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