Over the course of this year especially, but even in the course of the previous few, the occurrences at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, U.S.A. have become all too familiar. Across the country, there have, as always, been calls to support the community, in their times of grief, askance to not politicize this event, and every form of analysis imaginable to detail the events and why they occurred. Ultimately, as a person that tries to reason through situations and world events, I am simply sick. My own child is of a similar age, attending a similar level of school, as those who were murdered. The Aurora, Colorado mass murder occurred at something I very well could have been attending.
At a press conference, President Obama took the time to address the media to make a statement in which he stated, in effect, that he does not react as a president, but as a parent. Like him, I understand the trepidation these occurrences cause, I understand the want to feel your child in your arms and hold them against you, and I understand the increased focus that you’ll put into your child. However, as the vocal leader of the U.S., to not react as the president in a time redolent for an official reaction is mealy mouthed. This problem is not an issue of “violence” culture or “gun” culture or “murder” culture as the mainstream media and the gun lobby has rushed to say, rather the frequency in occurrence of mass murder and the severity of the events have alarmingly increased.
In all honesty, at this point, we need to start discerning the why. For years, I studied, when considering anthropology instead of archeology, cultural-bound syndromes and even postulated that mass murder could be a form of these. A cultural-bound syndrome is a combination of mental and physical ailments associated with a specific society and culture and is often defined by the following criteria: 1.) defined by culture as a disease, 2.) familiarity within the culture, 3.) a complete lack of familiarity of this condition in other cultures, 4.) no empirical evidence of symptoms, and 5.) folk way treatments specifically designed to cure the individual. Generally, mass murder occurs in the Western Industrialized World, of which the U.S., is a derivation. It is not typically viewed as a disease or illness, but rather as a symptom of a larger mental problem. Mass murder has a chilling familiarity within our culture, and there is a small frequency of occurrence in non-industrialized cultures. There are no exhibitions of symptoms and treatment seems relegated to psychological approaches to assess and determine the level of public threat; however, Western Medicine is not viewed as a folkway medicine as it is backed by science. Therefore, mass murder does not fit the classical definition of a culture-bound syndrome.
However, there is a comparable example from Malay: amok. Amok is a particularly violent, sociopathic rage of violence that can often turn into a killing spree. Demographically, it effects only men in the cultures where it is most prevalent and seems associated with masculinity and honor. A good article I read years ago in a class discussed men going amok after pledging the dowry for the hand of their wife and then failing to meet the prescribed bride price. Amok is preceded by a depressive period in which the individual who “runs amok” stops tending his fields, sleeps for great periods of time, and generally gives up on the world. Culturally, this is representative of an evil spirit entering the individuals body. Then, the individual explodes in a fit of blind, violent rage, attempting to kill, maim, or wound everyone in his close proximity. Because of its magical, medical, and religious connotations, amok was tolerated in the cultures in which it occurred and was even noted by the Captain James Cook when he traveled through the area. In the U.S., we would call this going postal or blowing up. While I have only a moderate understanding on psychology (enough to most argue it), this seems like a dissociative condition. This seems familiar to the reports of the perpetrators of events of mass murder.
Further, we always label the possible cultures to which the perpetrator must have been party. They are “influenced by gun culture, violence culture,” and other experiences that tend to desensitize individuals to death by portraying a mockery or mimicry of it. This is a missed categorization and further is irresponsible. Supposed “gun/violence” cultures are subsets of our own culture at large, meaning that a sociological understanding would typify their dynamics better than defining or attributing groups a culture. In fact, by attributing them a culture, it legitimizes the violence! Yet, this is a great example of what anthropology has lost according to RM Troulliot: the facility and the strength of using the word culture. The word culture is thrown around to positively or negatively define or fracture groups. It lessens the burden of the mainstream individuals that have no connection to this other than being a member of the perpetrator’s cohort. It is comforting and a security blanket to define these people as of a different culture than you; however, it was your culture that included that violence/gun dialogue in which no new or meaningful statements have been made on this subject since the expiry of the last Arms Ban in the US. This is why it is irresponsible to define these people as the “Other” in this situation, and results in the establishment of a placebo for the masses. The ultimate meaning behind all this that there are no established “gun/violence” cultures in the US, rather they are only facets and subsets our own culture in the U.S. We share a responsibility as members of this culture to reason and understand these problems.
I do not have the answer, but I know how I have reasoned myself to view the issue. My point with this is to provide a statement to be incorporated in some small way into the larger dialogue of this issue and one that is based on the cultural understanding of these terrible events. My heart is heavy today and will be as I consider this; my thoughts and love goes to each and everyone of the Newtown, Connecticut community.