Lively summer outside the bar, no?
In Norway a deadeye nobody competes for notoriety with rampage killers around the world by blowing up government buildings and whacking teenagers at a summer camp for kids interested in public service. In the US, unhappy homes produce at least a couple of rampages that leave about a dozen people shot to death. In the UK, gangs of young bipeds, mostly males, riot in the streets, torching a storefront or two, breaking glass, and looting a bit. In the US, efforts at rioting fizzle out in the face of lavish police gear and a curfew or two.
In the street and in the media you hear excited chitchat about “social media” and government austerity politics as incitements to mob mayhem. Mopping sticky spilled beer off the bar in a slow moment you might well ask, What’s going on here?
Okay, there’s the obvious: if you’re rioting, chances are you’re un- or underemployed. If you are out of work, it means you’re not only facing a blank future, but also a vague or even blank identity. If you’re marginally educated and a creature of industrial entertainment, you’re probably frustrated when not sufficiently distracted, since school and the box office both promise you consumer utopia. If utopia turns out to be a bag of potato chips and a joint, of course you might want to raise a ruckus.
Well, as it happens – lucky you – the culture is full of ideas for action. Take rioting, for example. You define yourself against “enemies” – cops, the haves, stores that tease you by putting under your nose but out of reach behind plate glass desirable goodies that promise you prestige. In an emergency – a riot, say – the window’s like a psychic alarm box: break glass and pull loot, and relief rushes into your hands like the fire department.
Let’s be honest: looting can feel heroic. The great mega-celebrities of history – Genghis Whatsisname, the Vikings, Napoleon, Hitler, Goldman Sachs – they’re all looters. Yes yes, they use warrior muscle to make sure you agree that they’re noble aristocrats or royalty or supremo honchos. Or they use Wall Street cunning. But the bottom line is looting. The Old Testament nicely models the business plan. God tells the Israelites to conquer the Canaanites, commanding them to exterminate the rival men and boys, enslave the women, and back up the truck for the chattel and grandma’s Canaanite cuckoo clock. And this even though the archeologists tells us that Canaanites, Israelites, and today’s Israelis are the same people, so the conquest is in a sense a riot.
Of course in today’s modern world we emphasize representative democracy, consensus, and MBA managerial ju-jitsu. Oh, and love. But in fact that sissy stuff only takes you so far when it comes to enjoying your fellow hominids. From birth, long before you’re old enough to remember who they’ve told you you are, the authorities – mum, dad, and the auntie who says “You’re so cute I could eat you right up!” – they’re all instilling in you a conviction of what’s right. You grow up obeying mostly invisible rules that reinforce what’s right. You say “Please,” keep to the sidewalk, buy supermarket chops rather than carve up your neighbor’s tasty-looking dog, and learn toilet paper skills.
Ideally the rules help you steer through the wickets when the cosmic croquet mallet puts you in motion at birth. But we all know that the rules can suffocate and enslave you too. You love them, you chafe at them. When you and the crowd agree on the rules, you feel superhuman. When you disagree, you try to bully one another into “seeing it my way.” In extreme cases you shake fists until knuckles and jaw connect.
What to do, what to do?
Think of all the movies you’ve seen that routinely climax in a do-or-die battle in which the frustrated hero finally overcomes all inhibitions and suddenly gains access to superhuman daring, whips enemies, and survives. This is berserk style. The fantasy is that if you can break out of the daily grind of rules – if you can go to the very edge of control, “flipping out,” “losing it,” and “going for the jugular ” – you can tap special powers that make you indomitable.
Rampage killers actually act on such fantasies. But since it’s a style, it invites you think you can scare the world into doing things your way. The style has a wide reach. In the Washington debt ceiling debate this summer, do-or-die righteousness threatened economic “catastrophe” and “Armageddon.” Critics called them “the wrecking-ball right” (Reich), “Debt Kamikazees” (Avlon), while rant radio hosts vilified liberals as “more dangerous than Hitler.” You can hear fantasies of extermination in these colorful terms. And what could be more supremely supreme than being the sole survivor of a battle? MBA’s, who know a thing or two about threat displays, sometimes call this “winning through intimidation.”
What all these extreme behaviors have in common is the use of theatricalized rage to force the world to recognize your supreme righteousness and your (ahem) even more supreme self-esteem. The Norwegian killer took time out from shooting kids to call the cops on his cellphone to let them know what a hotshot he was. He was keeping score and settling scores. Most copycat rampages reveal a competitive rage to be El Supremo. In his diary and online rants little Eric Harris of Columbine demanded total obedience and total extermination for his stupid “enemies.”
We can’t tell when verbal riot will turn into muscle mayhem. Some thirty percent of rampage killers have a military background, as many as half have a history of mental illness. But like urban rioters, even the crazies have to get their ideas from somewhere. And everyday life offers lots of prompts.
The hidden assumption is that once the pretty ribbons are off, the world really works as a system of threat displays, and the animal succeeds most that rears up tallest, roars the loudest, and shows a do-or-die rack of fangs. If you’re boxed in by deadly rules and nobody will listen to you, and you can’t negotiate, the temptation is to break out by force – or at least show those eyeteeth. The trouble is, threat displays escalate. Sooner or later a bigger fist will box you and box you in.
So how to get out of the trap? Hey, I’m just the bartender here. But the customers who drink up with a smile talk as if self-esteem doesn’t have to depend on being supremely right. And another thing: they’ve learned to recognize a threat display when they see one, even if it’s disguised as a certificate or a flag. Or a kiss. Then they use their wits.
Or so they tell me.
So. What’ve you got for wits? While you think about that, maybe you’ve worked up a thirst. Glad to oblige. What’ll it be?