I have tried to be cautious about making pronouncements concerning events in the news, but the recent mass murder in Oregon deserves attention because of the proclaimed linkage of this atrocity with the apparent mental illness of the killer. The gunman, whom the authorities are reluctant to name for fear of giving him a sort warped celebrity, appears to have been a disaffected loner whose inner life was dominated by visions of wanton slaughter before he decided to act out his fantasy. Authorities, journalists and even Presidential candidates have been quick to identify mental illness as a contributing cause of the rampage, as only a madman would ever dream of committing such a horrible crime. It does seem obvious that the murderer was seriously disturbed, for his crime was as senseless as it was dreadful. Even so, it is impossible to say exactly what mental illness he was he suffering from, as no one, not even the members of his family, knew what he was feeling and thinking before he went out on his spree of murder. Still, although any diagnosis can only be speculative, I suspect we will be hearing many opinions from experts who will lend scientific authority to the widespread belief that the killer was indeed suffering from a mental illness. Such discussions will hardly be constructive or enlightening, however, if they only address the mental condition of the killer and say nothing about the legal and social contexts which made the crime possible. But only by looking at the atrocity from these perspectives can there be any hope of understanding it and preventing other such incidents in the future. By demanding consideration of these factors, I am not attempting to excuse the murderer or suggest that he was not seriously disturbed. But a society that continues to make guns easily available to anyone after repeated incidents of mass murder can hardly pretend to bear no responsibility for the slaughter. Unfortunately, it is also easy to foresee that those deemed mentally ill will suffer unfair suspicion because of the actions of a few individuals with whom they may have nothing in common except for a psychiatric diagnosis. Because a psychiatric label might seem to offer insight into the mind of the killer, entirely innocent people may become scapegoats for crimes for which society itself deserves much of the blame. Meanwhile, a far greater psychopathology escapes the scrutiny it deserves.
The madness begins with laws that allow dangerous firearms to be so widely available. The US enshrines the right to own and bear arms in the Second Amendment of the Constitution. This provision was originally intended to give citizens a measure of protection against the possibility of state tyranny. Since then, however, the idea that guns are basic and necessary instruments for protecting individual liberty has become one of the unchallengeable convictions of the American Right. There is also a certain shameless defiance in this belief in the sanctity of gun ownership which was exemplified by Governor Rick Perry of Texas who, after the Sandy Hook Primary School massacre in Connecticut, invited gun manufacturers from that state to relocate to Texas where they would be more warmly welcomed. Of course, gun makers themselves do all they can to further their interests by pushing a fanatically extreme interpretation of Second Amendment rights, chiefly through the National Rifle Association, a powerful lobbying group that categorically opposes any restrictions on the right to own firearms. In some states such as Texas, every adult, no matter what his background or criminal history, is free to buy a gun with no questions asked. Readers who are not American may not fully appreciate the number of homicides that occur in the US, even excluding the wholesale murders that are committed by mass murderers on rampages (in fact, these count for a very small percentage of total gun deaths). But comparisons help to throw light on the matter. In 2013, there were 537 murders committed in the UK, which may seem an appallingly high number. But in the same year in the US there were over 14,000 murders. Texas alone contributed 1133 murders to the total count (California, however, came first among US states with 1745). Appalling as these numbers are, no less sickening are some of the individual circumstances of deaths caused by guns. In this week's news, for example, there is a report out of Tennessee about the killing of an eight year old girl by an eleven year old boy. He is alleged to have shot her because she refused to show him her puppies. Yet in spite of many such incidents and the staggeringly high number of homicides in the country, the NRA continues to maintain that gun ownership is the best defence against crime. In truth, the NRA's influence in Congress should be regarded as a crime in itself.
Fortunately, Great Britain does not suffer the infatuation with guns that America does. But even without easy access to firearms, horrifying rampages such as the massacre in Dunblane still happen here, even if they are not nearly as frequent as on the other side of the Atlantic. So why do some people act out their violent fantasies? This raises psychological and social questions, rather than legal and political ones. But as I said before, getting into the mind of a mass murderer without knowing much about him strikes me as a dubious undertaking. What is more open to general consideration is how violence and murder as represented in such popular entertainments as television, movies and video games might contribute to the fantasy life of a killer. This is an old debate that still divides opinion among social scientists, but from a Buddhist perspective there really is no argument. The law of karma asserts that the cultivation of any attitude, be it harmful or benign, produces consequences that will follow accordingly, if not entirely predictably. This does not, of course, mean that every kid who plays Grand Theft Auto will go on to become a violent criminal, as other factors will usually counteract the urge to violence that such entertainments foment. Much the same dynamic can be observed in violent pornography. Although most men who view violent porn do not become sex offenders, a susceptible minority of them find it a powerful stimulus to sexual assault. But even when an unskilful intention does not lead to an actual crime, Buddhism would still insist that intentionally arousing any harmful passion in order to take pleasure in it is to perpetuate a chain of negative karma, even if the agent has no awareness of being enchained and suffers no immediate consequences from his actions. Moreover, this is not a solitary matter that only affects the person who carries a particular karmic disposition. Karma can spread to others like shared good fortune or a contagious disease. And though it depends on causes and conditions that are not easily analysed, karma presents experience as an apparent destiny beyond which we struggle to see. For karma creates the world and assigns a place in it to each of us; or rather, it appears to, for karma is the fabric from of which all our illusions are woven.
The idea of shared karma may be particularly illuminating for a crime such as mass murder. While a mass killer is probably acting out of blind hatred for people he might not know at all, beneath that emotion there is almost certainly a great deal of fear. Moreover, it may not be particularly personal fear, but may have more to do with a social climate in which fear predominates. I remember once going to a sporting goods store in Texas to buy some camping equipment. I was astonished to see how many customers there were at the gun counter, all looking to purchase powerful handguns. These were not guns made for sport; they were made to kill people. So just who did these gun buyers expect to shoot? Governor Perry is worth quoting here. "When a criminal breaks into your home, I'll let the liberals call the lawyer. I'm going to call [the American gun maker] Smith and Wesson." Perry, then, has more faith in guns as a source of security than in the rule of law. Nor is he alone among American politicians in holding such a view. Recently, the billionaire Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump, expressed his views on the mass murder in Oregon. Noting that "there are a lot of sick people out there", Trump suggested that if the teachers at the community college where the massacre occurred had been armed "[they] would have been a helluva lot better off." Another Republican candidate, Ben Carson, said that he wouldn't have stood by idly when the gunman was going on his rampage. Presumably, he would have been packing his Smith and Wesson. At present, Carson and Trump are the leading contenders for the Republican nomination. Although Trump, Carson and Perry would not be diagnosed as mentally ill (though perhaps Trump would score high on a test for narcissistic personality disorder), they are seriously deluded in believing that the unrestricted use of fire arms will make people safer. And for people who are desperately insecure to begin with, the wildly irrational beliefs of powerful public figures who make laws and influence public attitudes will have a particularly toxic effect. When powerful people proclaim that having a gun and being ready to use it should be regarded as responsible citizenship, especially in a popular culture which celebrates violence as a means of resolving conflict, small wonder that both murder and mass murder have become routine occurrences. The idea then that horrors such as the Oregon massacre are due solely to the individual pathologies of a few "sick people out there"is to overlook the social context of the massacre. Seen from that perspective, it was far more normal than people realise.