Bruno Bettelheim, the Jewish psychologist imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during the 1930s, once observed that, after a few months of capricious and unpredictable cruelty, he no longer wondered why this or that guard acted the way he did. What became important, he said, was what he did, not why he did it. In the absence of insight, only the act mattered.
In the current horrific epidemic of attacks against “others” — and make no mistake; it is an epidemic — I notice a similar dearth of questions about the motivations of the butchers involved. Almost all have been disgruntled “white supremacists,” and their targets have been (you will recall) an Islamic Center in Quebec, a Jewish Center, a Sikh temple (the shooter erroneously thought it was Muslim), an African-American Christian church, a synagogue and now a mosque.
Very few pundits are touching the third rail of American policy: the ready accessibility of military-style weapons designed primarily to kill and maim as many human beings as possible in the shortest time. And, unless our domestic federal agencies are keeping it a secret, we’re doing little to cure the infection of internet-fueled white supremacism. It almost seems that we onlookers have been cowed into silence.
I could never get my deaf father, when he was alive, to open email or the internet to chat with his increasingly computer-savvy friends and parishioners; he stuck with snail mail and his TTY, intimating he suspected that Satan and his minions lurked in cyberspace. I remember saying, “Actually, the devil is in everything, Dad. He’s just more accessible online,” to no avail; he wouldn’t do it.
But in a way he was right. The virus of white supremacism is spread most rapidly on the internet. Disaffected white guys (mostly loners) find solace and support in websites dedicated to the subject. Irresponsible leaders of nations fan smoldering fear and resentment into flame; fast-firing, high-capacity weapons feed fantasies of power; and online praise for past terrorist attacks encourages the weak of mind.
One reason we’re not asking more questions about where this homicidal insanity comes from may be that we already know, and the way things stand, fear there’s little we can do about it. When women’s liberation became a news item some years ago, for example, spousal abuse increased markedly. Folks who feel threatened by circumstances often lash out. It’s not complicated.
First of all, the designation “white” is headed for minority. Our white population is aging, and among children younger than 10, is already in the minority. There are dozens of articles on the subject, but the fact is something many old white guys have difficulty living with. They blame immigration, blame the government, blame the United Nations, blame liberals “soft on illegals,” blame religions exotic to them. But the important thing is that they blame. Which means they fancy something should be done about it.
It’s interesting to read “The Great Replacement Theory” (Google it), which predicts — darkly — the overwhelming, ruinous influence of non-European, non-white, non-Christian immigrants. And it’s not at all hard to see how a poorly educated habitué of the internet might be radicalized by it into violent action.
The second factor inflaming retrograde authoritarians is the collapse, either actual or imminent, of the historical patriarchy. Men no longer rule the domestic roost, as they (thought they) did only 50 years ago. You can see it in popular culture: Television-show fathers are often depicted as benevolent bumblers. That tide is rising even in the Near East, where an Iranian lawyer and activist named Nasrin Sotoudeh was just sentenced to 38 years in prison for advising women to doff their hijabs. In Saudi Arabia, women drivers are harassed, in spite of new laws. These are not intelligent or sustainable ways forward.
Finally, besides drowning in a sea of others and suffering loss of authority once based purely on a chromosome, many men note the current phenomenon of citizens once safely under their thumbs rising to prominence. From Hillary Clinton to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, women are — often none too politely — demanding their share of governance. That my own demographic (old white guys) finds this existentially threatening is evidenced by the hundreds of hateful posts and personal attacks online. Still, the old order is changing, and no amount of vituperation is even going to slow it down. Rather, the contrary.
Meanwhile, in the imaginations of essentially lonely — and thus uncorrected — would-be champions of civilization germinate deadly seeds of retributive justice. This will diminish in time. The question is, can we wait that long? What can we do about it now? The answers may not be politically correct, but somehow the resort to fantasy and the means of correction of perceived wrongs must both be curbed.
Willem Lange lives in East Montpelier.