Spree-killings: mythology, hyper-masculinity and gun culture

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, a figure that has been mythologized to create an image of American hyper-masculinity

To the best of my knowledge there have been no female spree-killers in the inglorious history of such things. You will know the by now familiar story of the lone gunman or pair of gunmen – in the case of Columbine – who, armed with freely available automatic weapons, visited death upon people going about their lives, be it in a school,a university campus or a shopping mall. I am not trying to denigrate the victims of the latest horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, but the spree-killing seems to be, more or less, an American feature. Yes, such killings have happened in other countries but in the United States, it is an all too frequent occurrence.

When spree-killings have taken place – with the assailant often dead from a self-inflicted wound – the attention of the media and others tends to focus on the mental state of the murderer. That’s only to be expected. Why did the killer do this? Was there any event in their past that set off a chain of events that led to this point? There will be other such questions.

There will be questions, too, about the availability of guns, the largely misinterpreted Second Amendment and the rest of it, but for me, the gun is significantly iconic, if not in its highly mythologized role in the forging of a nation and in the capitalistic sense of defending one’s property, but also for its role in the construction of a hyper-masculine national identity that has become part of the national mythology but also an ideal of American masculinity.All of us are aware of the tales of derring-do about such figures as David “Davy” Crockett – who allegedly killed a “bar (bear) when he was only 3 years old”  – Jim Bowie (of knife fame) and Daniel Boone. Others, like the unfortunate but completely sociopathic, George Armstrong Custer, had their stories called into question relatively recently. The hapless Custer was famous for his tragi-comic “Last Stand” , which was mythologized out of all proportion by hagiographers, who swept aside Custer’s recklessness, vainglory and egomania to paint a story of “hero wronged”. These stories been woven into the massive tapestry of lies and half-truths that is America’s national narrative that’s a massive as The Bayeux  Tapestry.

Women, on the other hand, have been consigned to the margins of historical discourse. Betsy Ross may have created the Stars and Stripes but she was not given the vote. In fact, there is some doubt as to whether she created the flag at all. Other women, who featured in the early history of the United States are the first ladies, who are, for the most part, anonymous, save for a few of them.  Women like Carrie Nation and Susan B Anthony were not seen as women fighting for political rights, but as troublemakers and harpies. The macho early historians did their best to write women out of the historical narrative and they almost succeeded.

Yes, the gun can kill people and yes, I’ve heard the argument that “people kill people, guns don’t kill people”, which misses the wider cultural point altogether as well as the essential role of human agency in the firing of a weapon. But the national myths of a pioneering spirit, backed by the notion of rugged individualism has been embodied in the historically disconnected images of Boone, Bowie and Crockett and has been allowed to seep into the nation’s collective unconscious unchecked and unquestioned. It is this machismo that takes pride of place over anything else.

Guns are a distinctly male thing. Yes, women own guns and are members of gun clubs but there is a phallic element to the gun that appeals to the male. After all, a gun fires a projectile with the squeeze of a trigger. You can fire a gun again and again and not feel exhausted afterwards as one would if one had ejaculated in the same way. Thus, the lack of control exhibited by the premature ejaculator can be exchanged for the perfect control of firing a gun. Indeed, one can substitute one’s impotence with the reliable potency of a high calibre rifle. Just an idea.

These men are alienated from their societies, their families, their histories and their own bodies. Wilhelm Reich wrote:

The character structure of modern man, who reproduces a six-thousand-year-old patriarchal authoritarian culture, is typified by characterological armoring against his inner nature and against the social misery which surrounds him. This characterological armoring is the basis of isolation, indigence, craving for authority, fear of responsibility, mystic longing, sexual misery, and neurotically impotent rebelliousness, as well as pathological tolerance. Man has alienated himself from, and has grown hostile toward, life.

My bold. The young male who feels a sense of powerlessness  about himself is likely to have been alienated from society in one or more ways. This is not helped by the highly-mediated images of the ideal male that pour from our television screens and from the pages of magazines. When redundancy strikes and there is no prospect of work, the only way out for some men is to kill themselves.  Indeed, men are more likely to commit suicide than women. It is possible that the men in question may have a feeling of emasculation as well as alienation. Male suicides are at their highest during economically difficult times. We may congratulate ourselves for our technological achievements, but this has come at great cost to society. In so-called primitive cultures, there is a rite of passage for young people of both sexes, this does not happen in the industrialized nations. Is there a reason for this?

Instead, many American children, particularly boys, are taught how to handle a gun from an early age – which, together with hazing, passes for a rite of passage.  To reinforce this, there are images of guns everywhere and most Hollywood films seem to feature them.  The gun, the phallic symbol of American culture, is at once a venerated icon of freedom and a weapon of mass destruction.

The Columbine killers were said to have been influenced by The Matrix and even though there is a female lead in the character of Trinity, she is a masculinized female, who totes guns and beats up men… well, representations of men. It’s almost as if, men cannot deal with real women and have to transform them into ersatz men.

I am not making excuses for Adam Lanza or any of the other spree-killers but I think that the highly masculinized culture of the United States is, at least, partly to blame for the recurrence of this kind of tragedy.

The fact that Lanza killed children and, more tellingly, women (including his mother) makes this all the more horrific. But it also tells us something else: a society that prizes the masculine over the feminine is a very ill society.  Sadly, this is the case with the majority of nations, which are run along patriarchal lines. But it’s worse in the United States (and quite possibly Australia) where machismo is an essential part of the nation’s culture. What we really need is a balance between male and female.

Finally, the response of the gun lobby has been predictable but characteristically lacking in critical thinking. The NRA and others argue that if the children and teachers been armed, this would never have happened. That is plainly absurd: it is a stage on the road to another arms war. It also sends a message that might is right and violence can always be met with violence.

Reference

Reich, W. (1973).  The Function of the Orgasm. London: Souvenir Press

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Filed under 19th century, History, History & Memory, United States

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