In László Krasznahorkai’s 1989 novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, set in a small Hungarian town, it is fear of “the collapse into anarchy”, manipulated by political opportunists, that hastens social breakdown.
Something similar is happening in the United States. The feeling of crisis, and of the parlous state of democracy, is pervasive. The Covid-19 pandemic witnessed the enormous militarisation of civil society when one fifth of households bought guns in a single year. Many of those who purchased firearms, including anti-gun Democrats, said they were afraid of civil unrest. Today about half of Americans think a civil war is coming.
The fear that something terrible will soon befall the Republic is not unfounded. Consider the plague of mass shootings. At the time of writing, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 226 such events in 2023. And the annual rate is increasing. In 2017, mass shootings were happening at a frequency of one per day. In 2021, the total number of mass shootings was almost 700 – an average of more than two a day.
Yet what does the official response to such carnage demonstrate if not willed helplessness? On 6 May, for example, a neo-Nazi gunman went on the rampage in a shopping mall in Allen, Texas. He killed eight people and injured seven others. That was the ninth mass shooting in Texas in 14 years. In the aftermath of the massacre, a two-and-a-half-year-old FBI “active shooter” video, titled “Run, Hide, Fight” went viral. This grim instructional video realistically portrayed a massacre in which a gunman enters a bar and pumps round after round into helpless people, only for it to then surreally pivot to its three-point survival plan: run, hide or fight.
This is the message of an adrenaline shot: fight or flight. While peddling the illusion that there is an official, evidence-based solution for those subject to mass shootings, the video suggests that civil society is dangerous and that the authorities have nothing meaningful to offer but gaudy infotainment and empty solutions.
For what, besides such instructionals and the empty ritual of “thoughts and prayers”, can the authorities offer? Surprisingly little. In 2022, in response to mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Congress passed a moderate gun control bill, the first in 30 years. This was some progress beyond “thoughts and prayers”, but it merely incentivises background checks and state-wide limits on who can buy guns.
The assumption that gun ownership is behind the violence is not baseless. The rate at which such shootings occur is much higher in states such as Texas with “relaxed” gun laws than in those like New York with “restrictive” laws. But mild restrictions won’t stop the insidious influence of the “gun belt”, the complex of munitions industries that arose from the Cold War militarisation of society in the 1950s and stretches from the industrial north-east, to the South, to the western states. Nor will it touch the military itself which, as the historian Kathleen Belew documents, has incubated so much of the violence.
Gun ownership is an enabler, not the driver. The psychosocial research of the National Institute of Justice shows that a mass shooter is likely to be a young, white male experiencing a suicidal crisis, often with a criminal record and suffering childhood trauma, who has taken inspiration from other mass shootings. Access to weapons doesn’t cause the social contagion, or the prevailing conditions of inequality, social decay and a competitive, dog-eat-dog environment in which violence is a sanctioned answer to life’s dilemmas.
And if access to weapons is a necessary condition for these massacres, the question then is why so many people feel they need them. Most American households don’t own guns: about half of the guns personally owned in 2016 were stockpiled by 3 per cent of people. But the recent surge in gun ownership is real. And ironically, it is fed by the apocalyptic climate in which “lone wolf” murderers find their cause.
Congress has no salient answer to any of these problems. The only response besides exiguous gun control that state institutions appear to have is to drill the public with shots of adrenaline to keep them vigilant. The worst of this is aimed at schoolchildren. In US schools, children are routinely subject to harrowing “active shooter drills”, a practice supported by a $3bn school security industry. Starting at four or five years old, children are drilled in what to do in a mass shooting several times a year.
The practice of active shooter drills in schools has been compared to Cold War “duck and cover” drills used to prepare schoolchildren for the eventuality of a nuclear attack. Regular drills to this effect were probably worse than useless: inculcating a culture of docility and fear rather than informing. However, the comparison understates how drastic such drills are today. The “duck and cover” exercises concerned a threat from a hostile foreign power that may never manifest. The active shooter drills are about a regular occurrence, in which the threat is both more obscure and more intimate. The shooter may have certain demographic characteristics, but it might be anyone.
These drills perform helplessness. As when, for example, children are locked out of classrooms and left to face the notional gunman alone because protocol says they should be. Or when a middle school abruptly imposes “lockdown” in which police roam the corridors strapped with real weapons. The ostensible goal of such exercises is apparently to build “muscle memory” so that both students and staff automatically know what to do when a school enters lockdown. It is questionable whether these exercises have saved a single life. The 2022 massacre in Uvalde, in which a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers, took place after students and staff had been repeatedly drilled and subject to numerous security measures. Even were it not for the incompetence of law enforcement, it is doubtful that the drills did anything but, as research says such exercises do, distress the children. In the event, students and staff were helpless.
The surrounding culture of securitising schools results in surveillance of the children. In 2018, the New York Times reported that more than 100 US school districts and universities paid private companies to spy on students’ social media accounts, with an eye to detecting signs of instability. More generally, schools rely on random drug tests, sniffer dogs, metal detectors and armed guards to keep control of their potentially wayward students. Turning schools into steel and Kevlar battlements is driving up suspensions and damaging educational performance. This relentless vigilance training functions as a kind of blackpilling of the American public. It forces them to think constantly of mortal danger, while giving them little rational to do about it.
No wonder violent vigilantism is thriving and growing in this climate. Millions of Americans have been conditioned through such panic to lionise killers: from the National Rifle Association’s fundraiser for the New York subway shooter Bernie Goetz in 1996, to the $200,000 that the Kenosha, Wisconsin killer Kyle Rittenhouse managed to raise earlier this year, to the $1m raised for the ex-marine Daniel Penny who this month killed a mentally ill, homeless man in New York. They who fear the collapse into anarchy are the ones hastening it into being.