After Virginia Tech: Confronting 'Gunism'

By: Robert Jay Lifton The combination of mental disease and access to guns leaps out at almost everyone in media coverage in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. But from there, ideas and advocacies, widely distributed by the press, tend to become amorphous and tinged with hopelessness.

There is consensus that something should be done to intervene earlier in threatening forms of psychological disturbance, and as a psychiatrist I agree and also recognize some of the social obstacles to doing so. But while there will always be mentally ill people, a few of them violent, it is a gun-centered cultural disease that converts mental illness into massacre.

Indeed, I would claim that a gun is not just a lethal device but a psychological actor in this terrible drama.

Guns and ammunition were at the heart of Cho?s elaborate orchestration of the event and of his Rambo-like self-presentation to the world, at least in the images sent to NBC. When you look at those pictures, you understand how a gun can merge so fully with a person that a man who makes regular use of it could (in the historical Wild West and in Hollywood) become known as ?a gun."

Some years ago, the distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter told me that, after a lifetime of studying American culture, what he found most deeply troubling was our country?s inability to come to terms with the gun?which in turn strongly affected domestic and international attitudes. Emotions of extreme attachment to and even sacralization of the gun pervade American society, and commercial interests shamelessly manipulate these emotions to produce wildly self-destructive policies.

In many parts of the country, the mainstream press joins in this promotion or, at least, remains silent in the face of it.

Much has been said, with considerable truth, about the role of the frontier in bringing about this psychological condition. I would go further and suggest that American society, and the media, in the absence of an encompassing and stable traditional culture ? we are a very young country, after all -- embraced the gun as a substitute for that absence, and created a vast cultural ideology we can call ?gunism.?

Paradoxically, this highly destabilizing object became viewed by the press and public as a baseline and an icon that could somehow sustain us in a new form of nontraditional society. That new society was to be democratic and egalitarian, so that the gun could both be an ?equalizer,? as it is sometimes known, and also a solution to various social problems.

That idea of the gun as ultimate solution reached a kind of mad absurdity in Newt Gingrich?s recent suggestion that university killings be prevented by having students carrying hidden guns into classrooms. The gun ? multiplied into massive firepower -- as ultimate solution has also played a significant role in American military misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq, and in our attitudes toward nuclear weapons (as gigantic ?guns?).

With a problem so deep-seated, it is no wonder that suggestions of changing gun policies expressed in newspaper editorials and by certain columnists, have been so readily dismissed as ?an old story? (which unfortunately they are), as politically unfeasible, and as generally useless. But even deep-seated cultural patterns can be altered, and there is considerable support for altering this one.

Indeed, America is a country in which change itself is a dominant cultural pattern. We need to make quick, small changes and slower, more fundamental ones. But to do that, we require a diagnosis, both within and outside the media, of our cultural disease.


Related E&P column by Chuck Klein: Guns Are Back in the News: Here's a Handy Guide


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