Once again, Americans must confront another mass shooting at another school. Beyond the immediate outpouring of grief and sympathy, we conduct collective soul-searching about the motives and causes of these recurring tragedies. Inevitably, everyone retreats to familiar corners of the debate – is it the person or the weapon most at fault? Is it a lack of mental health care or easy access to military assault weapons? Should we install metal detectors and post armed guards at every public location in the nation or should we arm every man, woman and child and let them stand their ground on their own? These debates get us nowhere except to further polarization. Perhaps someday cooler heads will prevail and we will undertake some common-sense gun safety measures that effectively reduce the level of carnage. And perhaps we will also decide that mental health is just as vital as physical health and devote the resources required to treat the millions of Americans suffering from a myriad of mental illnesses.
But these mass shootings, their increasing frequency and ferocity, indicate something much sicker in our culture, something so deeply ingrained that we accept it as a given. That something is the belief that might makes right, a universally-accepted American cultural core belief. The dictionary defines this concept thusly: “Superior strength to enforce one's will or dictate terms, including the belief that a society's view of right and wrong is determined, like its perspective on history, by those currently in power.”
Although the term first appeared in English in the fourteenth century, it was popularized in the gilded age of the 1890s by a writer named Ragnar Redbeard, who was a pseudonym for Arthur Desmond, a British author. First published in 1890, Might Is Right, or The Survival of the Fittest, heavily advocates egotistical anarchism, amorality, consequentialism and psychological hedonism while arguing that only strength or physical might can establish moral right. The book drew heavily on Friedrich Nietzsche's theories of master–slave morality in which the master is seen as a superior human being who should naturally control his inferior slave. Another inspiration, as the title suggests, was Charles Darwin’s works on evolution, especially Origins of Species. Social Darwinism was all the rage back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If animals evolved due to natural selection, with the strongest and smartest surviving to pass their genes on to their offspring, then human beings surely must evolve the same way. Those at the top of the social hierarchy must have gotten there through their superiority over those at the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Desmond went even further, advocating for a fascist state 40 years before it came into existence. In his survivalist view of the world, only the rich and powerful were capable of ruling, as evident by their accumulated might and the power they wielded over society. At its foundation, “might makes right” holds that the powerful deserve to enjoy all the benefits of power precisely because they can enforce the rules as they see fit.
This idea that the rich and powerful deserve to rule and run our nation took hold and has been a common cultural theme ever since. But we did not always hold this belief. During an earlier time in our history, when our nation was torn apart in a war over slavery, Abraham Lincoln stated, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Lincoln believed that it was the righteousness of the abolition movement that would eventually cause it to triumph over the forces of slavery, not the shear military superiority of Northern armies. He also believed that human beings should see it as their duty to do the right thing and that consistently doing good would lead to a positive end. By the twentieth century, however, Americans moved away from the notion that right makes might, instead adopting the social Darwinist theory that turned traditional morality on its head and gave a boost to the twentieth century’s litany of wars and global destruction.
Today, most Americans do not question why we need the largest military in the world, or the most heavily armed police force, or private ownership of 300 million guns, because we have taken this belief and put it on steriods. If might makes right, modern social Darwinism teaches, then the mightiest must therefore be the rightest. We don’t want our military or police to face a “fair fight.” We want to annihilate our foes with overwhelming force. We destroy the village in order to save it. We empty the clip in order to neutralize a potential threat. We pour it on, rub their noses in it, beat them senseless, show no mercy, relish the blood and gore and celebrate our triumphs with glee and gloat.
Which brings us back to mass shootings. If you are not one of the fortunate few who enjoy power and wealth in the American plutocracy, how do you exercise your own personal version of might makes right? You can go to the gym and try bulking up and becoming more of a physical threat, but that’s not for everyone. You can study hard and strive to join the ranks of the rich and powerful through a successful career and some lucky breaks, but only a few can rise above their birth to achieve great power. What about the rest of us? The average, the ordinary, the bottom-feeders of society? We can go out to our neighborhood gun store and we can purchase some instant power – the power to kill another human being. We can take that gun to a shooting range and pretend to be Rambo in heroic survival mode. We can shoot smaller creatures and drag them home as trophies, demonstrating our power over the animal kingdom. We can assure ourselves that if someone ever threatened us with their own purchased piece of power, we can defend ourselves and emerge victorious in an OK Corral-style shootout. These themes of enforced dominance over others form a key core of our popular culture and entertainment. The message is clear: It’s me against the world so I better be stronger or else I’ll die.
Now imagine this powerful cultural meme twisted in the mind of a person suffering severe mental illness, be it bi-polar, schizophrenia or depression. The mentally ill among us often occupy the bottom of society, down in the sewers of life where every day is a struggle to survive and it is easy to lose faith in the future. For the powerless, especially for those who suffer delusions, gun ownership starts out as a means to survival of the fittest in a jungle society stacked against them. For some, gun ownership turns into an obsession which defines their existence and purpose in life. Of the 300 million plus guns owned by private Americans, a recent study published in Quartz Media found that just 7.7 million people (3 percent of the population) own half of all the guns. These are people who own anywhere from 4 to 140 guns and whose lives are intertwined in the gun culture. When one of these individuals goes rogue, the results are devastating. The Las Vegas shooter who killed 58 concert-goers possessed 47 guns, including an arsenal he snuck into his hotel room.
After this latest mass shooting tragedy, I hope we have a healthy debate about what we can do to curtail this epidemic. Thom's idea of treating guns like motor vehicles is a promising start. But I doubt the debate will make much headway until we confront the cultural norms that underlay our unique commitment to weapons of death.