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Mass Casualty Events

David Cowles

May 9, 2023

“There is broad consensus that loss of identity and a sense of belonging has played a huge role in the mental health crisis, especially among teenagers… I’d like to throw another log on that fire.”

Through April, we have had more mass shootings in the US than there have been days on the calendar. In other words, we are averaging approximately one mass casualty event per day. 

Long prior to the pandemic, folks were already feeling lost. Ever since the virtual started to replace the real, ever since chat rooms took the place of barrooms, we have been unmoored: today, nobody knows your name! The pandemic only served to accelerate processes that were already well under way.

The honeycomb of civil society that furnished robust social networks in the past has all but vanished. 40 years ago, a successful parent might have served on a parish council, coached a pee wee soccer team, joined a country club or fraternal organization, and still found time to make an occasional appearance at the corner tavern.

Our lives are being reorganized…with no input from us. No more one-income households, no more 40-hour work weeks, no more fiercely guarded family time, no me-time at all! We are urged to balance life and work. A great idea! You should try it.

Going, going, pre-pandemic, gone! The collapse of civil society checks all the boxes on the mental health admission form. It has taken away important confirmations of my personal identity; it has greatly restricted my opportunities to experience ‘belonging’, i.e., to join with others in a common enterprise. Finally, it has robbed me of the chance to share ideas with others in reasoned, respectful dialog - to make a contribution to the public debate – to be a citizen.

Ok, but what does this have to do with mass shootings? I think there is broad consensus that loss of identity and a sense of belonging has played a huge role in the mental health crisis, especially among teenagers. I agree with this analysis, but I’d like to throw another log on that fire.

Once upon a time, politics was our national pastime – ok, along with baseball. If we weren’t talking about the one, we were talking about the other. These conversations were often heated. As the 1950s became the 1960s and beyond, the rhetoric got extreme…but the conversation never stopped…until now.

The 1960s was no golden age, no matter what anyone says. Political dialog was fierce…but there were unwritten rules!

First, there was an assumption that ‘something is true’ and that efforts to discover that ‘truth’ could bring us closer to it. I’m not sure we make any such assumption today. Wow! Think about the implications of that! It is not ‘truth’ that’s under assault; it’s the concept of Truth itself.

A world full of lies is not a good thing, but it is paradise compared to a world without lies. In such a world, all propositions co-exist. None has pride of place over another. None links to another, none crowds-out another, they all just sit there, inert. Hmm, doesn’t this sound a lot like political speech today? Sit there? Inert?

Second, there was an expectation that everyone’s hierarchy of values would include the sharing of truth with others. Again, we do without such an assumption now.

So with our identity supports and our social networks already depleted, it’s also dawning on us that we will have no voice in the public discourse going forward. We can’t talk politics at work or at home or when we’re out with another couple for dinner. One thought injudiciously phrased or inadvertently shared could have consequences for you and yours, down to the third generation.

Society is moving at lightning speed to marginalize the input of its citizens.  Could there be a cost to this? Could someone who feels permanently frozen out of any meaningful participation in public life decide to ‘cast a vote that can’t be canceled’? Tragically though, such overtly political acts rarely come with any agenda, except no mas

I have traded the bustling political life of the hive for a solitary spot in the rookery carved into the mountain side by wind and rain; and I’m not most pleased! Millions of Americans will have this same experience, but few of them will perpetrate a mass casualty incident. One differentiator is the presence of a pre-existing psychiatric condition. So there are four ‘I-beams’: 

  1. Identity loss - a fading sense of personal identity. Who am I?

  2. Isolation – a deterioration in one’s social support network.

  3. Impotence – I’m frustrated by everything that’s going on around me, but I have no one I can share this with and, worse, there’s nothing I can do about any of it anyway.

  4. Illness – a pre-existing psychiatric condition, psychological problem. 

Imagine you’re a Hollywood mogul charged with making the next Lawrence of Arabia. Here’s what you’ve been given to work with:

“A person with psychiatric issues loses the daily ‘identity confirmation’ of a trusted partner. In response, our anti-hero withdraws from society and isolates himself from everyone in his orbit. In the background, you can hear the drone of the CNN anchors.” You take it from there! Who among us would fail to turn an opportunity like this into a blockbuster? 

By seeking to understand the psyche of the mass shooter, I in no way mean to justify these horrible acts. However, I think we do ourselves a favor when we try to see the world through the eyes of others. I am hoping that properly labeling the four pillars of alienation – identity loss, isolation, impotence, and illness will contribute toward the development of more effective, comprehensive, and holistic therapeutic strategies. Keep an eye on this space!


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