Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Rage against the Elite

In Alexandria, Virginia, a man described as an "eccentric history buff " has been convicted of three murders stretching back a decade. Charles Severance was a sort of archetypal lunatic, with wild hair, a long beard, and a perpetual angry glare. I was struck by the prosecutors' account of his killing rage:
Prosecutors have alleged that Severance was motivated to kill by a child-custody dispute that went against him and a general hatred for those he considered Alexandria’s elites. Their most convincing piece of evidence might be Severance’s writings, seized from his car and through various electronic means.

In one document, Severance wrote, “Knock. Talk. Enter. Kill. Exit. Murder” — an apparently perverted version of a biblical parable that prosecutors have argued seems to describe the crimes to a T. All of the victims were shot in brazen, daylight attacks at their homes, and prosecutors have said Severance might have simply gone to their well-to-do neighborhoods and picked them at random. . . .

In other documents Severance wrote: “The last scream of a victim echoes to eternity.” And “Murder on my mind, and my mind on murder.”
Twenty years ago I worked briefly with a man who had a similar rage against the rich, focused mainly on the upscale suburbanites who were moving into his formerly rural part of Loudoun County. I once saw him fly into a rage over the sight of a new car with classical music playing from the radio.

This sets me wondering why this sort of thing doesn't happen more often. Why don't more laid off workers go after their former bosses with guns blazing? Instead of protesting gentrification, why don't people defend their neighborhoods with vandalism and arson? Alexandria has been one of the major foci of gentrification in greater Washington, and there is now very little room left there for poor folks, so I would be willing to bet that Severance often found willing hearers for his rants. And yet he was the only one who reacted with deadly violence.

That such outbursts are so rare must be telling us something about our society. For all the rage that we hear around us -- at political rallies, in music, in movies --  most of us are committed to our society and its rules. By and large, we accept its terms and follow its laws. The people who act out violently are pretty much all crazy. This, I submit, might be the definition of a stable society -- that its legitimacy is accepted by the sane people, so that to defy it with violence is almost by definition a crazy act.

On the other hand it might be the definition of a very effectively repressed society; one doesn't hear much about violent rebellion in North Korea, either. But somehow I don't think that is really the situation here.

The real danger of far right paranoia in America has always been that it might break this compact and legitimize violent rebellion by sane, productive citizens. As we had with the Klan for so many years, and briefly with far left rebels back around 1970. The little revolt spurred by the defiance of rancher Cliven Bundy hinted at what might be possible. So far, though, I see little sign of this; for the most part people who say they think Obama is a tyrant still act like his government is legitimate. All the people I read about who think the IRS is a terrorist group and what-all seem crazy to me. When I start to read about outright defiance from people who strike me as sane, then I will start to worry.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

The people who compare Obama to Hitler and whatnot are simply being sensationalists - they know that the more overblown their howling is, the more press and attention they receive for their own platforms. They don't really believe what they're saying and neither does their audience. It's all just a perverse, dischordant song and dance.

But the problem is that this creates an atmosphere of constant negativity and hyperbole which sane people can recognize as rhetoric and (for the most part) don't truly take seriously, but which the mentally ill actually fully believe as true.

The trouble with our society is that although in general everything works, we don't do nearly enough to compensate for the areas where the system breaks down - in particular, preventing and dealing with mental sickness. Time and again, our worst killers and criminals have been shown to almost universally be mentally ill, and their deeds could have been prevented if only they could have been identified and treated beforehand.

But our mental health system is woefully inadequate, and our prevention systems are essentially non-existant. Being poor in America can be pretty miserable, and there's not a lot in play to prevent that misery turning into sickness. A lot of people don't have much in the way of either government assistance or even simple community to fall back on. They don't know their neighbors, they hate their job and their coworkers, and they can barely stand their dysfunctional family members. When misfortune strikes, they have nowhere to turn, nothing they can rely on, and no real option but to suffer through it the best they can on their own.

I have to wonder if perhaps we don't see more violent outbursts simply because people feel hopeless and powerless to change things. Sure, you could grab a gun and shoot your boss, but nothing would change. Even if you somehow got away clean, you'd just end up with a new boss.

Maybe the truth is that no single person can produce any impactful change on the system, and our extant culture is very effective at isolating discontented individuals and preventing them from grouping together to the extent that they become dangerous to the status quo. Maybe that's why voter turnout is so poor, and why our politics are more about like minded people entertaining and commiserating themselves than about producing meaningful changes.