Friday, July 22, 2011

What in the World is Wrong With People?

A gunman killed 80 people at a children's camp in Norway today, and seven more were killed in a bomb blast in Oslo, the nation's capital. There aren't a lot of details yet, but police are saying that the two events were linked. The gunman, who is in custody, has been identified as Anders Behring Breivik, a man described as a right-wing extremist by authorities.
I feel bad for the people of Norway.

Really bad.

I read somewhere that the shooter paraphrased British philosopher John Stuart Mill on his Twitter account, saying, “One person with a belief is equal to a force of 100,000 who have only interests.”

And I guess that's what's sort of scary, actually. When John Stuart Mill formed this thought, I'm sure that he meant it to be a highminded, inspirational statement about the sort of things that can be accomplished by an individual of endurance and perserverance if he has a sort of well-conceived, worthwhile set of ideals. And given the time period in which Mill made this statement (pre-internet, pre-personal publishing, etc.), he probably envisioned a world in which most culture shifting, society-altering goals could only be accomplished if an individual managed to gain the cooperation and help of other people. Fervent belief could win people over to one's cause and change the course of history, hopefully to positive effect.

But in Mill's era (1806-1873), the power of the individual was more limited than it is today. A preson pretty much had to win over others if they wanted to have a singificant impact. Even as late as 1873, it was fairly difficult for a single individual to go on a killing spree that might take the lives of over 80 people or to put together a fertilizer bomb that could cause a horrific amount of damage to the population center of a major metropolitan city. In Mill's day they didn't have pistols with 30 round clips, radio controlled detonators, and dum-dum bullets. They didn't have an internet that allowed paranoid, delusional loners to search the globe for other sympathetic loonies so that they could fuel one another's psychosis (ultimately convincing one another that the extremely radical, fringe beliefs of a small handful of loonies were the the strarting point of a social revolution).

Even if a person were able to singlehandedly commit so much mayhem, the sorts of personal, instant publication and communications devices that we have today weren't available to a solitary individual. In Mill's day and age, the lone nut job might be able to blow up a building, but he would never be able to carefully and instantly disseminate his message in the way that a person can do today.

All of this to say that I think we're just beginning to see the beginnings of the significant numbers of one person (or perhaps very small group) terrorist attacks that we'll ultimately going to be in store for. We live in an era when automatic weapons are readily available and easy to use, and an era when manifestos can be published with a keystroke. Enraged loners no longer have to feel alone or powerless. Nowadays they can strike out at the society that has enraged them, and they can die or go to prison with the full confidence that they've adequately justified themselves (in their own minds, anyway) to the targets that deserve their wrath. When in past times they've known that committing atrocities would only get them sent off to death or jail, ultimately dismissed as the crazy people that they are, nowadays these loners are convinced that violence will draw attention and lend credibility to their twisted logic. These people don't understand that society isn't marginalizing them because they're crazy- they think that we just don't understand them because we haven't been paying attention to their insights carefully enough.

And they're willing to go to great lengths to command our attention.

The power of fervent, individual belief has traditionally been something to be admired. But obviously not every belief is worthwhile, no matter how strongly a person believes it. Given events like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Columbine in 1999, the Beltway sniper attacks in 2002, the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, the Fort Hood shootings in 2009, and so forth and so on, it just feels like we're living in a scary time.

Mostly I like technology. I'm a big fan.

Wingnut ideology, the internet, and easily accessible, high powered weapons that just make for some really problematic scenarios, though. And, unfortunately, all of these things seem to exist exist in abundance these days.

Once again, my sympathies go out to the Norwegians.


The League said...

What is wrong with people, indeed?

Who has political summer camps for kids? Volunteers from Mr. Beck's own 912 Project.

J.S. said...

Uggh. That's awful.

J.S. said...

How does a guy massacre a bunch of people because of his intolerant, xenophobic views, and the victims get called Nazis? WTF?!

The League said...

If I understood how anybody gets others they don't know to abandon all reason and not question the clearly illogical and false, I'd be a lot richer than I am.