Last Friday morning, just past midnight, a 24-year-old dressed in combat gear had opened fire in a crowded movie theatre in Colorado. killing at least 12 people and wounding about 60 others. It was the premiere of the latest Batman sequel, The Dark Knight.
This has become a depressingly familiar story. The killer had no police record, was a well-educated white male and seemed like a harmless loner. He had spent months stockpiling an arsenal of lethal weapons.
If I were living in the US, I would be an enthusiast of tougher restrictions on guns, especially automatic ones. But gun control is only one answer; it is not the solution. Guns are much harder to obtain here in Australia than in the US, but I have lived in two cities where madmen opened fire (Strathfield in 1991, 8 dead; Port Arthur in 1996, 35 dead).
Over the coming weeks, the media will trawl through the life of James Eagan Holmes for clues to his motivation. They will dissect the dark messages in Batman, his family life, his computer games, his inability to get a job in California, his masculinity, his political views, his religious views, and even his engagement with neuroscience (he had just dropped out of a PhD program). No doubt each of these will shed a chink of light into the dark pit of his soul.
But the question we really need to ask is why a progressive society like the United States (or Norway and Australia) still breeds rampage killers. Western rampage killers are amateurs, of course, compared with other cultures. Just look at Syria. But why have wealth and freedom failed to snuff out this madness?
Nearly every year over the past decade a kooky but apparently harmless American loner has armed himself and gone on a rampage. Nearly all of these men – they are always men – live alone, have no friends and are estranged from their families. The two teenaged killers at Columbine, another city in Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, lived with their parents but had dismal family lives and were alienated from their schoolmates.
This anomie and alienation is exactly what our society fosters. Significantly, the most influential examination of American society today is Robert Putnam’s 1995 classic essay, “Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital”. Loners are the future. More than half of American adults are single; 31 million, about one out of every seven, live alone, making up 28 percent of all households. One out of every four American children is being raised by a single parent.
Sexual behaviour, which is the most intimate way of bonding with others, is deemed a purely individual decision – even though it is the gateway for perpetuating the human community.
In short, for decades our society has been trashing the ideas of commitment, connection and community. The idea that we can learn from tradition and custom, the idea that we must accept the truth rather than create it for ourselves, the idea that making music together is superior to isolating headphones and an iPod – these ideas are regarded with deep suspicion by many people.
It’s not difficult to track down the inspiration for this approach. The greatest single influence upon contemporary public policy is probably is John Stuart Mill, the 19th century British philosopher. (He is one of the thinkers whom the contemporary philosopher and activist Peter Singer most admires, for instance.) In Mill’s most quoted work, On Liberty, he contended that an ideal society should allow its citizens the freedom to do and think whatever they want, so long as they hurt no one. It is Sacred Writ for advocates of free speech, feminism, small government, divorce, harm prevention and other shibboleths of our own times.
It is in On Liberty’s winding sentences and caustic barbs that you will find an eerie manifesto for America’s lonely weirdoes. One of Mill’s most striking chapters lavishes praise on “individuality”:
“It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.”
In other words, we reach our perfection when everyone is an “individual” pursuing his or her own vision of the good life. Planned Parenthood vs Casey, a 1992 decision of the US Supreme Court, expressed this perfectly: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
No doubt Mill would have agreed: what society needs is more people who have the courage to define the meaning of life for themselves. But where does this end up when “individuality” no longer respects society’s moral standards?
In the light of Friday’s events this passage in On Liberty has a chilling ring to it:
“Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”
Mill failed to foresee the horrifying pathology of eccentricity in a society saturated with ideas drawn from On Liberty. His true individualist would be a genius smashing the bovine “collective mediocrity” of middle class values. What he got was a deranged individualist spraying middle class children with bullets.
We will never get to the bottom of what motivates these killers. Each has his own path to “eccentricity”. But we need to use this tragedy to provoke questions about the kind of society which has nurtured madmen like James Eagan Holmes. And perhaps the answer will be that rampages are the price we pay for living in society where technology, law and politics promote isolation, anomie and moral individualism.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.