Open Buddha

Open Source Buddhism, Technology, and Geekery
Bay Area, California

Killings and Our Society

Two weeks ago, Steven Kazmierczak walked into Northern Illinois University and started shooting. He succeeded in wounding 21 students and killing seven (?) before being killing himself with his own weapon. I’ve seen the typical hand wringing and questions of why and how this could happen occurring within and without the media. By all the accounts that I have seen, no one really knows why he decided to kill and then kill himself. I’ve even read an account by his girlfriend, whom he called very early that day without telling her what he was going to do and seeming normal.

All of this brings to mind Columbine and the various other incidents that have occurred during the last 20 years. I haven’t seen any good answers from various talking heads about why people do these things, beyond the few that seem to have been mentally ill in known ways beforehand. I have always felt since Columbine that people were ignoring the elephant in the room, as it were, and that many of the issues that give rise to these sorts of killings (leaving aside specifics of any one) are completely understandable by most of us, even if we don’t wish to face these issues or their results.

Simply put, we live in a deeply ill society and one that is not getting better on its own. By “society,” I do not mean only America but the general “Western” society (including those others that are becoming more like ours over time). People are isolated and alienated from the universe, the world, and their fellow human beings. Any sense of deep connection felt, historically, by people to their communities and the world that they live within seems to have been largely eroded by various social and economic factors over the last 200 years. For better or worse, we were much healthier mentally when we lived in tightly knit communities where people knew others and grew up with them in the same place as their families. (I’ll leave economic poverty and classes for some other time.)

I know very few people who haven’t felt profoundly isolated from others during their adult life (often beginning much earlier) as part of their day to day existence. Our urban living, nomadic migration, and lack of large group bonds only play into all of this. Add to this, our “winner take all” ideals for our economic system (along with “screw the other guy”) and you get an unhealthy population. We are largely workaholics who go to jobs that we dislike (or hate), come home to eat our plastic food and watch television, and occasionally go get drunk with a few friends in the evenings. The fortunate ones may even have a mate and some children but then feel the pressures to do with them and the economics of maintaining our lifestyles. As has been said, the merchant knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing and that is what we’ve become, a society of merchants.

In all of this, is it really surprising when some people, people who may not be happy for a variety of reasons, look around at the isolation, the alienation, of their day to day existence or maybe its meaninglessness and decide “Fuck it!” and to go out with a bang? I’ve know a couple of people in the past (one was a roommate) who had said that if they ever couldn’t take it anymore, that they would get a gun and either go find a bunch of cops or a group of fill in the blank class of people and just start shooting, knowing that they would soon be dead but they’d get their final revenge before that moment. In some ways, this is the ultimate denial for the alienated individual who is filled with anger at the world and feels ineffective to have any impact on anything whatsoever.

Do the talking heads in the media or the reporters really never understand this? Have they never felt some of these same feelings before sanely shaking their heads to turn away (or have another drink)? Is it a generational thing? Somehow I doubt it. It seems like a willful decision to not investigate this fundamental problem in our society. When it comes down to it, looking at the machine that we are all embedded in, whether you want to call it “society” or “capitalism” or whatever, don’t we all understand why someone could just snap and acting out with the violence that we see embraced culturally, decide to do something, anything, to matter and to get even with the world? How many people are filled with a quiet desperation and abiding anger at the world without having any means of expressing or resolving it?

The only real antidote for any of this is connection and meaning, for ourselves and with others. We really do need to begin recreating (or creating) a sane society. We need to connect with people on a smaller scale and not be one of the anonymous insects in our manhive. Beyond this, we need to reconnect with the world around us. We don’t live in some magical bubble made of concrete, steel, wood, and glass. We live in a world, a place, with seasons, the sun and moon, plants, animals, and simply existence. Going further than this, we also need to go beyond all of that to Truth and meaning, to finding for ourselves something about the true nature of human existence and our relationship to this truth and how we wish to interact with it. How to go about doing this would be the topic of a much longer series of posts and I really don’t have all of the answers. Like everyone reading this, I’m embedded in the same problematic situation as everyone else.

It is too easy for all of us to follow the pre-programmed path through life built of the expectations of the world and following the channels our society presents to us. Go to school, get a job, marry… (cue Trainspotting). Unfortunately, returning to the beginning here, this is the same overall pattern that is also producing killings, mental illness, alienation, and a general dissatisfaction with the world. All of these things will, of course, always be with us but we need to choose to live in such a way to minimize these things, the suffering of all of us, and to be as healthy as possible. Until we do, I fear that these acts of violence will continue and, in fact, will intensify over time.