Why Are There So Many Mass Shootings Today?

Hannah Arendt predicted that violence and social unrest would surge in a modern age that deprived humans of the ability to act.

Jon Miltimore | October 2, 2017

Hannah Arendt predicted that violence and social unrest would surge in a modern age that deprived humans of the ability to act.
Why Are There So Many Mass Shootings Today?

On Oct. 1, 2017, a 64-year-old man named Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing at least 58 people and injuring some 515 more.

Paddock, who had no previous criminal record, then turned one of his weapons on himself, reports say. It was the largest domestic mass shooting in U.S. history. Authorities have not yet identified a motive.

Paddock’s case has become all too familiar. The FBI has confirmed that mass shootings are on the rise, and statistics bear this out. According to Mother Jones, which tracks mass shootings (an attack involving four or more people killed indiscriminately in a public place), there have been seven mass shootings so far in 2017.

This figure is slightly higher than the annual average between 2012 and 2016 (5.8), a figure that, in turn, is nearly three times the annual average (2.0) from 2000 to 2011. As an additional point of reference, during the entire decade of the 1980s there were eight mass shootings, according to Mother Jones.

There is no shortage of theories attempting to explain the surge of violence. These theories include the large number of firearms in the U.S., “the collapse” of the American dream, a lack of mental health resources, violent movies, graphic video games, and many others.

One theory I have not seen posited is an idea proposed by the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Arendt, a German-American political theorist who wrote extensively on totalitarianism, predicted that modern society would see a surge of domestic violence and social unrest.

Few humans have better understood power and the psychology of violence than Arendt. Widely considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers, she escaped Germany during the Holocaust and found refuge in America, where she became a visiting scholar at some of America’s finest academic institutions, and was Princeton’s first female lecturer.  

In her classic work On Violence, Arendt discussed the ideas of power and violence at length. She begins her essay by quoting Voltaire, who said power essentially “consists in making others act as I choose.” If such a definition is true, and “if the essence of power is the effectiveness of command, then there is no greater power than that which grows out of the barrel of a gun,” she says.

But Arendt qualifed that power and violence are two very different things. In fact, she said they are diametrically opposed:

“…politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.”

True power, Arendt says, doesn’t require violence. It belongs to a group (never an individual) and it remains so long as the group stays together and can exert its will. Violence, on the other hand, is an instrument. It’s most often employed by those who lack power (a ruffian on a dark street) or by a group that feels power slipping away.

If Arendt is correct, violence is an instrument most likely to be used by those who lack power and feel powerless. And this is where she critiqued modern society.

Arendt believed that modern states had become “bogged down under the monstrous weight of their own bigness.” She saw that the bigger a state grew, the more need there was for an administrative apparatus to allow it to function. The bureaucratization of society sounds more mundane than oppressive, but Arendt saw it as an insidious and smothering force that resulted in a sort of faceless tyranny.

“…bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.”

Humans are by nature political creatures, Arendt understood. She believed the bureaucratization of society robs man of a fundamental human need: the ability to take action.

“What makes man a political being is his faculty to act,” she wrote in her 1969 essay Reflections on Violence. “And I think it can be shown that no other human ability has suffered to such an extent by the Progress of the modern age.”

And it's here where she arrives at the correlation between bureacracy and violence:

“The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”

Now, one might argue that perhaps Arendt was speaking primarily of political violence. That's certainly possible (though unclear). But in any event there is a psychological aspect to consider.

If Arendt is right that 1) violence is perpetuated primarily by those who lack power; and 2) the bureaucratization of society deprives people of the ability to act, making them feel powerless; then it stands to reason that some individuals who lack power may be seeking to feel powerful through violence. As Arendt noted, in its traditional understanding “there is no greater power than that which grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

A mass shooting is only one form of violence, of course. But is there some truth in Arendt's larger thesis? Will we witness increased social unrest and violence as societies become increasingly bureaucratized and humans are deprived of "the faculty of action"?



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