature of his act, it is reported that the Newtown shooter said nothing.) We don’t need food for thought in this case; much less do we need tragic pathos. Here, we need the weight and the assurance of what is called a ‘hard label’.
It is to be admitted, of course, that much is lost to reason when we proceed with such categorical zeal. When we proceed to lay blame, to censure—to demonize, if so inspired—thought, retrospection, due diligence even… sufficiently often, they are left to the wind. With the act of judgment comes blindness sometimes. Sometimes, the moment the spade is called a spade all discourse is obviated. ‘Evil’, in this respect—even when called out by a president—is not always what it’s made out to be. Sometimes, on arrival, it is little more than a thought ending cliché. Dare we risk the calling out of ‘evil’ when such may succeed in keeping, let us say, the issue of gun control out of the general discourse?—or mental health out of the national spotlight (if not off of insurance policies)?—in keeping NRA faithful ignorant of the consequences of flooding the US market with assault-style firearms? Is that worth the risk?
Pope Michael the Clueless would probably tell you that it is. He would also play down the obvious role of mental health in this case. (To his mind, the necessary cause of this slaughter is the lack of prayer in our public schools, an assertion which, if it is not simply the thought of an abysmally stupid man, is indication that the ‘God’ of his ministry should be reckoned as a monster.) So should we go with the Huck on this one? Risk the oblivion of nescience which the Manichean conservative risks whenever it is he adjudicates?—which the Fox News viewer risks whenever he turns on the television?
We really should answer that, either formally or literally—but before we do, I’d ask that we consider an off the wall hypothetical. I think, by way of an example, of an ironically constructed Monty Python sketch, the “Multiple Murder Court Scene” from the Whicker’s World episode. In it, a convicted mass murderer, at his sentencing, is solemnly read a long list of the individuals he has killed and, after the reading of the list, is asked if he has anything to say before sentencing. Of course, the defendant answers, ridiculously, “Yes, sir… I’m very sorry”. Grave courtroom faces assume, first, a puzzled and, then, an embarrassed demeanor as the defendant proceeds with a thoroughly ironic apology that results in a parodic sentence. The sketch is itself a spoof on the expectations of ‘true crime’ narrative and could easily have been applied to the hypothetical case of Hitler in the dock at Nuremberg. At the time this writing, the date of the fictitious crime mentioned in the sketch is exactly 40 years ago. Other than this negligible coincidence, this work of black comedy would have little to do with the atrocity that is the subject of my commentary if not for this element of its theme: to wit, our expectations of the evil-doer at his moment of reckoning. The hypothetical to which I allude involves a level of irony in many ways comparable to that of this sketch. We always want to talk of accountability in cases like this one; how do we cope with the possibility that, when made to give account, the ‘Black Beast’, as it were—the worst man in the world—provides an answer into which we can’t quite sink our teeth?
(And was the reason why bin Laden, instead of being hauled into court before a presumed execution, was simply buried in the ocean?)
The reader, especially if he or she is endowed with an acute liberal conscience, will be forgiven for taking offense at my ironic choice of example(s) here: Monty Python, of all things. And the killing of bin Laden. (Wasn’t that, after all, the epitome of our notion of justice?) There are times at which irony and intellectual distance are all that keep us from drowning under a wave of inarticulate rage which, if appropriate at times, remains mere self-enjoyment. On matters as confounding as Sandy Hook, we have to say something. (An alternative to the writing of these pages? I would be content, I suppose, to force feed a pail of bovine excrement each to two men, two moral hypocrites: Mike Huckabee and Wayne LaPierre. Throw in Louie Gohmert, for good measure. But, again, what would that constitute? Mere self-enjoyment.) And, here, I am simply saying this: we don’t know—and it’s possible that we can’t know—what it is we want to hear from Adam Lanza. We don’t know what we want from that which we excoriate as ‘evil’.
Demonization—as it were, the ‘calling out of evil’—always entails the clouding of reason. Necessarily so. (Reason, as such, is more of a god than we are accustomed to believing. It must be blinded, as was the god of Genesis on more than one occasion.) Efforts at creating the anathema—efforts which do have the nature of expiation—nonetheless are an obscenity; they must be conducted in private, or else under the cover of dogma, which, more than even enjoyment, suffices to blind a god. Dogmatically, it will be admitted, we fashioned quite an anathema out the figure of one Seung-Hui Cho, as angry and as violent a perpetrator as one could imagine. Of a far more enigmatic shooter, the Beltway sniper, John Allen Mohammed—who, on his two or three week reign of terror, even had a jihadist in tote—we created, in some ways, an even more sinister image, one which may well have been his undoing. (Here was a duck caught as much in the noose of his ‘15 minutes’—and his megalomaniac response to it—as in an interstate dragnet.) If his manner of mass murder was slower, more deliberate and, in a sense, more sociopathic than that of Cho or Lanza, it bore in common with both an attribute that has rendered Cho, Lanza, and Mohammed alike more than just murderous criminals. Seung-Hui Cho, Adam Lanza and John Allen Mohammed alike bear the designation ‘evil-doers’ (for ‘evil doers’—George W. Bush’s favored word—read ‘anathema’), one which has been given them for reasons that are not well understood—by those doing the giving, at any rate.
Hell is a man-made institution. We should be clear on this point. (Of course, to take it for what it is not, what it has not been (for us) since the Enlightenment—to wit, a deity’s Guantanamo Bay—this is to serve at least the pedagogical purpose of this problematic institution.) Those sent to Hell have been sent there by man—by us. And not always for the obvious purpose. When we create anathemata—‘evil-doers’, in other words—and they are not such, anathemata, until we create them, until we make the determination—we aren’t merely sending them to prison for life or pronouncing a death sentence. Metaphysically speaking, in damning to Hell, we are resorting to a manner of slavery. As anathemata, it is slaves whom we put in their place (which, by happenstance, we actually own). We want them there in perpetuity. (In the case of both slaves and anathemata, we suspend the right of habeas corpus.) We condemn for up to three reasons, which, in some cases, apply all at once. Reason one: we know that in Hell, the condemned is to be subject to torture. (This is a fairly well-established proviso; it is the spiritual sadist’s.) Reason two: in Hell, the condemned is to remain for us something like real property: our property, however ambivalently despised. (This is the spiritual capitalist’s infernal proviso.) Reason three: in Hell, the condemned is to remain eternally available, much as the pathogen remains in immunological memory: there, as a persistent absent presence, to lay assault on any future ‘antigen’. (The third is a provision of the atheist.)
Now, of all three reasons, it is the last—as it were, infernal inoculation theory—that seems to make the most sense. In however perverse and delusive a fashion, it makes sense, for instance, that Bernie Madoff—whom we have chosen to take the ignominious fall for 2007 and the Great Recession—should serve to inoculate Wall Street from an acutely pathological strain of finance capitalism. (Does Bernie not, after all, represent to state sanctioned racketeering what Hitler was to necrophilous aggression?) If reasons one and two are pure depredations of sense—the ‘oblivion’ to which I’ve just referred, nescience—then, surely, reason three isn’t nonsense. After all, it is true—is it not?—that since the fall of Hitler, haven’t ethnic haters in Europe—among Germans in particular— encountered formidable cultural resistance? (Consider the candid assertion of one Yehuda Bauer: there can be no more antisemites in the world—not since Hitler.) Presidents 40 and 43 called out evil when and as they saw it; since their formal declarations, haven’t communism and the new ‘axis powers’ been absolute nonstarters? (One is highly advantaged as a Manichean president; there are times when such an actor need only point to thwart the evil-doer!) And hasn’t Wall Street been exceedingly chastened since Bernie Madoff was anathematized?
If my sarcasm is fairly transparent on this point it is for a reason. The answer to each of these questions is as obvious as is the failure of our efforts at localizing ‘evil’. Burn it, ban it, compartmentalize—everything about the actor, from motive to M.O.—we don’t ever get what we want from an anathema. As I have said, in his case, we don’t even know what we want.
We delude ourselves whenever we make an unqualified attempt at demonizing the criminal actor. As instinctive as the act may be—proscribing, possessing, destroying/employing: the notion of condemnation, I suggest, incorporates all three—it ultimately boils down to a very primitive method of ‘warding off’, warding off of that which both allures and repulses the subject. (By this, I mean ‘death’ itself: that which remains the only genuine anathema.) And, as ought to be expected from just such an instinctive and delusive act, prosecution of it has paradoxical consequences.
More than any other discipline, I suspect—more than sociology, more than communications—it is political science that teaches us the ultimate meaning of censure, the act of blame. Blame, at root, is not so much a means of framing individual accountability—that remains an aspect of positive law—as it is a comprehensive method of social control. When we blame, that is, when we lay blame—and let us figure the substantive ‘blame’ here for a cipher, what our dog-whistle politicians like to call a ‘code’—to the extent that we control (events, violators, institutions), we are ourselves controlled. To the extent that we imprison (a desire), we imprison ourselves (our paradoxical desire). To the extent to which we destroy (politically or otherwise), the politics of destruction determines us.
When we lay blame, what we are doing has a ritual sense. In a ritual sense we are casting a pall—over some object, some situation—a cover that serves a function that is rather the inverse of draping a flag on a coffin. Notwithstanding the opinion of a judiciary, notwithstanding the actions of our Executive Branch, our act—preemptively and to an extent, prophylactically—seals off the anathema, before it can reach us and we reach it. The anathema is sealed in a certain unquestionable status before it is properly understood. Once blamed—once, as it were, ‘palled’—once convicted in public opinion in cannot be asked a question, much less for a defense. Even the ‘devils we know’—Bernie Madoff, for example—once they have received our judgment there is nothing they can say that will reach us. They are —and in a paradoxical sense, given that the anathema, for the most part, would like to produce a defense—de facto incommunicado.
Of course, in the net effect of this operation—the sealing off of the anathema—there comes a surprise, one that few of us are able to anticipate. The operation belies a sort of counter-operation, one conducted by an agent that remains still more unknown to us than the object of blame. In the counter-operation, we ourselves are sealed off, at least from certain levels of moral and political truth. We ourselves are incommunicado, not only to the extent that are we unable to question the object (as a person and a peer, if it was either before our act), but to the extent that we ourselves cannot reach our own (individual) thoughts on the guilt and the nature of the object. Our thoughts—on the subject of the anathema, at least—have become collective. (‘Collective’… A terrible word for the American, no?)
To put it simply, in the net effect of the operation of blaming an object, there is this surprise: we ourselves are inversely blamed.¹ In casting the pall, a pall of sorts is cast over us. Not a ‘pall’, I suppose, but a ‘veil’… something rather like a ‘veil of unknowing’ (because, for the most part, it remains unseen).
Without doubt, I should be asked to exemplify my point here. I will do so with a simple correlation.
It is altogether appropriate that we treat the Sandy Hook Massacre for what it is: a nation tragedy on the order of Columbine and Virginia Tech. The public response to it so far has been both sweeping and profound. Clearly, Sandy Hook has reached us. The extent to which it has done so I don’t think is approximated by any national crisis of this kind since 9-11. I suspect this has much to do with its nature: the ‘scariness’ of the perpetrator—a silent, for the most part invisible figure occupying the body armor almost like a ghost—and the egregious aspect of his act. He didn’t just kill kids; he killed young kids—babies, in the estimation of many… and in a bloody fashion worthy of the ungainly word ‘slaughter’. His act, in this respect, was not simply a crime but an obscenity. With respect to this event, we get all this; we feel it on an emotional level. And we are adamant in our belief and our contention that we—individually or collectively—could never commit such an act… that were any one or any number us—were even our government—to do so, condemnation on the order of that which we are asked to afford Adam Lanza—which we afforded bin Laden, furthermore—would certainly be warranted. Again, we get all this.
What we don’t get, however (and, I submit, necessarily so) is that if we are to play the ‘blame game’ here, universally and consistently, our condemnation of this hypothetical actor—a mass killer responsible for scenes at least as gruesome as that created by Adam Lanza—is indeed in order.
Consider the nature of signature drone strikes. Practically speaking, even those most poorly informed among cannot be unaware of this nation’s use of drone strikes in Middle East nations like Pakistan and Yemen. Even those most poorly informed among us—Fox News’ target audience, for instance—even these have developed some understanding of the nature of the signature drone strike. (Roughly the equivalent of law enforcement racial profiling, the signature strike is the case of a remotely piloted unmanned drone attacking, not an identified target, but individuals who, as it were, ‘fit a profile’: who either look like or are ostensibly engaged in patterns of behavior associated with persons of interest. In signature strikes conducted by the CIA and JSOC—more so the former than the latter—drones are known to have hit funerals, wedding parties and, in particular, local rescue operations—in what have been called ‘double tap’ strikes—resulting in civilian casualties that are now a matter of record.) Even these know at some level of consciousness that US drone strikes have resulted in a massacre the equivalent of Sandy Hook, and on multiple occasions. For those who require proof of this, the photographs are there², as are the vivid accounts of our journalists’. (If, on this topic, the reporting of the independent Bureau of Investigative Journalism doesn’t carry sufficient weight to satisfy the hardest of our doubters—signature strike deniers, as it were—the blunt acknowledgements of the major media outlets—and of the DoD, what is more—these really ought to.) A few doubters notwithstanding, and in spite of what I have heard called ‘the apparatus of mass disavowal’, we all know what takes place in signature drone strikes. Furthermore, most of us still refuse to subscribe to the pernicious notion that those civilians taken out are nonpersons by reason of ties—however remote—to Islamic extremists. Yet the public outcry with regard to our use of signature drone strikes has been minimal at best.
President Obama has been pilloried for almost four years now over such things as the sluggish economy, Obamacare, a presumed anti-gun agenda (some of which, given Sandy Hook, he may now be compelled to pursue) and the ridiculous notion that he is secretly a communist. Little aught is said of the hundreds of drone strikes that have been conducted on his watch—at least 300 as of the date of this writing. (As wanton and egregious a violator of human rights as was the administration of George W. Bush, Obama’s record on human rights is worse in some respects, especially one. It has been the policy of the latter administration to use drone strikes, among other tactics, to effectively ‘kill our way’ out of the War on Terror. The second Iraq War aside, the body count racked up by the Obama Administration has at least doubled that of its predecessor. And there is good reason for this. On the civilian death-toll that has resulted from our ironically styled War on Terror—which, if one were to include all civilian casualties incurred since the first ‘Gulf War’, combat related or otherwise, is now into the millions—the American public has been conspicuously silent. If anything, the public has been approving of Mr. Obama’s approach. Ever the astute politician, the President knows this.) So where is our moral outrage at the number of Sandy Hooks that have been brought about as consequence of US drone strikes? For the most part, it remains absent. And there is a reason for this.
Our silence on the topic of drone strike casualties is almost a perfect example of the operation—or counter operation—behind what Slavoj Žižek³, after Donald Rumsfeld, calls the ‘unknown known’. We know perfectly well that we should be morally outraged at what our government—what we, moreover—are doing in the name of a ‘War on Terror’. (For the most part, we know too that, over the course of this war, we—via the state—have become terrorists in our own right.) What we also know—without knowing we know it—is that it is ‘OK’ not to be outraged as those killed (be they civilians or not) are nonpersons. ‘They are the terrorists’, as George W. Bush would put it, altogether paradoxically. The unknown known here—and, here, it actually a series, a vicious circle of nested unknown knowns—ultimately leads to a deeper and far more unacceptable one. And that is that genocide is acceptable if necessary—which is to say, if it advances the cause of our War on Terror.
This vicious circle—as it were, of ‘unknown knowns’—exemplifies what I mean by ‘veil of unknowing’ here. (Were it not the case that I find Rawl’s conception of justice ultimately self-contradictory, I might actually use the term ‘veil of ignorance’.) Once the blame game is fully engaged in, and we proceed to lay blame—to condemn actors and ‘evils’—rather than thinking out a situation, that is where we tend to lose both morals and our moral high ground.
The President has alluded to the late Adam Lanza as “an unconscionable evil”. It is debatable and will be debated, of course, whether—in his estimation—the case of Adam Lanza constitutes that of a moral or a natural evil. The inscrutable conscience of the violent mad man, is it like to the tempest—a full-throated demonstrations of natural ‘anger’—or more like the rusted tea pot, which, once full of leaks, bears nothing?
One further note, in conclusion… The late Viktor Frankl, a theorist of note and a holocaust survivor, once proposed that the United States augment the Statue of Liberty with what he called a ‘Statue of Responsibility’ which, he suggested, for whatever reason, be located somewhere along our west coast. (A project is underway which will put one either in L.A. or San Francisco—which might be cause for derisive laughter—or else Seattle, which might well suit the fancy of one W.H. Gates.) My personal suggestion here? I’d like the structure (at least in spirit) to be erected at the mouth of the Potomac. As regards guns, gun violence and victim selection, empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that victims of murder by firearm are rarely taken by total strangers—which is to say that the standard NRA line on gun violence… that all we need is guns—guns, the bigger the better—to protect ourselves from the anonymous villain is total bullshit.
To the extent that the United States Congress and the President—whose pretty words on Sandy Hook may well have charmed the nation on 16 December—commit themselves to action as regards federally mandated gun control. To the extent that they do not, they disgrace the memory of those taken from us on 14 December and merit an equally disgraceful exit from office.
1—Of course, the topic of nature of this ‘inverse blame’ well exceeds the scope of this writing. Suffice it to say it is well attested in 20th Century thought on mass psychology.
© 2012 Gentil Aquitaine. All rights reserved.