Reflections after Sandy Hook: Rampage Killings and Concepts of Liberty

I had intended to write this essay five years ago, in the wake of the Virginia Tech Massacre of April 2007. For various reasons this did not happen, and if it did not happen now it would probably have been only a few years before there was another incident with sufficient prominence in the media to elicit a response from me. And I should expect the general trend of the discourse thereafter to cover the same range of irrelevance and misapprehension.

The most obvious is perhaps merely the illusion of novelty that adheres to all that is ill in the world; that this is a phenomenon of our age and that it is getting worse. This may or may not be so. It is nevertheless surprising that records exist of comparable incidents going back as far as the 18th century. Likewise, and if anything more markedly, these suggest that this is not even a predominantly American or even Western phenomenon, as comparable incidents have occurred in all cultures, at all levels of affluence and technological sophistication.

Nor do these incidents represent a “snapping” or sudden loss of temper upon the day, exacerbated by the presence of firearms at that moment; nor does the heinousness of the deeds reflect a moral deterioration in the perpetrator – except in a tragically oblique way (more on which below) – much less in society as such.

Worst, perhaps, is the refusal even to attempt understanding on the part of some, as if that somehow constituted an offense to the victims; an insistence on ascribing the motivations involved to “evil incarnate,” but evil undefined, ungrasped, and hence unchecked. Surely understanding the nature of the phenomenon would go a long way to preventing similar tragedies in future?

My admittedly cursory investigation led me to an incident in my home town of Cape Town. In 1786 a Javanese Malay convict named Soera Brotto rampaged through the streets of the city, killing seven people and injuring  a further ten. It might be objected that this was an instance of amok, a phenomenon deemed specific to Malay culture; the circumstances nevertheless suggest an existential situation identical to many American rampage killing incidents.

The salient element in Soera Brotto’s story is that it seemed to be the loss of the prospect of returning to Java that had precipitated his rampage. He had been sentenced by the Dutch colonial authorities to banishment to the Cape. Once here he had impressed his captors and was soon promoted. He served the Dutch East India Company for many years as a sort of overseer of slaves and general policeman. But when he learned that his application to return to Java would not be granted, then or ever, he began to collect knives and other weapons and to plan his rampage.

Soera Brotto had been enduring an interruption of his life, wholly absorbed in the prospect of the interruption coming to an end and his life being resumed. He had played the faithful servant for years in order to earn his freedom. He had strained, given years of his life, for that dream. When it was irrevocably lost, his purpose and indeed his life itself were also lost. I believe that this element of irrevocable loss of prospect is a determining feature of many of the rampage killing incidents that achieve notoriety today.

The prospect of living in a future that is chosen and different to how one lives now describes a prospect of liberty at a fundamental level. But it is a testament to the power of nefarious ideas that humans do not recognize in other humans this motivation that is so basic to humanity, so universal. For we are told that the very concept of liberty is a recent Western invention, and more often than not, mere spin and propaganda; that it is wholly absent in the culture and history of other peoples, and that your and my aspiration to selfhood in our own right is therefore anomalous and aberrant, that we ought instead to be content with seamless subsumption in fictitious  collectives.

I take issue with this. I believe that there is an idea of “natural liberty” universal to all people, somewhat analogous to a Thomist conception of natural law. There have indeed been relatively recent emaciations of the idea in the West, but these derive more from obsessions with the natural sciences than from the prior tradition of Western thought. Thus we have liberty conceived as a luxury, a sort of leisure or time off; or as a mechanical concept like a steel ball on a plate of glass, free to roll. The underlying idea of liberty as self-authorship, the right – and indeed the duty – to define, shape, and articulate who and what one is, has become comparatively obscure. The most basic freedom of all is the freedom to ascribe value, to attach importance; but some modern conceptions of liberty ascribe any such attachment to some kind of cock-eyed Gramsciesque idea of “slavery of the mind”.

It might really be anomalous that most people tend immediately to agree that there is no telling what people might do, if they are free. Instead it ought to be obvious that there is no telling what people might do, if people are not free. For if people are not free they have no power of self-authorship, no essential alignment with conviction and principle, no chosen restraint; no capacity to proclaim, “x is important; therefore I  shall not do y”. This is moral agency. Morality is not the corollary of liberty, much less the antithesis; it is the foremost manifestation of liberty.

We are all capable of immense destruction. We count ourselves blessed, if we may live entire lives without manifesting that capability. But it is not the threat of violence or the machinery of control that assures this, but the “law written in [our] hearts” of Jeremiah and St. Paul. Erase that law, and Virginia Tech results. Sandy Hook results.

Rampage killers do not mow down innocent children because they have become convinced that children are evil and ought to be eradicated, or because they blame children for some misfortune or wrong they seek to avenge; nor because they are products of a society in which “life has become cheap;” certainly not because they are unaware that they are not playing a computer game. They mow down innocent children precisely because they are convinced that children are infinitely precious, uniquely vulnerable, and therefore in need of especial protection; precisely because their capacity to hold that moral conviction has been rendered null and void. It has been treated as worthless, reduced to a trifle – and some occurrence has given irreversible effect to this.

Thus rampage killers often specifically choose the most heinous crime possible in the circumstances. Their intention is to demonstrate publicly the result of their moral agency being taken away from them. The message in many of these acts seems to be, “This is what happens when I am not permitted to be responsible for what I am.”

We shall never learn the precise incident which led to the irrevocable loss of moral agency in most of these cases – especially if we do not know what to look for – but the sense of it is palpable in many of them. Something, the death of a dream long held, occurs to make a moral zombie, retaining volition enough to plan a rampage but morally – i.e. in terms of liberty – already dead. For a life can survive the loss of liberty only in so far as it retains the hope that liberty might be regained, as Soera Brotto shows.

And without moral agency the category of moral responsibility cannot apply. Thus the rampage killer can be no more guilty of a crime than the Biblical tower in Siloam, which fell on eighteen people and killed them. Hence the inevitable final suicide arises not from sudden remorse but merely confirms the condition of death.

It should by now be clear that understanding this is socially necessary. Liberty is thus socially necessary; as is a subtler theory of liberty than has often recently prevailed. This is of course not to suggest that most rampage killings are in any way ideologically motivated, but rather that the causes of many of the conditions that lead to rampage killings may be found in the structures of the State. The common element is asymmetrical power relations capable of killing dreams.

As for would-be rampage killers – may we never have occasion to learn who they are – they do not need a firm hand, or disarmament, or medication, or strait-jackets of any kind, nor bread and circuses, whisky and television. What they need is a role in which the exercise of their liberty is required. They need opportunities for real creative liberty, to build their world and to help others to build their world, opportunities increasingly managed and regulated to extinction except for the privileged expert answerable to the powers that be.

Above all, they need hope. Pray that they remain unconvinced that a better world (whatever that might mean in their respective lives) is not possible.

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