"Marnie Effect" and the Littleton Massacre.

Greg Nowell GN842 at CNSVAX.Albany.Edu
Mon Apr 26 15:07:53 PDT 1999

After an absence of several days I return to dozens of messages and read with interest those of Kelley, Doug (with whom I agree to some extent) and Rakesh (with whom I mostly disagree).

Let's take a look at the analytical options.

You can look at the massacre as a specific event with a specific content, in which case you might well focus on the racist predispositions of the two characters. It can even be tied to a long history of racial violence in the United States. The "gist" of Rakesh's argument is that there is such a tradition in the U.S. and that it was highly tolerated in the rotten decayed upper middle class white suburb. The behavior was not deviant but "revealing."

You can look at the massacre within the context of many different school shootings and mass murders in the United States. My favorite a few years ago was the guy that trashed a McDonalds and shot some dozen or so people. Not because I want to get shot when I go into McDonalds, as I do several times a year, usually to piss when I'm on the road and don't need to buy gas. But because if one were to shoot something in the U.S. McDonald's would make a good place to start. In any case: Trying to tie the specific ideology of the Littleton shooters--and even the suburb that produced them--to their actions requires dissociating them from the long string of other shooters in other contexts. It doesn't get us very far, since the profiles of a number of these school shooters appear to be very different. I don't think we have any evidence of Nazi-racist objectives in the Arkansas shooters, for example.

You can make general associative comments: that if you expose 200 million people to slaughter as recreation (we do) and make high powered weapons easily available (we do), every now and then someone is going to go off their rockers and shoot a bunch of people. The question is then somewhat like asking what causes *one particular* drop of water to trickle down the side of a glass that we have filled slowly till it can hold no more. The answer is that *some one* drop of water *must* go down the side, and some combination of circumstances *will determine* that *one particular* drop of water will go over the side. But the *why* resides more in the fact that the glass has been filled too far rather than in the *particular attributes* of the water.

The whole notion of a "psychological screen" for screwed up kids is based on the notion that if we could identify *the one particular drop* that is destined to trickle down the glass that we could stop it from doing so, *even though* we continue to overfill the glass.

You can choose a psychological explanation. This is what I term the "Marnie Effect" in the subject line. It's from Hitchcock's film about a weirded out woman with a psychological problem which, once revealed and understood, "explains" very bizarre behavior. Indeed, a similar device was used in "Psycho" (as the long winded shrink explains at the end). Here we have the notion that irrational behavior can have rational roots, and represents some kind of maladaptation to a "real problem." We "understand" the behavior when we see it is a "rational" response to some kind of provocation. We don't know what it is that causes people to commit murder but we "understand" it better as an aberrant adaptation or delayed response when we understand that most death-row inmates were themselves beaten as children, and often survived massive head injuries.

You can choose more esoteric explanations, which is, try to "pour into the mold" some mix of the known ideological proclivities of the perps (in this case, the Littleton kids), mix in some psychology about the parents and all that, and try to figure out how factors x + y + z = mass murder. But this will never get you to a "rational" response. If you are "rationally" a racist who wants to kill jocks and minorities, better you should pay someone else to do it for you. We need an explanation therefore which requires the perps to be rational at the level of causality and planning in the short term and yet irrational in the long term.

This is very messy stuff. As one shrink on the tube pointed out (who had interviewed many murderers in jail) the person who goes on a killing spree thinks he (usually but not always a "he") is doing something good or justified. But that doesn't meant that the explanation "offered" really helps us "understand." About ten years ago, around the time I was getting divorced, a guy who was getting dumped got a rifle and flew over Boston taking pot shots. We "explain" this by saying he was "upset about breaking up with his wife." But what the hell does that explain? We really want to know why *this person* reacts to being upset about his divorce by getting in a plane and shooting at Boston, when the rest of us, though we might *feel* like shooting Boston, go out and have a few drinks or see a shrink or move on to something else in some other way. The "explanation" does not lie in the fact that "he was upset about his divorce."

Similarly, when a worker who has been fired shoots a bunch of people at his place of work it does not really give us a "critique of capital" nor does the fact of his being fired "explain" that he reacted by going home, fetching a rifle, and coming back ready for blood. We have to know why *this person* ,out of the many millions who are fired routinely, reacted *this way.* It doesn't matter if the person with the rifle says, or writes in a diary, "I'm doing this because I hate minorities" or "I'm doing this because I hate capitalism" or "I'm doing this because I'm upset about my divorce." His words are just that, words which are part of "what we know about the crime" but not conclusive as an "explanation."

In any case:

1. Racism as a persistent phenomenon of bourgeois democracy in the United States and elsewhere is probably not the same thing as racism as a program of state conquest, as it was among the Nazis. The behavior of the individual is contextual within the orientation of the society. Racism, to the extent that it is a factor at all (and this would involve a decision to eliminate many other "non-racist" shootings from the analytical pool). It *does matter* whether you are diddlying around with shock value symbols (tolerated or not) versus being drafted into a state which puts a rifle in your arms and marches you into Poland to shoot Jews and whomever.

2. Knowing the particular set of stresses to which these individuals are subjected does not seem to avance our "understanding" of why so many different individuals seem to do this in different places.

3. Having a "general explanation" like the level of violence in the media has the merit of being tractable for social analysis. Sex and violence are emphasized in the media because first and foremost the desire of capital is to sell commodities. Sex and violence are two categories of stimuli which provoke near universal responses. You can't drape a bikini babe over a landrover and *not* get the typical male's attention, at least for a millisecond, to the advertisement. And you can't run a show where a bunch of cool alpha males blow apart their adversaries without getting the attention of people seeking mindless diversion while channel surfing. Even the intellectuals among us, I might add. That means that violence, like sex, works to sell ads. We may therefore advance the hypothesis that a 24-hour propaganda machine that pushes sex and violence will alter some behaviors. Not everyone, but some people, will incorporate the values in non-predictable ways. But this "measure of association" between cause and effect doesn't get us to why certain individuals go beserk. It does indicate, however, that the stated reason for going beserk may not be the "real reason" as to why people are killed.

4. It is probably true that ease of access to weaponry facilitates massacres. Why wouldn't it. Ease of access to food facilitates obesity and ease of access to gasoline facilitates a fossil fuel lifestyle.

5. But in spite of everything you still have beserk episodes of the Jack-the-Ripper variety. A certain number of Jack-the Rippers will be out there regardless of whether society is feudal, capitalist, or socialist. But it is probably the case that you will have *fewer* of them who are *successful* in societies with more controls over weapons and which don't fetishize violence as much.

-- Gregory P. Nowell Associate Professor Department of Political Science, Milne 100 State University of New York 135 Western Ave. Albany, New York 12222

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