March 21, 2012 · 5 Comments
By Marie Burns:
I should be writing about Ross Douthat’s enthusiasm for a new and improved way to kill off poor old Americans, but I am haunted today not by Douthat’s inner demons and homicidal tendencies, but by David Brooks’. In his New York Times column yesterday, Our Mister Brooks – the purported Mr. Milquetoast of his generation – all but reveals that he is more Jekyll and Hyde than Milquetoast. After detailing the homicidal fantasies of college students, Brooks confesses that “we’re natural-born killers.” I am assuming the “we” in that declarative sentence is neither the editorial nor the royal “we,” but the literal you-and-I “we,” or to further parse – “I, David Brooks, am a natural-born killer.” Brooks adds, “… even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder.” (Brooks’ capacity for murder was not what I had in mind when, based on the report of a friend of mine, I described Brooks as “a good neighbor.” Sorry, can’t find the link.)
Still, delving into Brooks’ heart of darkness may not be the most disturbing part of his column. For one thing, it is safe to assume that Our Mister Brooks has too much to lose to ever allow his inner berserk to escape and send him rampaging through his tree-lined neighborhood with hand-grenades and an automatic rifle. Besides, Brooks possesses a range of sublimatory tools to which he can transfer his god-given aggressive impulses: his twice-weekly column, his weekly television and personal appearances, his books, his Krugman voodoo doll.
No, what is really rattling about Brooks’ column is the list of rationales he finds to explain mass murder, each of them creepier than the next. As is rather typical of Brooks, he bases his entire column on a false assumption. This assumption is that good people do bad things; the title of his essay is “When the Good Do Bad.” Here’s the set-up: “Friends of Robert Bales, who is accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians…, describe him as caring, gregarious and self-confident before he – in the vague metaphor of common usage – apparently ‘snapped.’”
But in the Times story on which Brooks bases his premise, the friends who described “our Bobby” were neighbors who knew him two decades ago. The story goes on to recount a number of problems Bales has had over the years, problems that to any layperson suggest – if they don’t prove – that Bales was impulsive, had “anger management” issues, had serious, long-term, systemic financial difficulties, had medical problems – one of which was brain damage – and had other personal problems, including likely beefs with the military. A story in yesterday’s Washington Post indicates that more than a decade ago Bales was accused of perpetrating a large financial fraud against an elderly client whose finances Bales was supposed to be managing. An arbitrator ordered Bales and his firm to repay the client $1.4 million dollars; the victim says he has not received a penny of the judgment. Obviously, some of the information that suggests Bales was on a long, downward spiral may be inaccurate, but the early reporting is not that Bales “apparently ‘snapped,’ as Brooks asserts. I would not judge Bales as either a “good person” or a “bad person,” but I will suggest that Bales’ alleged actions in Afghanistan are not a completely inexplicable or uncharacteristic anomaly.
Now to Brooks’ “analysis” of his apparently false assumption. Brooks is disdainful of what he describes as the prevalent worldview that “people are naturally good, because nature is good…. This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves.” I suppose there are some simpletons – perhaps of the religious fundamentalist persuasion – who place a value judgment on “nature,” but I don’t know any of those simpletons. By definition, nature is; it is not “good” or “evil.” Today may prove to be a beautiful day in your neck of the woods. Or a tornado may rip the roof off your house. Nature may do you a good or bad turn, but it cannot be “evil”; “Mother Nature” is an anthropomorphic myth, not a goddess intent on ruining your day, the comically vindictive character in the “Chiffon” margarine commercials notwithstanding.
Brooks reports on the findings of Prof. David Buss, who asked his students if they had ever thought about killing anyone. Yes, they had. Buss found that “91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies.” Based on who-knows-what, Buss argues that these murderous dreams “occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.”
If you guessed Brooks was going to answer that “real question” with one of his pat sociological truisms, you would be right. Here’s his argument. He probably copied the predicate from an earlier column on why teenaged girls have sex or one on why young men don’t go to college. “People who murder often live in situations that weaken sympathy and restraint.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but I think it might be something about good, American, middle-class values being the last defense against mass mayhem.
To put a little perspective on whatever it was he just wrote, Brooks turns, naturally, to one of history’s crazier figures, John Calvin, and to the doctrine of original sin. Calvinists (not to mention the entire body of Roman Catholic theology from Augustine of Hippo forward) believe people are born defective. (This, as we know, is Eve’s fault.) Brooks writes, “Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism. According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity.” This is essentially where Brooks ends his discourse, leaving us with his tacit endorsement of the “older worldview.”
Here’s a somewhat narrower view I would suggest: when a society endorses killing as a standard of heroism, some individuals will veer from state-sanctioned killing to outright murder. We live in a nation where the majority of our public monuments are to men associated with war. Our most revered presidents – with the exception of Reagan – are associated with major wars: the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II. For decades, military service was considered a prerequisite to public office. The most oft-cited reason that women were unqualified for high public office: few women had military experience and virtually none had combat experience.
The way we associate killing and heroism is not limited to military operations. Thanks to the police in Sanford, Florida, we don’t know many of the facts surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, but we know this much: an unauthorized neighborhood watch volunteer vigilante went out and about his community carrying a gun to “protect” himself and his neighbors from potential criminals. In the course of his self-appointed rounds, evidence is mounting that he stalked and murdered an innocent teenaged child in cold blood. ABC News now reports additional evidence that the killing was racially motivated: the victim was black, and the killer, who is white, apparently can be heard on a 911 tape referring to black people as “fucking coons” minutes before he shot the victim dead. Law enforcement officials have not arrested the killer, they did not even test him for drug or alcohol levels. Florida state law actually encourages this kind of killing: not only are Florida carry laws outrageously permissive, a state “Stand Your Ground” law, pushed by the National Rifle Association, “gives people who think they are being threatened the right to use force” and absolves them of the responsibility to retreat when they feel threatened. So besides putting a gun in the perpetrator’s hand, the State of Florida told him to Stand His Ground. Standing your ground, after all would be the heroic, manly thing to do.
Institutionally-sanctioned violence is not exclusively an American problem, but as other advanced nations become more pacifistic and we become less so, we are increasingly becoming a paradigmatically bellicose, murderous nation. We are a country where certain politicians and their minions think it is “evil” to “murder” a zygote – a mass of a few cells – but it is “heroic” to kill actual people in the name of nation-building, and it is the right of almost all Americans to carry deadly weapons into supposedly safe and peaceful public places. So I guess it is fair to say that all Americans “live in situations that weaken sympathy and restraint.” Sympathy and restraint are not characteristics often associated with waging war or packing heat.
David Brooks wrote his column with the aim of helping us understand why “even a formerly good man is capable of monstrous acts.” But in his effort, he never broaches the circumstances that put the means for committing monstrous acts within easy reach of most of our citizens – including those like Bales who probably should not have been in Afghanistan at all – then glorifies some of the monstrous acts as sources of national pride and moments of individual courage. It is true that monstrous acts can occur in the best of circumstances, but we have become a nation that has made ticking time bombs of millions of its citizens. It is hardly surprising that these time bombs explode with some regularity.
Perhaps I should have stuck with Ross Douthat. Douthat applauds the modifications that Paul Ryan has made to his plan to “end Medicare as we know it.” The “new” Ryan plan, just like the old Ryan plan, will kill older Americans just as randomly as Bales allegedly chose his victims. And because the Ryan plan will most hurt segments of the population who tend to vote Democratic, it will work in just as targeted a way as the killing in Florida. Plus, there’s this: Paul Ryan will never be prosecuted for his monstrous acts.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com