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Mayhem and War Rhetoric April 26, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.

Since the horrific murders at Virginia Tech, there has been much speculation about the underlying causes of such violence. The usual suspects, video games, rap lyrics, etc., are trotted out as explanations. The problem with these explanations is the lack of a mechanism. Why does the viewing of violent images give someone a motive for mass murder?

Today’s UT ran an article by Ron Dzwonkowski of the Detroit Free Press pointing toward another explanation. Anthropologist Elliot Leyton, who has built a career around the study of mass murder, reports in an interview that there is a correlation between violent crime and nations at war that may be driving our current spike in violence. Governments and the media, when advancing the cause of war, must spread the message that homicide is acceptable in pursuit of their ends, thus conditioning the public to accept the killing of others on a massive scale.

There is still the problem of a mechanism here. How do we get from a cultural meme that violence is an acceptable and glamorous means to achieve national goals to the senseless homicidal rage in the Virginia Tech massacre? Leyton suggests an answer—the deep sense of grievance mass murderers tend to exhibit toward persons, groups, or institutions, which was clearly on display in Virginia Tech murderer Cho’s rants against rich kids and debauchery. But how does the exposure to justifications of war-time violence feed this resentment?

I suspect there is a larger message that the BushChenistas and their Fox News megaphone have been adept at promulgating. Nothing defines the war fever that enabled our descent into thuggery more than the constant repetition of the refrain that evil surrounds us like LA smog threatening to penetrate our pores if not blown away by a storm of violence unleashed by the righteous. This notion that evil is a metaphysical presence that can be held back only by perpetual war has been implicit in all of Bush’s war rhetoric and remains embedded in his nonsensical claim that if we don’t defeat the terrorists in Iraq we will have to fight them here.

This rhetoric of evil gives all of us a permanent grievance against anything we don’t like. It is a series of very short conceptual steps from “I don’t like it” to “its part of the cloud of evil that threatens us all” to “it must be exterminated at all costs”.



1. Nina Rosenstand - April 27, 2007

I agree and disagree–I, too, have been frustrated by the incessant tendency to blame social violence on violent computer games (and prior to that, television shows, and prior to that, movies, and, believe it or not, prior to that, novels, read “Madame Bovary”…). As our students will testify to, the majority of consumers of entertainment involving violence probably don’t become exponentially more violent. That’s a prejudice dating back all the way to Plato who assumed that “even a noble person will be affected negatively by the excessive emotions in a dramatic performance” (my paraphrase!). The few that do may use violent entertainment as an incidental inspiration (which is a fact), but spoonfeed a harmonious person violent entertainment hour after hour, and you probably just get a fed-up harmonious person.
However, I believe I detect a “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” in your blog: We have a politicized focus on the term “evil,” and “evildoers,” in a wartime setting–and then we have mass murder committed by a psychologically disturbed student with a grudge against anyone whose life seemed to work out better than his own. Was he affected by the “rhetoric of evil,” or did he just happen along while thoughts of evil are being floated in the political arena (and elsewhere–let’s not forget that most people have no problem labeling egregiously bad behavior “evil” regardless of who is in government)? We had the first wave of school shootings in the late 1990s, during an administration (some might say say “ClintonGorista”!) where nobody said anything about evil, and terrorism was something that happened elsewhere…

2. Dwight Furrow - April 27, 2007


I doubt that acts of extraordinary violence have a single explanation, so there will be ample counter examples to any generalization on this issue. But what needs to be explained is the correlation between war and violence that Leyton points to. What is the mechanism?

Most wars involve cultural authorities engaging in demonizing the enemy in order to generate enthusiasm for the war. It is not implausible to argue that this rhetoric iof demonization is taken up and deployed by unstable people with a grievance as a way of lending meaning and significance to their grievance. One factor among others that may help to explain the correlation.

Furthermore, this notion of evil as a constant, pervasive threat to be stamped out by violence was not invented by the current administration, though they are adept at employing it. It has been a dominant theme in political discourse for some time. Opposition to communism was often expressed in these terms.

3. ajax5 - May 4, 2007

That sure seems like a big jump Leyton is making here. I suspect that that is as good an excuse as any for some dissatisfied person to go around and off a circumscribed number of fellow citizens. It seems like a spurious connection at best. But, you can be sure now that someone who just finished mowing down shoppers at Home Depot will blame it on the pervasiveness of war. Leyton’s idea sounds like something one comes up with only after an incident like Virginia Tech, in order to make it meaningful in some way. The bold fact may be that people will do terrible things to other people for no meaningful reason at all, regardless of how it might fit into the bigger picture of national politics or the discovery of metaphysical evil.
Loved the BushChenistas thing, though.

4. Michael Mussachia - May 7, 2007

I’m not sure of this proposed connection between war and the incident at Virginia Tech, but there clearly is one between political rhetoric about combating evil in the world and the “cultural war” here at home. This type of political rhetoric is rooted in and yet also reinforces the “good-versus-evil” attitude that is so common in America (rigid, absolutist moral views, intolerance of alternative life styles, moral condemnation of the media for violence and sex, etc.) Given this, it’s not inconceivable then that war time political rhetoric could be a contributing factor in some mass murder cases. It’s a pity that Cho did not survive so he could be psychologically examined. Was he a Bushite? Did he picture himself a cultural warrior?

5. Jennie Linck - May 29, 2007

Is it the war itself that is being argued against, or the over all concept of war? Most Americans are disconnected from the war and politics. They see it on T.V. but its not real to them, just something to comment on in passing. Or a great chance to state a point of view if they have one. To most, war is more of a concept then a reality, unless they are actually on the front line. This perspective of “fighting against evil” and being a “warrior” is one that will always exist. As flawless as it is to blame all violence on these ideas and concepts, it seems a bit abstract to actually try and build off of them. To try and build off of the idea that video games and violent t.v. shows are the cause of violence, will get us running in circles trying to find something new to shun.

I think its a lot more productive to look into the trend of abuse, and how to help and protect kids when they are young.

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