Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > America's Proud Individualism Helped Pull the Trigger

Dec 14, 2012

America's Proud Individualism Helped Pull the Trigger


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I know it’s foolish hubris to hear about a tragedy like the school shooting in Connecticut and then immediately start writing about it. But many of us who blog do it, at least in part, as a way to deal with feelings that otherwise might overwhelm us. It’s cathartic. And it’s our wager that, in the process, we’ll say something helpful to others who are trying to make a little bit of sense out of at least some corner of the tragedy

Convincing explanations of any kind are ultimately bound to elude us. All one can do is try to shed a little light on a little piece of the immense calamity, from one’s own particular viewpoint. I naturally think about American mythic traditions that seem relevant in this situation.

After the mass killing in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater last summer I noted a point that Washington Post wonk Ezra Klein Klein confirms in a very useful post today: While the American public generally supports a number of specific gun control proposals, when pollsters ask about “gun control laws” in the abstract a growing number of Americans say they oppose it. And pollsters consistently find that mass killings do nothing to increase support for gun control.

Back then I suggested that “when nations, like individuals, try to go in two directions at once they get paralyzed. That’s where we are on the politics of gun control.” I added that the paralysis makes us ever more frightened and craving safety. The traditional American source of safety is a gun -- or two, or three, or more. I concluded that “the root of the problem is our dedication to the fantasy of absolute safety and security. The sooner we recognize that as our national fantasy and stop arming ourselves to the teeth in pursuit of it, the safer we all will be.”

At the time I did not know that the killer had been in treatment with a very competent psychiatrist. I merely assumed that it’s mentally or emotionally disturbed people with guns who kill people, at least on such a mass scale. We still don’t know anything about the killer in the Connecticut school. But again that assumption seems to be a rather safe one.

In other words, I start with the premise that the opponents of gun control are half right. Guns don’t kill people, as they like to say. But the other half of the truth is the part they won’t say: Mentally or emotionally disturbed people with guns kill people.

And now I’m thinking about the connection between mental/emotional disturbance and the widespread resistance to the idea of “gun control,” which I assume comes from the mythic tradition that equates guns with absolute safety.  

I’ve been working with a group in my community trying to promote public support for mental health treatment. It has made me very aware of the profound reluctance we see all around us (even in a very liberal and wealthy county like mine) to treat mental/emotional disturbance as a communal problem.

To say the same thing from the other side: When we talk about mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals, our society puts the emphasis on “individuals.” Without really thinking about it, most of us assume that we’re dealing with peculiar cases, each one caused by some unique set of problems encased in one individual’s brain.

We just don’t have many cultural resources at all to think about mental/emotional disturbance as a societal problem. Oh, there’s shelves full of books in university libraries which can teach us to see it that way. But that academic perspective has not percolated through to our shared public myths. We still tend, as a society, rather reflexively to see troubled people as individual “weirdos,” unique outliers from the norm.

And our natural inclination, most of the time, is to stay as far away from them as we can -- unless they are family members or otherwise connected to us in ways we couldn’t escape even if we wanted to. Then we try our best to get help for them. And we usually discover that the resources our society provides are far too meager to give them the help they really need -- precisely because, as a society, we don’t think of such disturbances as a collective problem. So we don’t even think about, much less provide the resources for, collective solutions.

I suspect this pattern has its deepest roots in a tradition that was pervasive through the late nineteenth century and still affects us deeply: viewing mental/emotional disturbance through the lens of religious and spiritual language. I’ve spoken with ministers who are trying hard to bring their fellow clergy into fruitful conversation with mental health professionals. It’s an uphill struggle, they say, in part because there are still many clergy who assume that personal prayer and spiritual renewal is the only appropriate treatment.

What we have here, to some degree that’s impossible to quantify, is a living legacy of the days when mental and emotional disturbance were interpreted as signs of sin. (“Evil visited this community today,” said Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, as if the the tragedy were caused by some distant, utterly alien metaphysical force.) Just as sin was seen to be the responsibility of the individual, so mental/emotional disturbance is still seen to be, if not the individual’s responsibility, at least an individual problem.

The proud American tradition of individualism is also, I suspect, at the root of the popular resistance to gun control. Discrete gun control measures gain popularity because most people think that they will apply only to others. Things like background checks and no guns for felons -- or the mentally ill -- don’t apply to me, the average respondent in a poll assumes. But gun control in general means that I may no longer have the right to defend myself, my family, and my home.

The curious fact (which I noted in my post last summer and Klein confirms) is that the actual number of American households with guns has declined fairly steeply in the last forty years. So the objection to gun control laws doesn’t come only from people who have guns and want to hold on to them (though they are the largest portion of the naysayers). It also comes from people who imagine that they might some day feel the need for a gun to protect themselves. They don’t want their individual freedom abridged.

So here is the picture we end up with: an image of a nation where at least half the people (or more, depending the poll) assert their individual rights by opposing gun control laws, while uncounted millions are walking around with serious disturbances locked up inside them  -- disturbances that occasionally burst out with horrific consequences. It’s a picture made up of 300-plus million separate individuals.

Most of us see it that way because we don’t have the cultural traditions -- the myths, I’d say -- that would let us see both gun ownership and mental/emotional disturbance as societal facts, as manifestations of what the community as a whole is doing.

So we go on letting individuals arm themselves to protect their individual rights and freedom, or so the myth tells us. (Illinois just became the 50th state to allow citizens to carry concealed guns.)  But we tragically underfund and ignore societal programs to help the mentally/emotionally disturbed, because we simply don’t see any relationship between them and the rest of us, or so the myth tells us.

In such an individualistic nation, the recipe for absolute safety seems simple enough: Give everyone the freedom to carry a concealed gun, and stay as far away as possible from those “weirdos.” We’ve just seen, in a Connecticut schoolhouse, what that recipe produces.

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