Tim Wilson - Arms and the Man

Arms and the Man

We cannot know why Devin Kelley chose to slaughter 26 people at a Baptist Church at Sutherland Springs, Texas. Despite the shooter’s militant atheism the incident seems to be overwhelmingly interpreted in media comment primarily as the spectacular overspill of a domestic dispute.

Still, whatever the background nature of Kelley’s dysfunctional relationships, history of sexual violence and fragile mental health, we should be wary of interpreting this tragedy in purely idiosyncratic terms. In many respects, Kelley appears to fit a classic pattern of mass shooters in modern societies: still relatively young (26), male and of insecure social status — his apparently promising and stable career in the US air force having ended recently in the public ignominy of a dishonourable discharge.

Some comparative examples from Europe are suggestive here. In September 1881, at Tours in France a trainee law clerk named Lucien Morrisset was accused of theft. His response was to grab a pistol and gun down strangers in the street, killing one and wounding four. In June 1913, Heinz Schmidt, an unemployed teacher in Bremen had shot up a Catholic girls’ school, killing five. Just three months later at Mühlhausen in Germany, another schoolteacher named Ernst August Wagner shot dead nine, and wounded 12. Wagner apparently was convinced that the community had spread gossip about his youthful flirtation with bestiality; and it was this, in turn, that had prevented public recognition of his literary genius.

Mass shootings are rarer in Europe than the USA — not least because the titanic destruction caused by wars between states there in the first half of the 20th century generally led to a much tighter control over the means of private violence. Germany, for instance, introduced effective gun laws in 1928 — just five years before the Nazis took power. But these older examples from Europe are still thought-provoking. Regardless of the mental health issues, what all these examples seem to have in common is that they concern young men obsessed with perceived slights to their social status. In essence, they slaughter wantonly to make themselves respected again.

What has this to do with terrorism? The conventional answer has tended to be: not much. Spree or mass shooters kill for personal, not political, reasons. But this is perhaps to miss a wider point. True, the horizons of a Devin Kelley seem very narrow — he exerted such devastating power only within the micro-universe of Sutherland Springs. But even within these close confines his atrocity represents a more-or-less random slaughtering of strangers to make a point. In this sense, Kelley’s atrocity, like terrorism, firmly belongs to the Gessellschaft (a society shaped by impersonal transactions), and not the Gemeinschaft (the society of face-to-face relationships). Such violence says something about the society it emerges from. We ignore its wider lessons at our peril.

Dr Tim Wilson,
Centre Director

Blog post -‘A New Beginning?’: Enduring Division in 2017 Northern Ireland

A post in the Four Nations History blog by CSTPV PhD student Amanda Hall.


Truck Terror in New York

‘NOT IN THE USA’ tweets President Trump in the aftermath of the Islamist truck attack in New York where Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant, is accused of killing eight and injuring 11 yesterday. As an aspiration, Trump’s tweet is laudable: if intended to be prophecy or prediction, then it looks less convincing. More striking, though, is that such attacks have not appeared more prominently or more frequently in the United States before now. In the land that invented the drive-by shooting (in Chicago race riots in 1919), the turn to using automobiles themselves as weapons has been perhaps a surprisingly long time coming.

By contrast, ever since 86 people were killed in Nice on 14 July 2016, such ramming attacks have been a major preoccupation of European security agencies. It has long been clear that such attacks could easily spread across the Atlantic: on 12 August 2017, a white nationalist killed one woman and injured 19 by ramming a crowd of demonstrators at Charlottesville, Virginia; on 18 May previously the apparently mentally deranged Richard Rojas also killed one and injured 20 in New York’s Times Square. But until now Islamists have not turned to the vehicle ramming attack in the USA.

Ominous as this development is, it bears all the hallmarks of amateur improvisation: the contrast with the eye-watering casualty figures emerging from al-Shabaab’s bombing of Mogadishu on 16 October last (that left over 300 dead) could hardly be starker. In American society with its ferociously, well-armed citizenry (at least in parts), Saipov could apparently only source himself a paintball and pellet gun as his own private arsenal. After the Las Vegas shootings a month ago that killed 58, that reflection affords some very minimal consolation.

Still, for those directly bereaved or maimed, such reflections will be only cold comfort. And for security officials, this latest atrocity will prompt much reflection. With very primitive means, an attacker has caused significant carnage in the heart of New York and – however fleetingly – grabbed world headlines. Such attacks are hardly any existential threat to Western civilisation; but they do look like they are becoming a recurrent, if sporadic, feature of urban life in the early 21st century.

Dr Tim Wilson
1 Nov 2017