There were two shootings within days of one another in the United States that have been classified as mass shootings. The first was on Monday morning, Sept. 16, at the Washington Navy Yard, allegedly committed by Aaron Alexis. The other was early Friday, Sept. 20, in Chicago, allegedly committed by more than one person.
Both shootings have reignited the debate around gun control between the two mainstream political parties and in the mainstream media. President Barack Obama said during the memorial for the people killed at the Washington Navy Yard, “I fear there’s a creeping resignation that this is somehow the new normal,” and “It ought to obsess us, it ought to lead to some sort of transformation.” (NBC News, Sept. 22)
President Obama’s remarks no doubt struck a chord, similar to those made by his former White House Chief of Staff, now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who said, “For a city to have a sense of civility, a sense of community, it must live by a moral code, not a code of silence.” (NBCChicago, Sept. 20)
These words, taken alone and superficially, would be difficult to disparage. Who wouldn’t grieve after such events? Who could disagree that these events should not be seen as normal or everyday, despite the seeming increase in their frequency?
However, the talk of bombing Syria has not died in the U.S. Capitol. Though the Obama administration’s plans to bomb Syria — which the great majority of people in the U.S. were against — have been thwarted, the foreboding threat of yet a new war hangs in the air, and its bitter taste rests still on the tongue.
Emanuel’s words about “a sense of community and a sense of civility,” appear lighter than a feather when measured with his decision to close a record number of Chicago schools at one time, which took place mostly in Black neighborhoods.
The above are merely two instances that highlight the contradiction between words and actions of mainstream U.S. politicians.
Emanuel’s and President Obama’s words reflect their understanding of morality and civility within the context of a social system. Their actions also take place within the same context and are meant to maintain the social system and the order within it. From this blood flows, schools and hospitals are closed, and wars are waged.
Most media reports on these events offer little analysis. Most of the time — when there is an analysis — it is not deep and probing or meant to study the root causes of these acts, but it stops after pointing to a culture of violence, a gun culture or something similar without looking at the social system in the U.S. — at its current level of development. Nor does it examine the effect of U.S. wars on the human psyche.
It is important to note that this is not necessarily a matter of individuals, but that the political superstructure — or, more aptly, the superstructure — of which politics and culture are part, with both changing and shifting constantly — originate from a material reality: the capitalist mode of production and the social relations that come with it.
Marxism: guide to analyzing events
Marxist theory, of course, is a guide to understanding phenomena that develop. U.S. capitalism was built by extreme and naked brute force and violence. Thus, woven within the fabric of the U.S. is an ideology that has been used to justify brutal subjugation, enslavement and genocide. Throughout U.S. history, this ideology has been — and continues to be — used as a weapon; it can be seen in every avenue of life in this country.
When looking at the two separate events — the shooting at the Navy Yard and the one in Chicago — racism and national oppression are evident in the media’s reporting, in how the victims are being handled and about the conditions that gave rise to both.
The shootings are not the same — not the motives or intent — despite the same social conditions.
The Navy Yard was at one time the largest naval ordnance manufacturing site in the world but is now headquarters to the Naval Sea Systems Command, which accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. Naval budget. There are other administrative offices, historical and ceremonial centers, and the headquarters for the U.S. Navy JAG Corps, Naval Reactors and the Marine Corps Institute. It also serves other military purposes.
As of late, the media have painted a picture of Aaron Alexis, the 34-year- old former Naval reservist who served as a civilian contractor, as someone who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Reports of the shooting describe the alleged perpetrator as calmly going through the motions; they say that he didn’t seem to be targeting anyone specifically, although he entered the building where he worked and started firing on the fourth floor where he worked.
Family members, friends and acquaintances describe Alexis as calm. Other reports mention that he had a quick temper, heard voices and suffered from insomnia. It’s been said that he felt discriminated against, but any mention of that fact is quickly dismissed as part of his perceived mental illness, for which he was seeking counseling through the Veterans Administration.
It is a familiar refrain. Whenever an incident occurs like that at the Navy Yards, where there is no apparent motive, the alleged perpetrator’s past is drudged up. A narrative is pieced together of a loner, someone who is misunderstood and appears to be at odds with the world around him. Or it’s said that he or she is a ticking time bomb and every notable occurrence is a slight, part of a road map leading to mass murder.
It is terrifying. It creates an image of bogeymen, unpredictable people who will inevitably strike and commit a heinous mass killing. This is not to say that Alexis did not suffer from mental illness, but for this to be the constant fallback excuse with no analysis of social conditions gives rise to the fallacious assumption that someone who suffers from a mental illness is a danger.
It creates a stigma. What’s more, nothing could be further from the truth. Someone who suffers from mental illness is more likely to be a victim of violence. The stigmatization could make it less likely for people to seek out help because of fear.
This is occurring in a climate where, says the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2 percent of people over 18 suffer from some mental illness, yet barely a quarter of them are able to get any help. This was said by Dr. John Duby, chair of the Mental Health Leadership Workgroup at the American Academy of Pediatrics. (CBSDC, Sept. 18)
The percentage figure above represents a broad spectrum of illnesses and doesn’t specify if they are long term or short term or how debilitating they are.
The low percentage of people who seek help is not merely a reflection of the stigma of mental illness, but of the lack of access to health care.
Returning to the violence question, Dr. Stephen Dubovsky, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York, states, “The main issue here, the real problem of violence in this country and the mass killings that you see are examples of the degree … of readiness which we have in this country to resort to violent behavior.” (CBSDC, Sept. 18)
U.S. founded on violence
The U.S. was founded on extreme violence. Throughout its history, this country has been in a constant state of war to maintain global political, economic and military hegemony. This isn’t just true in its imperialist adventurism. The anti-colonial movement of Indigenous people, the anti-slavery struggle, the union and progressive movements, and those growing out of communities of color — oppressed nationalities — have been besieged with violence from police, paramilitaries like the KKK, white citizens’ councils, or in earlier times, armed colonialists or slave masters.
A recent study conducted by the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, India, discovered — when comparing the experience of people with schizophrenia who hear voices in the U.S. with those in India — that the voices in Chennai are considerably less violent than the voices heard by U.S. patients.
The U.S. patients heard voices which instructed the person to do something destructive and violent, while those heard by Chennai patients told the person to do something mundane, most likely a domestic task like cleaning, or in the more severe instances, to drink out of a toilet, or the voices expressed sexual thoughts.
T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford University professor who wrote the article detailing the study, opines in the Sept. 19 New York Times, “These observations suggest that local culture may shape the way people with schizophrenia pay attention to the complex auditory phenomena generated by the disorder and so shift what the voices say and how they say it.”
Before delving deeper into the general implications of Luhrmann’s statement and U.S. social conditions and culture, a distinction must be made regarding violence.
That distinction is between the violence used to maintain a racist, sexist, homophobic, oppressive and exploitative status quo — and the related rife displays of violence on television, movies and in video games — and the violence that arises from people who buck such a system.
The primary purpose of the state, and its police, courts, jails, prisons and military, is to keep in place the rule of a small percentage of the population — the bankers and owners of the means of production.
It is no different from the need for slave masters to have slave catchers and overseers to protect their interests.
The antagonisms between those who rule or enslave and those ruled or enslaved cannot be reconciled but are maintained through highly trained and organized violence.
The shooting that took place in Chicago’s “Back of the Yards” neighborhood has garnered less attention than that at the Navy Yards. Most articles mention “gang warfare” and violence in Chicago — which has definitely seen an uptick the last five years or so — and they stop there.
Another of Emanuel’s statements deserves repeating: “We cannot allow children in the city of Chicago and we will not allow children in the city of Chicago to have their youthfulness, their optimism, their hope taken from them. …That’s what gun violence does.” (NBCChicago, Sept. 20)
Not inadequate housing or lack thereof. Not school closings, lack of access to stimulating after-school activities or healthy and safe places to go. Not stifling poverty and unemployment. Not police brutality, police occupation and profiling. Not systemic racism. Surely, none of these things are part of the root cause of the rise in violence in communities.
Chicago Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis dubbed Emanuel the “murder mayor,” saying of him: “Look at the murder rate in this city. He’s murdering schools. He’s murdering jobs. He’s murdering housing. I don’t know what else to call him. He’s the murder mayor.” (CBSChicago, March 22)
Referring to the Emanuel administration’s decision to close 54 schools, mainly in Black communities in a school district that is 91 percent people of color, Lewis said, “This policy is racist. It’s classist, and we have to continue to say that our mayor, who was away on a ski trip, dropped this information right before spring break.” (NBCChicago, March 22)
The shooting took place in a neighborhood with a 40.7 percent poverty rate, nearly twice that of Chicago as a whole. Unemployment is high, and several schools have been closed there.
There is certainly no irony either about Emanuel’s statement or his support for the U.S. wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Israeli government’s continuing violence against the Palestinians.
Chicago is notorious for this type of treatment of oppressed communities. It’s the city where Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, leaders of the Black Panther Party, were brutally murdered in 1969 by the FBI and Chicago police. It is a city, which has been presided over by the infamous Daleys, where Black citizens were routinely tortured and abused, yet only one fall guy was offered as the culprit: Jon Burge.
Chicago’s answer is not to alleviate the conditions that give rise to the violence, but to unleash more police patrols in neighborhoods. In recent years, police brutality and police shootings of Black people have increased. In 2011, 80 percent of those injured by police shootings were Black.
This adversarial relationship will continue; more police are not the answer.
As this article stated at the beginning, the words and actions of mainstream politicians have to be judged against the backdrop of the social system at its current stage. So do relations between people living in this society.
Youth face uncertain future
Young people — whether they are oppressed youth or youth from the dominant nationality — face an increasing uncertainty.
Capitalism brings with it increasing alienation from one generation to the next; it arises from the social relations in society. A worker sells his or her labor for a wage to be part of a productive process owned by a boss. There is no satisfaction in the end because the worker is working for a wage to sustain himself or herself and other dependents.
Workers become alienated from one another as competition for jobs increases and well-paying jobs become scarcer.
This often influences how people relate to one another and contributes to the development of some mental illnesses and anxieties. The more developed the country — especially one that has passed into the imperialist phase — the more decadent the society grows, and with that, comes the prevalence of social illness.
This is how culture seems to be moving backwards in a technologically advanced society.
The means of production are overproducing, actually becoming too productive, glutting markets with items much sooner than in earlier times. Add to this that the means of production have become more costly. Also, the economic, political and military hegemony of the U.S. is increasingly being challenged. Now, the picture becomes clearer.
The drive for expansion and war is increasing. This is why the U.S. is pushing to engage in Syria, where its proxy forces seem to be losing against a government that is outside the sphere of U.S. influence.
Materially, for people in the U.S., it means that well-paying jobs are becoming scarcer, and workers are expected to be more productive for lower wages. This is why the bosses and their politicians recently moved to make Michigan — once a bastion of private sector unionism — a “right-to-work” state.
It also means that the banks and financial institutions that have saddled governments at every level with debt are now pushing more aggressively for financial returns. Hence, the situation in Detroit, where public works are up for sale, public workers’ contracts are being torn up, pensions are being gutted, and schools are closing.
This is the era we live in, and things appear to be getting colder; it affects social relations. The events in Chicago and in the Navy Yards can’t be analyzed outside this context.
It is not a foregone conclusion, however, that people may resort to anti-social behavior because of isolation, inadequate access to treatment or to other social needs, and the growing tenuousness of life under capitalism.
Stanley Tookie Williams, whom the state of California murdered in 2005, said in “Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir,” that had he known of the Black Panthers, he and his cohorts would have joined them and been willing foot soldiers. (Pleasant Hill, CA: Damamli Pub. Co., 2004, 1st ed.)
That is perhaps part of the answer: to protest against a system in decay and oppose war, to fight for real material needs, and to join in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across the planet.
From struggle arises a culture rooted in the fight. It will draw in people who feel disaffected and isolated and suffer from mental illnesses. It will give a sense of belonging and hope.