UC Hastings was evacuated and put on high alert last Wednesday, April 18, because a student at Berkeley's law school placed a post on an internet discussion board threatening a copycat shooting at Hastings (see Leiter's Blog). A great amount of effort is devoted to discussing the War on Terror here, and this seems like the right time to mention a few thoughts about our own homegrown terrorists.
Unless you're completely out of touch with reality or studying for law school finals, you've heard about the massacre at Virginia Tech. You may have also heard that the Virginia Tech killer, Cho Seung Hui, idolized the Columbine killers. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that the anniversary of the infamous Columbine High School murders is today, April 20 (but it might surprise you to learn that today is also Hitler's birthday). Moreover, it should not be forgotten that hovering in the background of these school shootings is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which was yesterday, April 19.
The first question we always ask is "Why?" An article written five years after the Columbine murders entitled, The Depressive and the Psychopath: At Last We Know Why The Columbine Killers Did It, seems to have a pretty reasonable explanation:
School shooters tend to act impulsively and attack the targets of their rage: students and faculty. But Harris and Klebold planned for a year and dreamed much bigger. The school served as means to a grander end, to terrorize the entire nation by attacking a symbol of American life. Their slaughter was aimed at students and teachers, but it was not motivated by resentment of them in particular. Students and teachers were just convenient quarry, what Timothy McVeigh described as "collateral damage."
The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting "the most deaths in U.S. history." Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn't just "fame" they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.
Harris and Klebold would have been dismayed that Columbine was dubbed the "worst school shooting in American history."
What about the Oklahoma City Bombing? Timothy McVeigh was supposedly attempting to avenge those who died in the government siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, exactly two years earlier. The 51-day seige on the Davidian compound by the FBI ended on April 19, 1993 when fire completely consumed the complex, killing 79 people, including 21 children and Davidian leader David Koresh. You might ask, "Why is all of this happening in April?" An article entitled, Predicted: More Copycat School Shootings, gives a few reasons:
- Most contemporary school shootings tend to occur primarily during two periods of the school year - at the beginning (late August through October) and near the the end of the academic year (March-April)...
- Copycats follow a regular temporal pattern that repeats - these could be after a primary media event in a day, a week, two weeks, a month, a year, ten years - vulnerable humans have internal media clocks...
- Copycats imitate the previous violent attacks, oftentimes down to specific details as that mirror the previous specifics of the shooter, the victims, and the methods...
- "Celebrity" events have a far-reaching impact and modeling effect - so, of course, Columbine serves as a dark cloud over many school shootings.
Honestly, I believe the best explanation for all of this can be found in the infamous manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, written by Theodore Kaczynski (AKA "Unabomber"). He sent bombs through the mail to several universities and airlines from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, killing three and wounding 23. He has an extremely high IQ and eventually earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Subsequently, he was hired as an assistant professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley, but he resigned in 1968 after only a few years on the faculty. About ten years after his resignation, he started mailing bombs to professors and individuals associated with the advancement of technology. In 1995 he sent his manifesto to several prominent newspapers (and some of his victims) and said if they published his manifesto, then he would stop his bombings. Wikipedia summarized his manifesto as follows:
The Manifesto states that the only alternative to technological subjugation is the rejection of technology and return to a life close to nature in which the "power process," a psychological need he describes as the ability to solve one's own problems and have power over one's life, is fulfilled. In technological-industrial society, Kaczynski suggests, humanity has far greater power, but humans have far less power, in that as the number of cooperating humans in any given society increases, individuals inexorably comprise tinier and tinier fractions of the decision-making population. The overwhelming need for the power process causes modern society to be filled with endlessly multiplying "surrogate activities" which are essentially meaningless, including almost everything modern humans do for business or pleasure: artistic endeavor, professional advancement, the accrual of wealth, "an excessive amount of sex", all of this activity is "artificial" because it does not satisfy any "biological needs".
Kaczynski's manifesto is a detailed explanation of his frustration and the reasons for his actions. It's not a stretch to call Kaczynski a killer on the same level as the killers responsible for the murders at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. The videos and writtings left behind by the others are not nearly as detailed, incisively introspective, or frighteningly logical as the manifesto written by Kaczynski. Could the driving motivation behind these atrocities be the killer's overwhelming frustration and a sense of powerlessness, stemming from a lose of autonomy and purpose, which is a result of a technologically advanced society?
Here is Paragraph 64 of the manifesto:
It seems that for many people, maybe the majority, these artificial forms of the power process are insufficient. A theme that appears repeatedly in the writings of the social critics of the second half of the 20th century is the sense of purposelessness that afflicts many people in modern society. (This purposelessness is often called by other names such as "anomie" or "middle-class vacuity.") We suggest that the so-called "identity crisis" is actually a search for a sense of purpose, often for commitment to a suitable surrogate activity. It may be that existentialism is in large part a response to the purposelessness of modern life. Very widespread in modern society is the search for "fulfillment." But we think that for the majority of people an activity whose main goal is fulfillment (that is, a surrogate activity) does not bring completely satisfactory fulfillment. In other words, it does not fully satisfy the need for the power process. (See paragraph 41.) That need can be fully satisfied only through activities that have some external goal, such as physical necessities, sex, love, status, revenge, etc.
Kaczynski argued that the remedy to our current existential predicament is to abandon technology (or destroy it) and live in an earlier stage of civilization, one where humans spend their time fulfilling primary goals (i.e. food, sex, shelter) instead of surrogate goals (e.g. climbing the corporate ladder, getting an 'A' on a philosophy paper, or picking out new furniture). I am probably not the right person to argue with someone that has such a high IQ but I am slightly more optimistic than Kaczynski. I don't believe it's necessary to regress to a previous state of civilization to find happiness and I also don't agree with Kaczynski's conclusion that the advancements of technology have only one possible outcome for humanity, viz. the complete loss of individual autonomy.
I do believe that technology is advancing at an ever increasing rate and I positively believe that future advancements of technology will result in greater freedom for individual humans. Moreover, the resultant increase in connectivity between humans is accelerating our understanding of not just each other but also our understanding of our place within the universe and the place of our universe within the multiverse. As a species we're standing on the precipice of a great epiphany that can only be compared to collective enlightenment, which will illuminate the "middle-class vacuity" and define new elements of the unknown. Technology will consequently render our current understandings of our purpose obsolete as we acquire a new understanding that will replace our existential purposelessness-- it will be a new concept that arises from the binary of purpose and no purpose.