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Learning from Las Vegas, by John Hinkson

Autonomous mass killers—terrorism from within?

The massacre in Las Vegas carried out by Stephen Paddock is one more affront to our sense of an ordered world, of being able to take our everyday social world for granted. Is it possible to categorise this event and give it social meaning? The category ‘terror’ helps, but this turns out to be complicated.

If terror is defined as the assault upon innocents to achieve an end, why isn’t this mass slaughter in Las Vegas considered a terror event? There can be no doubt that the dead and injured were innocents. Apart from the political use of the word ‘terrorist’ to designate certain kinds of political insurgents, the problem lies with the lack of an end. Why did Paddock do this? What could the motive be?

Terrorists are always trying to achieve something, even if it is only generalised effects upon an enemy. This is so even for that especially unacceptable form of terrorism that is indiscriminate in relation to victims. The targeting of innocents usually has an end or a motive. We may hate the terrorists, but at least we have some knowledge of why they do it.

Lacking an answer to the question of motive leaves a gaping hole, one unsuccessfully filled with substitutes—like the endless repeats, in the Las Vegas case, about the problem of gun control. While the availability of automatic weapons is problematic, the main questions people seek answers to are much more to do with meaning: ‘Why has this happened?’ And while religious interpretations may give meaning to massacres like this, people are largely looking for social meaning. Even if any such answers may give no practical policy directions, they are core matters—central to our sense of who we are and how we think about others, and possible futures. Without plausible answers, existential doubt eats away at our sense of being in the world.

A common way to make sense of shocking events that undermine our sense of cultural order is to invoke or imagine mental instability. This is another oft-found answer. It is as though there is the majority—Us, living in the order of normality—and Them, who can be set aside as culturally insignificant because some terrible inner trauma or deficiency has placed them in another social category. There has been some commentary along these lines about Paddock, although so far the only substance here has been a focus on his father, who was a criminal with (apparently) a serious mental condition.

The difficulty with this approach in Paddock’s case, however, is his normality, or, more to the point, his success. His activity as an entrepreneur who pursued conventional pathways in contemporary society, including property investment and gambling, does not place him easily in that apparently black-and-white category—mentally ill—that for some would give reassurance.

There has been a small amount of commentary of another kind that concentrates on how Paddock lived. This comes several steps closer to a focus that could become too difficult to bear because it is not reassuring. That is because aspects of how he lived can be seen as a commentary on how we all choose, or are ‘forced’ in varying degrees, to live today. But this does not provide a motive as such. Actually we find the opposite: this perspective tends to emphasise complete emptiness as to ‘motive’—nothing! Emptiness, lack of meaning, can lead to something by way of explanation, but it is deeply disturbing as a cause for those seeking to understand.

Some commentaries have touched on certain characteristics of Paddock’s life that are, actually, fairly widespread in society today, and becoming more so. Like: he was a ‘restless soul’, ‘reclusive and a drifter’, and he had no political or religious affiliations. At best, these observations are suggestive of a life without purpose, as one might expect of someone who had found a technical way to survive in the world of gambling.

David Aaronovitch of The Times goes several steps further. While he knows that motives, (as in individual and personal explanations) may yet turn up, he thinks it quite plausible that there was no motive: ‘causelessness’ arising out of ‘anomie or absence of social standards’. Living in the vast, empty landscapes of exurbia, Paddock was an expression of a boring and pointless existence not unlike that of Lee Harvey Oswald before him—‘a displaced character without roots in nation, region, class’.

If this emphasis was on emptiness and boredom, another comment, by DBC Pierre (of Man Booker Prize fame), took a somewhat different direction. He put it in terms of there having been a loss of sensibility in the world, related to technological revolutions. The transformation of the social world by screens (television, computers, mobile phones) that displace human touch and the need to look people in the eye sits at the centre of our world in which human sensibility is crumbling.

The observations of Aaronovitch and Pierre are useful, but they can do more work if combined and brought to bear within a framework Geoff Sharp elaborated at the time of the Port Arthur massacre in Australia in a short article entitled ‘The Autonomous Mass Killer’ (Arena Journal No. 6, 1996). Here, it was argued that a new social type is emerging, one that supports, for deplorable yet understandable reasons, ‘autonomous’ mass killing. The emphasis is on a social emergence, not on technologies as such. This is a rather unusual claim today because much of the academic world has given up on giving meaningful reference to the social except in the most general sense: that we are all social beings.

Pierre’s observations can be re-transcribed into an account of how recent technologies support the emergence of decidedly more abstract social relations that are progressively displacing those relations of family and community that for the whole of the history of human society have been structured around the generations and provided the basic supports to and meaning in the lives of individuals. Social media, as one example today, allow us to transcend such generational social relations to find ourselves liberated into a social medium of fleeting others. If generational relations allow a sense of self by reference to ancestors and place, social media militate against stable relationships and make it difficult to stabilise a self. High technology mediates relationships that are in essence non-particular and free floating: that is, floating free of those elements in social life and culture that ground and develop us as social beings.

Generational relations are key sites where the face to face allows expressions of touch, eye-to-eye contact, sound and smell, which underlie and give body to complex intuition, in the construction of what we take to be the human sensibilities. Tangibility lies at the core of this deep social experience. Pierre is talking about a situation where the screen mediates relations with unknown and impermanent others and displaces the face to face. The other is practically absent and is at best a construction of one’s imagination.

Since Geoff Sharp wrote about the phenomenon of the mass killer as a social type, certain kinds of terror atrocities have multiplied, and of course various mass killings. The point is not that abstract social relations will generate mass killers en masse, or that people so formed are ever ready to engage in mass killings. But such relations do open up the possibility of the emergence of a structure of feeling associated with radical loneliness, deep boredom, and radically attenuated feeling for others. This structured distance from tangible others generates much more than disaffection towards them. It culminates in a desire that the social world itself should end.

In the world of the screen, as Pierre puts it, the profound social loss of tangibility generates a substitute: the call of fame. But social recognition in this circumstance is absolutely destructive, for in the case of the mass killer it is only achievable through the obliteration of life—the killer’s as well as the victims’. While this meaning may be social in derivation, it could hardly be regarded as social in intent. The action of the autonomous mass killer is an assault on ‘social life generally’. It is this ‘new enemy’, rather than ‘causelessness’, that suggests such events may be properly regarded as terroristic. It is not terror arising from a cultural or national opposition; it is terror arising from the inside, as it were. As such it is profoundly disturbing.

One can see why many would regard the attribution of this kind of social meaning to Las Vegas as hard to bear. But somehow we have to come to terms with where social development is taking us. No doubt, in the Las Vegas case, there will be an ongoing search for cause and motive in the hope that they will put people’s minds to rest. But the problem is more general and more basic. If social meaning is to be grounded, it requires that, over time, we draw back from what is assumed to be progress: that we re-make and invigorate, rather than transcend, those social worlds that lie at the heart of who we were, and now, at best, only partly are.

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