October 8, 2015

Demonic Males

What if Barack Obama — once a troubled young man, by his own admission — came to see the violence problems vexing the end of his administration, as male problems? One week after Christopher Harper Mercer killed ...

What if Barack Obama — once a troubled young man, by his own admission — came to see the violence problems vexing the end of his administration, as male problems?

One week after Christopher Harper Mercer killed nine people and himself at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, we’re working toward a different viewpoint on the crisis.

And it is a crisis: a recent CRS report found that between 1999 and 2013 in America, there have been 314 mass shootings that have claimed more than 1,500 lives. As for the killer, there’s a type: 98% of them were committed by men — the average age is 28. And as violent crime drops, this kind of killing is on the rise according to research done at Harvard:


When we think about mass killings, we think of Dylann Roof’s massacre in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic killing spree in Santa Barbara. James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theater, and Adam Lanza killed 26 in an elementary school. We call them ‘loners’ living on the internet, amateur extremists. Sometimes they’re mentally ill, sometimes they’re enabled by a promiscuous gun culture akin to idolatry. (Meanwhile, there are Chicago neighborhoods with homicide rates higher than those in Honduras, the murder capital of the world.)

But what if we claimed them as sons, of our families, our country, our sex (for 49% of us), and of our species? That’s where our guest Andrew Solomon, the writer and psychologist, begins in his book, Far From The Tree. He has embedded with several of the families of mass shooters — first with Tom and Sue Klebold, then with Peter Lanza, father to the Newtown killer:

Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia, points out that many young men are asocial and unhappy, spend too much time online, become video-game addicts—but cause no harm. The few dangerous ones are impossible to identify. “Even if we knew who they were or were likely to be, whether they’d actually accept treatment is an open question. Among the hardest people to engage in treatment are young males who may be angry, suspicious, and socially isolated. Coming to a therapist’s office for an hour a week just to pour their heart out doesn’t seem like a particularly attractive opportunity, in general.”

Solomon writes up the element of mystery in the personal decision to commit violence, and still acknowledges the trends. You can hear a longer version of our conversation with him here:

The mass shooting is a distinctly American phenomenon, so much so that The Onion has made a dark, running joke of it. But the male pattern applies elsewhere: Åsne Seierstad once told us the story of Norway’s resident mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, a 33-year-old Warcraft obsessive who became the deadliest of them all one day in 2011.

Meanwhile, the average of the 9/11 hijackers was 26, Latin America is overrun by young men in gangs, and ISIS has welcomed 30,000 new recruits — mostly angry young men drawn down from Europe, Asia, and the countries of the Persian Gulf.

The primatologist Richard Wrangham will take us back to our origins, to the moment in evolutionary history when what he calls “demonic males” emerged in our hominid ancestors. We still see troops of male chimps launch bloody territorial ambushes. What should we see in that other world?

So with Solomon, Wrangham, doctor-anthropologist Melvin Konner and sociologist Michael Kimmel, we’ll ask whether the roots of our violence lie in our genes, our guns, or our guys — and what we can do to pacify the unfair sex.

June 24, 2015

Let’s Talk About Charleston

This week we talked about the young white man, Dylann Storm Roof, who — self-deputized to protect white America — gutted one of the South’s most historic black churches. His act added nine more names ...

This week we talked about the young white man, Dylann Storm Roof, who — self-deputized to protect white America — gutted one of the South’s most historic black churches.

His act added nine more names to the roll of black Americans killed in the year of Ferguson and Staten Island and Baltimore, and it re-opened a race conversation that is already a part of the 2016 presidential contest. It also recalled the terror face of American racism, in the tradition of the Ku Klux Klan and the Birmingham bombings, and a very familiar expression of anger, grief, and helplessness.

We wanted to know what it would for America to undertake the kind of urgent searching that was forced on Germany and South Africa, Rwanda and Northern Ireland? Can we have truth-and-reconciliation, American style?

Claudia Rankine, America’s poet of racial trauma in the award-winning Citizen, suggested in a moving essay this week that we emulate the mothers of the dead. Black lives matter when we mourn black deaths like family. For Rankine, racism persists in violent, public ways because well-intentioned people fail each other in private:

People have beliefs that come up when they see a body that doesn’t look like them, and it has nothing to do with the person in front of them. But the person in front of them has to receive the assault of that language and has to negotiate it. And so the next time the person has to enter that room, they have to brace for more of that. Whether or not it comes. So it becomes a third thing in the room. And this is often — you know we’re not talking about Fox News. We’re not talking about Don Imus. We’re talking about friends. We’re talking about colleagues. We’re talking about quotidian moments, like going to the grocery store, when you don’t expect that your day is going to have to include negotiating anti-black racism.

Heather Ann Thompson, a historian who spoke to us about the shadow of the Attica prison raid and the social stain of mass incarceration, told white America to step up and claim responsibility for what is done in our name each day: by police, by economics, by the political systems that we trust.

That means reckoning with the Young Men With Guns who also claim to act in our name. The war-zone journalist Åsne Seierstad spoke with us about Norway’s national confrontation with Anders Behring Breivik. Her new book about the 32-year-old fascist who killed 77 people four summers ago is called “One Of Us.” This week Americans debated whether to call Dylann Roof “a terrorist,” but — listening to Seierstad — we decided it was more important to call him “son”:

What happened in the media here in Norway, there would be words used like “monster.” The discussion also went along the lines of “he’s sick,” implying we’re healthy.” Nothing wrong with us, he’s the sick one.” Whereas, in the end, the court ruled that he was not sick. He was clinically sane. He was guilty of his crime. We had to look at him, but we also had to look at us… There’s a difference between the Left and the Right. The Left would be more inclined to say… “He didn’t grow up in a vacuum. His ideas came from something. They came from racism in the society, they came from anti-Islamic thought in the society. So we have to look at us, and how discussions are being run in the society.”

After Ferguson, after Newtown, after this week, the question echoes: what’s it take to make a change? Our guest Kwame Anthony Appiah — philosopher of cosmopolitan tolerance, against racism, and a new podcaster! — says the pain and activism of the past year gave Americans a closer-than-ever look at our violent history and our sorry selves. But, Appiah says, it will take more than sense of history — a de facto truth commission — to be be a better people. We need a sense of shame:

Our friends all around the world think that the way we are in relation to things like the mass incarceration of black people is a stain on our national character. And they find it hard to be friends with us because they see that we have allowed this thing to happen and we don’t seem to be inclined to do anything about it. [We need] to have what our founders called a “decent respect for the opinion of mankind” and to realize that a lot of what we do in the world is undermined by our failure to deal with our longstanding problem of race