I’ve put off writing about the shooting of Congressor Steve Scalise and others — apart from the stray comment on social media — but it happened at the intersection of several of my interests and I don’t think most people are quite processing it fully. Where others might want to toss it in the ‘crazy shit’ box and move on, I want to unpack it and get a better look.
Not a tragedy
I have seen the shooting described as a tragedy. Matter of fact, the Virginia Democrats sent out an email describing it as a “terrible tragedy”. Of course, I do not condone the shooting, but it was hardly a tragedy. A tragedy is an event that happens despite our best efforts. This happened because of the GOP’s best efforts. Our understanding of the event has to acknowledge that fact.
There is a pretty clear causal logic here: the GOP has long argued that an expansive read of the Second Amendment is justified because guns are necessary to protect against tyranny. Their threshold for tyranny is low enough to include the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, so it should not be surprising that when the GOP took control of the government and began a program of extraordinary peril to broad swathes of public, some people then viewed those policies as a form of tyranny. And the GOP has been nothing but clear on this point: if you see tyranny, you should take up arms to fight it.
I say this not to endorse the shooting, but simply to say that it is evidence that the system is working as intended. No doubt that intention was based in part on a prejudice that no liberal snowflake would ever have the backbone to pull the trigger. Now that they see they are wrong, GOP legislators are scrambling to reconcile their platform with the now-obvious threat. Mo Brooks, bless his heart, cedes not an inch of ground.
“What we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly,” the Alabama congressman told reporters when pressed on whether he was reconsidering his position on gun control.
He scores points for logical consistency, but the obvious flaw in his argument is that he is no longer in a position to decide what counts as ‘proper’. Brooks wants to cast his party as a defender of rights, but rights are always asserted against the government — which his party now unfortunately controls. A tyrannical government will almost never see itself as tyrannical, and will always see anti-tyranny as improper.
Other GOP legislators are taking the obvious tack, and blaming the shooting on mental illness:
“I don’t see this as gun control issue,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who leads the archconservative House Freedom Caucus, said. “I think to default to that would be a missed opportunity […] ultimately to understand that the mental health component is an important thing for us to address.”
No points awarded here: it is far less brave and honest than Brooks’s view. Again, the problem is that the GOP endorses armed resistance against tyranny, but is in no position to define legitimate resistance. While it would be terribly convenient to their platform if the shooter were mentally ill, that only disqualifies the shooter’s political agenda if he was too mentally ill to vote — which we know was not the case.
Mental illness as effect
So far so good — I think many people inclined to read this far will readily agree with most of what I have written. But it’s worse than you think. For starters, the mental illness argument seems to be intended to delegitimize any opposition to the GOP — as if the shooter was himself incarnate all that is wrong with the left — while absolving the GOP of any responsibility for the shooting.
But the presumption that mental illness arises for reasons specific to the person, some genetic defect or family history, neglects the extent to which mental illness is a response to violence, particularly violence condoned or performed by the government. Look at how people of color talk about their experience of white supremacy: more and more, they are using language that echoes psychological and psychiatric clinical descriptions of mental illness. They talk about anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, PTSD — not because they were born that way, but because they were born into a society that does them profound violence. Now ask: how is it not mental illness that so many white people are inured and insensate to the violence against colored people? I will come back to that question in a moment.
To spell it out: our government’s policies are violent enough to affect the mental health of many of the people hurt by those policies. It is nonsense for the government to then accuse those people of mental illness as if that invalidates their concerns. When some of these people turn violent, attempting to focus on treatment of mental illness is saying nothing more useful than, “Let’s make society safe for unlimited government violence”. That’s bass-ackwards and also not going to be particularly effective. So, yeah: it’s entirely possible for most people on the left to be mentally ill, because mental illness is how normal, healthy brains sometimes respond to violence.
Violence as cause
To understand government violence properly, we need a better understanding of violence generally. When we say something is violence, what does that mean? A rough notion is that it causes people harm — but then we need a definition of ‘harm’, and it ends up being very turtlesy most of the way down.
When I was in grad school, I got the bright idea to try to rewrite a famous paper in political science by focusing on violence, instead of the economic uncertainty in the original. I thought the author was ignoring some deep violence in his argument, and that it made more sense to look at the violence. That meant I had to find a good scholarly definition of violence, and it turns out there is really only one in English-language scholarship.
That definition comes from a guy named Johan Galtung, who defined violence as the deliberate reduction in potential being of another person (I’m paraphrasing). If this seems obscure, it might help to ask why psychological abuse of children counts as violence: the answer, per Galtung, is that it wrecks the child’s power to imagine herself as something else, as some potential other, better person. It limits who that child can be. Violence as ‘reduction in being’ turned out to be very powerful tool for Galtung, because it allowed him to talk about all kinds of violence — structural, systemic, latent, etc. — other than the plain physical forms that most readily come to mind.
One of the most shattering things I read in in this project was a discussion of the Columbine school shooting by Willem Schinkel, in his Aspects of Violence. Drawing heavily from Galtung, Schinkel talks about the environment that the shooters grew up in — the extreme uniformity of it, even outside of the oppressive conformity of high school. This, he says, gave them very little by way of potential — the rigidity of their social context was a form of violence, and gave them very few options. Gun violence was one of their few options, one of the few models they had for other ways of being.
That’s not to excuse the shootings, but simply to say: violence rarely comes from nowhere. It is no coincidence that schools are the site of so many shootings: schools are most people’s first and most intensive experience of government control over their lives. In most schools, that control ranges from unpleasant to suffocating. Schools often limit their students’ potential being, as much as they expand it.
I know full well there are many great teachers in our schools and nearly all of them want what’s best for their students. But the system itself is one of structural violence against many students. Every time a school is strapped for cash, that’s a class that can’t be offered or an extracurricular that gets shut down, and some kid sees a little part of their possible self die.
To come back to my theme: if that first, intense experience with government is positive, you are more likely to be an active citizen and to think of government in a favorable way. No wonder the GOP hates public schools: starve the schools and you can raise a generation of citizens who think government is a trainwreck. The collateral damage is that one in a million of those citizens is going to be so broken — some even before they graduate — that they gun up and shoot a bunch of kids. As fervently as I support gun control, I know it still won’t fully address the actual cause of the violence.
Violence as a system
The paper I wrote — Violence and International Relations — was such a success that it became my dissertation topic. At the same time, I encountered baffling pushback from classmates and teachers. It very slowly dawned on me that maybe the reason we didn’t talk about violence in my classes was that we were part of the problem. American academia is very much part of the American establishment, built on a vast complex of structural and systemic violence. My professors had zero incentive to confront that violence, so they put my ass on the street.
One of the ways the system sustains itself is that we are conditioned to think of government violence as okey-dokey. This shows up in political science and in the public at large as an unwillingness to name government violence as violence. One of my committee members actually told me that capital punishment was not ‘violence’, because they are convicted first. He has a job. I don’t. And when Gabriel Giffords was shot, a highly respected political scientist wrote a blog post titled, “On the Rarity of Political Violence” — as if the United States didn’t execute and imprison more people than any other country in the world.
For the Scalise shooting, there’s this Charlie Pierce article, “When White People Realize American Politics Are Violent”, which manages to avoid naming a single violent thing that the American government does to its own people. Slavery is violent and political. Mass incarceration is violent and political. Police killings are violent and political. I honestly don’t understand how this is difficult: anything the state does is political, so any violence the state commits is political. It’s way less abstract than 2 + 2 = 4.
And so far, I have mostly talked about the violence that the government does to American bodies. I have said nothing about the extensive violence our government does to a vast horizon of potential being. If your view of yourself includes a possibility of getting married, and the government says you can’t, that is violence against you. The fight for gay marriage was a fight against government violence. Likewise, when the government watched as the 2008 recession wiped out people’s savings and left them homeless, but then bailed out the banks that were repossessing their houses — that was a form of violence. How much less potential did those lives have in 2010 than they did in 2007? You can only just begin to measure it in trillions of dollars. I end up agreeing vigorously with this guy:
“I’m never surprised by mass shootings in America. Considering how brutalized and under pressure most people are and how easy it is to get guns, I’m surprised every day there ISN’T a mass shooting.”
Unlike Europe, the civilizing process is incomplete in the United States, and there’s lots of historical and contingent reasons that mostly boil down to our original sin, slavery. As a result, we still have lots and lots of violence, and that violence is the main thing wrong with our country. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, ageism — name a thing wrong with American society, and you will find it comes to ground in government violence, whether sanctioned or performed. The American government. Our government. If that seems hard to believe, I strongly encourage you to ponder why the Scalise shooting seems so awful and the things the government does — from no better motive — are okay. The answer might be that you are so dependent on the illusory security the state provides — like any capitalist enterprise, it spends a lot time trying to convince you that you have wants and needs you don’t actually have — so dependent that you are inured even to the violence it causes to you, as well as others. I know I was.
And yes, I left grad school with an extremely dim view of the American state. (I also, for what it’s worth, picked up some robust mental illness — anxiety, depression — along the way.) But it’s not all doom and gloom! I am pretty sure I found a solution — the solution. I said earlier that government violence can make people mentally ill, implying that government policies can have profound, even organic effects on people’s brains. Well, if the potential is there for harm, it is also there for good. Stephen Pinker wrote a whole book arguing that the historical decrease in human violence is due to the fact that political development shapes peoples minds for better. Politics can make violence unthinkable. And Pinker is a psychologist. Or a neurologist. Or a linguist? (I’m too lazy to google it.) Point being: this is a pretty amazing claim from a leading student of the mind.
Pinker’s argument hinges mightily on the work of German sociologist Norbert Elias, specifically his work on the ‘civilizing’ process. Loyal readers will know I am a big fan of Elias, and his work was a cornerstone of my proposed dissertation. The short version is that as the modern state formed in late medieval Europe, the rulers of those states began to centralize their power by demanding better and better behavior from their subordinates, as a way to control them. This included routine rules like not raping and murdering as much, but also things like what forks to use on what dishes and what sorts of foods were acceptable and what to wear and when and where to poop. Most of what we considered ‘civilized’ behavior in the West dates back to this period, and it turns out that all these rules taught people better control over their impulses, especially when those impulses were violent. For most of us, we don’t kill people not because it’s against the law; we don’t kill people because it’s just simply not done.
What Elias did not predict and Pinker missed is that state violence is also decreasing, and has been for a hundred years or so. That sounds bonkers in a bracket that includes WWII, but consider that slavery was mostly abolished, capital punishment is nearly abolished, torture was almost abolished, and conscription is less and less common. Human and civil rights — the exact opposite of state violence — are more widely credible and more widely observed. Neither Pinker nor Elias can explain that decline: there’s nothing in the civilizing process that suggests states should relinquish their power to enslave, kill, torture, or conscript.
My argument — and I’m pretty sure it’s correct — is that as people became more and more civilized, they came to expect that same good behavior from their leaders. This was especially true in democracies, for obvious reasons, but even true in less-than-democratic societies. Even most authoritarians can’t quite gin up medieval levels of violence (Bashar Al Assad might be a glaring exception). I called this the ‘civilizing trap’ because it’s more important in academia to have good names for your ideas than it is to have good ideas. But I got the boot before I could do the research to confirm it. Why would the establishment not want to see that question explored? I don’t know, it’s not my problem any more.
My sense is that the GOP’s agenda has it exactly backwards: they believe that private political violence is the best check on government political violence, but these are the same people who cheered loudly when Trump promised to bring back torture. So not only do they lack the capacity to recognize meaningful state violence, they are pursuing an agenda that guarantees more private violence as well. Not that the shooting of Scalise was their fault, but c’mon: what did you expect? There is zero evidence that a well-armed society leads to less government violence. There are, on the other hand, tons of evidence that the only consistent means to reduce government violence is the disapproval of the public expressed in social norms and laws. We can literally think the guns away.
Responding to violence
So what does that mean for us, who got this far? Three things: first, we have to be eyes-wide-open in our view of state violence. We cannot let ourselves be accustomed or inured to it, and we must resist it as much as possible. The men with guns are there to diminish you, more than protect you. It’s not a matter of voting for the lesser of two evils: both parties, in this century and before, have been vigorous champions of the state’s capacity for violence. We hardly even talk about it, except as it pertains to “issues”. But violence is the issue. Government violence is the issue. We need to press that in public and popular discourse. Unfortunately for the current trajectory of the left, that means not getting too caught up in the lines between racism and sexism and classism and so on, but seeing that beneath them all is the violence of the state. It is this violence that we must stop — that we must make unthinkable, if we are to survive.
Second, we can’t get distracted by the more dramatic but far less consequential violence of regular folks, mentally ill or not. We have to focus on reducing state political violence, as a cause of private political violence. The guy who shot Steve Scalise was nothing against the awesome violence of the American state, which asserted an infinitesmal fraction of its power by shooting him dead right back. Again, that’s not to condone what he did. But in the bigger picture, it just doesn’t matter compared to government violence, and solving the government violence problem will go a hell of a long way towards solving the private violence problem.
Third, and this part may be hard to ponder: there may be a time constraint in this project. Our political apparatus was not designed for the tensions our society suffers, and they may pull that machine apart sooner than most people imagine. You can already see the cracks, and there are people who believe the Scalise shooting was the first shot in a civil war. I don’t know that I agree, but if that war is coming, the only way to prevent it — and to prevent the left from losing it, because we will definitely lose a shooting war — is to make violence unacceptable and unthinkable.
More immediately, my guess is that we will see more shootings of elected officials, and these will be used to justify new policies of violence — of drastic curtailment of our rights — by the government. We must not accept the narrative that these shootings are somehow our fault, that we must suffer for them. The government — those in government — must accept and account for its own role in the proliferation and promotion of violence.