Jun 14, 2022
People who perpetrate mass shootings are searching for answers, for meaning in life…
June 12th’s edition of Face the Nation included an interview with Dr. Jillian Peterson and Dr. James Densley: “Yeah, I think a lot of people are searching for a profile of a mass shooter…Who are these perpetrators? So, we built a database that includes 180 perpetrators, who killed four or more people in a public space, going back about 50 years. And we coded each of them on over 200 pieces of life, history, information to try to look for patterns in the data…And we, instead, saw a pathway to a mass shooting, and we outlined that pathway in our book called The Violence Project…
Mass shooters are in crisis. These are individuals who are not living their best selves, they are questioning their place in the world…people who perpetrate mass shootings are searching for answers, [for] meaning in life…”
Sometimes we make light of folks who say, “I don’t know who I am. I’m trying to find myself,” but we do so at our peril. According to Peterson and Densley, the people most likely to engage in mass shootings are people who feel a lack of personal identity, purpose, and meaning in their lives.
In Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), Victor Frankl drew on his personal experience in Nazi concentration camps to argue that ‘purpose and meaning’ are essential elements in a healthy human psyche; they provide the spiritual foundation we need if we are to survive life’s disappointments, minor and major – from being ghosted by a BFF to being unlawfully and unjustly imprisoned.
In days gone by, the culture provided folks with a sense of personal identity, purpose and meaning, but to our post-Enlightenment ears, these values sound “churchy,” and we can’t have that! (I had a good friend who would not listen to any classical music for just this reason.)
At the end of the first millennium A.D., belief in God (theism) was at the foundation of all intellectual activity; by the end of the second millennium, atheism (or at least agnosticism) had replaced theism as the price of admission to the academy. Truth be known, over the past 400 years, we have been involved in a collective effort to ‘God-proof’ our world.
Intellectual activity, once aimed at ‘proving God,’ is now dedicated to ‘God proofing.’ Of course, I am not suggesting that folks who do not believe in God are destined to become mass murderers; I am saying that the ‘God Hypothesis’ entails three corollaries relevant to this discussion: identity, purpose, and meaning.
And what of culture? Well, it’s been pretty well ‘God proofed’ too. From Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to Wittgenstein and Ayer, to Camus and Derrida, modern philosophy has been dedicated to ‘de-mystifying’ existence. We are all ‘ontological democrats’ now. We don’t need to think about ‘bigger issues.’
Any thoughts we might have on those issues have been pre-labeled, “meaningless, childish, old fashioned, anti-scientific, etc.” But suppressing humanity’s innate thirst for meaning comes at a price. Langstone Hughes (1951): “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore – and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over like – like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it sags like a heavy load… Or does it explode?” (Harlem)
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