October 27, 2018, marks the date of the eleventh mass shooting this year. The location was the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a major place of worship for the city’s Jewish community. After the attack, the gunman, Robert Bowers, was identified by the media as an avid anti-Semite who performed the worst massacre of Jewish people in US history. Bowers, at 46 years of age, had no criminal background. His appearance was that of an average, harmless individual, yet he performed an evil act—one that resulted in eleven deaths and six wounded individuals—that no one should ignore.
The all too familiar questions of "Why did this happen? Why did this happen to us?" are frequently asked after every mass murder. But each time, it usually goes unanswered, or worse, it's erroneously oversimplified or used as a political platform for gun reform. Rarely do we delve into the deep psychology behind the nature of these horrendous acts.
The Questions We Ask
What could drive someone like Robert Bowers to commit such a horrendous act? Moreover, what could lead to such conspiratorial hatred against Jewish people, specifically? Does he have a psychiatric illness such as psychopathy or schizophrenia? Is he simply an intersectional racist who hated a group that was dissimilar to his own? Or is he, along with most other mass shooters, troubled with a skewed perception of reality that exists at an existential level?
What determines whether someone will become a violent perpetrator?
Was there some clue that could have guided us into thinking he would perform such an act? Bowers no doubt faced significant hardships in life—his father Randall was convicted of rape and then later committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Bowers did not graduate high school and was not remembered by any of his classmates when journalists inquired about him after the shooting.
Do Bowers’s early life experiences explain why he committed such an evil act? Studies show that children who are abused are more likely to become abusers themselves; specifically, approximately one out of six mistreated children go on to become violent perpetrators. However, these studies also show that the majority of abused children—five out of six—do not turn into abusers. What determines whether someone will become a violent perpetrator or, instead, one who successfully confronts the future and corrects the sins of his or her forefathers?
The answer lies in how a person decides to act as a result of the injustices he or she has faced. We are all—some of us more than others—constrained by the limitations of our childhoods, our experiences, and our genetics. Each of us will experience significant hardships at some point in our life. Being human leaves us deeply vulnerable to arbitrary conditions over which we have no control. We will ask, "Why must bad things happen to me, why must innocent people suffer?" And we will be tempted to feel powerless and victimized by our vulnerabilities.
But this story is not new in human history; it is yet another reiteration of the biblical story of Cain and Abel.
Well-renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson warns that it is very easy to claim victimhood from hardships—real or unreal—but that this is quite dangerous. Claiming victimhood will ultimately lead to resentment, which is a "toxic and violent emotion." Often, a person who claims victim status will blame other people for his or her misfortune. Sometimes, the blame is directed against a specific group that is perceived to rank higher on the social dominance hierarchy.
Could this be what happened in Bowers’s scenario? Is it possible that he believed Jewish people were the cause for his personal misery? It's not unlikely that he developed resentment and justified using violence towards a group of people whom he perceived to be the cause of his hardship. But this story is not new in human history; it is yet another reiteration of the biblical story of Cain and Abel.
The Failure to Confront Our Snakes
Bowers’ mentality—his rationalization to victimize others because of perceived victimhood—is not dissimilar to the philosophy of Marxism, an ideology increasingly romanticized in the Western world. Marxist ideology upholds that class struggle arises in capitalist societies that are organized upon socioeconomic dominance hierarchies. This hierarchical structure ultimately leads to alienation of the lower socioeconomic groups, inevitably giving rise to violent proletariat revolutions.
This revolt represents a failure to confront one’s shadows—or in biblical symbolism, the snake inside one’s own heart.
According to Marxists, this ultimately leads to an ideal classless utopia (otherwise known as communism). The Marxists historically justified hate and violence by claiming victimhood, just as Bowers justified his actions against Jewish people. Bowers’ act was not one of simple bigotry or intersectional racism. It is the extreme example of what can happen when one claims victimhood against groups perceived to have more—the result is not anywhere near utopian. Is it a coincidence that the incidence of bloody mass shootings in the West has increased as the victimhood mentality has increasingly gained popularity?
The problem behind these mass shootings is not a political one—it is an existential crisis deeply rooted in glorification of the victimhood mentality. Although the synagogue shooting is distinguished from other modern massacres because it was directed against a specific ethnic group, it shares a fundamental similarity to others. Each mass shooter in one way or another claimed himself or herself (while the majority of shooters have been male, the YouTube shooter was female) a victim of a group of people or to life’s unfairness and cruelty. Each shooter then developed a resentment that grew insidiously, which was then ultimately unleashed through violent revolt.
This revolt represents a failure to confront one’s shadows—or in biblical symbolism, the snake inside one’s own heart. Dr. Jordan Peterson explained this in a recent interview in which he argues that the need for the individual to take personal responsibility and confront his/her snakes is key. Dr. Peterson argues that in life,
there’s always a snake. What’s the worst possible snake? It isn’t an actual snake. It’s a metaphorical snake. It’s the snake in the heart of your enemy when he comes to burn down your city. Well, what if you get rid of your enemies? Well, the snake’s still there… It’s in your heart…The ultimate battle is with the snake in your heart.
The confrontation of one's inner snake is a universal struggle shared by all human beings, not just by the villains that partake in public acts of violence. Perhaps the solution to the existential problem that has exposed itself with these persistent shootings is the urgent need, more than ever, not to glorify victimhood or change sociopolitical structures—but to look inside one’s heart, contend with the snakes inside, and take personal responsibility. As Dr. Peterson asserts, this is the only way to successfully confront the future.