With the weary spate of ongoing mass shootings, and the equally weary handwringing each time, asking how can this keep happening, how can it stop, and why is it mainly in America, I wonder if it might be worth looking at our culture itself, at how what drives us as a nation sadly can drive us to darkness as well.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the author famously captures the essence of American longing. That longing yearns for many things, desire for the beautiful Daisy, for the WASP confidence of old money Tom, for the “single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock” across Long Island Sound, the mansion of new money and new dreams owned by Jay Gatsby. But that longing leads to dark endeavors, shady alliances, messy affairs, and finally a burst of violence that silences the dream for good.
This impulse for individual success, the thirst for the self-made individual is what makes America understandably great. This is that nation of immigrants, searching for the freedom to excel, to redeem their true potential on new ground. But the cult of the individual can reach its limits.
With the recent discussion on mental health and mass shootings, people have not adequately distinguished between what psychological conditions give rise to a mass murderer. There is a general tendency to simplify it as some general “mental illness” and many pro-gun activists are quick to use that as an excuse to deflect attention from the gun issue. Unfortunately, desperate mental health activists are also happy to use this misguided attention to advocate for badly needed funding for community mental health causes, although it’s ultimately a self-undermining tactic. It’s easy to blame “mental illness” as people are understandably horrified at the impulse to shoot random people…although to me it is more a function of a not terribly uncommon impulse (aggrieved anger) more easily brought to fruition by access to guns. But I am not here to discuss the gun issue: more the psychology behind American narcissism and its toxic fulfillment in the form of the mass shooter.
As a few recent articles and TV host John Oliver noted, true clinical psychiatric illness does not often correlate with mass shootings. I would argue that perhaps the Aurora, Colorado shooter appeared to have a pure psychotic illness with associated delusions that fueled his rampage (and I even wonder if the jury incorrectly sentenced him), but most of the rest of the recent perpetrators had more of an issue with malignant narcissism. Even those few reportedly afflicted with autism spectrum disorder were more likely hurt or affected only by the social isolation and difficulty to which their condition peripherally contributed; the condition itself did not cause them to kill and the vast majority of people with autism or any mental illness are statistically (and in my clinical experience) known to be as benign as the rest of us.
Narcissism seems to be the illness du jour of American culture. It is classified under the DSM-V personality disorders as a set of traits characterized by lack of empathy for others, an extreme belief in one’s grandiose self-importance, a sense of entitlement that others must do their bidding, fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, ease in exploiting others, arrogance, enviousness, need to be admired, etc. etc.
The question lately in our post-Internet culture is who gets to rule the roost now? Sadly, the quickest ticket to notoriety for those who feel lost and desperate has become the surefire formula of the mass murderer, gone media viral. This method is disturbingly easy and instantaneous for a disaffected individual, given the ready access to guns, social media, and then the greater media. Many of the recent killers noted in their “manifestos”, with disturbing clockwork-like similarity, feeling that they were denied what they felt was owed to them: the attention of beautiful women, the popularity they felt they deserved, the power they craved. For various reasons, they had become social pariahs instead. To counteract this, they upload their own selfie shots and movies on social media, their own writings, as they prepare for their final act and expect an afterlife of the fame and recognition they never got in their own lives. They seethe with anger, the “narcissistic rage” characterized by the famous psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut: “the need for revenge…for undoing a hurt by whatever means…” by giving their pain to others and in doing so build up the remnants of their self-worth through violence.
So how do we let these lost souls feel connected to America again, feel that there is a better dream than the dark road to hell they have chosen? Gatsby is being killed over and over again.