July 10, 2023


From The Unabomber To Uvalde (Steven Gimbel and Gwydion Suilebhan, 7/10/23, 3 Quarks)

Our present-day mass murderers have a very different profile than yesterday's serial killers. Instead of a secretive, seething antipathy, they seem to be possessed by loud, public depravity. School shootings in schools like Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Uvalde speak volumes, as do workplace rampages like those at the Santa Clara rail yard, the Federal Express facility in Indiana, and the Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia. Loudest of all, perhaps, are the shootings born of bigotry, like the massacres at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo. These are killings that require no brains, just bullets. The killers never escape. They don't outsmart anyone.

Serial killers may have undermined our shared sanity and sense of safety, but mass shootings shake our confidence in America's underlying social structure to its core. Unrelenting violence at a scale once unthinkable outside of war feels like an effort to renegotiate the social contract and destroy the democratic institutions that guarantee fairness and inclusion. Many mass shooters, after all, have been influenced by one or more on-air or online talking heads pushing updated versions of Nazi Great Replacement Theory and a range of conspiracies dehumanizing anyone seeking fair treatment under the law.

Those talking heads may be the major social change most responsible for taking America from the Unabomber to Uvalde. Where Ted Kaczynski had both the brain and the hands of a killer, as both the author of the manifesto and the builder of the bombs, 21st century technology, from cable news to the internet, has allowed for the separation of mind and body. Hateful pundits transmit bigotry into the ether, then claim innocence on the grounds that they haven't actually hurt anyone themselves.

Meanwhile, an unpredictable few of their audience members, emotionally charged by their rancorous speech, await targeting orders, filled with a manufactured need to "defend Western values", "make America great again," and "restore the culture to its rightful owners."

This dangerous phenomenon is called stochastic terrorism. It works just like the candy racks in grocery checkout lines. Stores know that a certain percentage of people will always make an impulse purchase, even if they don't know precisely who will succumb to temptation.

In the same way, purveyors of hate on the web and on television do not know which viewers will snap, but they do know that a small percentage will. Like Kaczynski, they plot the undermining of the social order through violence, but unlike the Unabomber, they don't do the deed themselves. They write the manifesto, but rely on their audience members to serve as weapon masters. They trigger their viewers, but keep their hands off of any actual triggers.

Posted by at July 10, 2023 12:00 AM