Our National Epidemic of Violence

James Gilligan published a book 13 years ago called Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, in which he diagnosed the root cause of violence as deep shame and humiliation, a desperate need for respect and status (and, fundamentally love and care) so intense that only killing (oneself and/or others) could ease the pain — or, rather, the lack of feeling. When a person becomes so ashamed of his needs (and of being ashamed), Gilligan writes, and when he sees no nonviolent solutions, and when he lacks the ability to feel love or guilt or fear, the result can be violence.

The choice to engage in violence is not a rational one, and often involves magical thinking, as Gilligan explains by analyzing the meaning of crimes in which murderers have mutilated their victims’ bodies or their own.

“I am convinced,” he writes, “that violent behavior, even at its most apparently senseless, incomprehensible, and psychotic, is an understandable response to an identifiable, specifiable set of conditions; and that even when it seems motivated by ‘rational’ self-interest, it is the end product of a series of irrational, self-destructive, and unconscious motives that can be studied, identified, and understood.”

Gilligan’s understanding of what motivates violence comes from working in prisons and mental health institutions, not from watching the news. He suggests that the obvious explanation is usually wrong:

“Some people think that armed robbers commit their crimes in order to get money. And of course, sometimes, that is how they rationalize their behavior. But when you sit down and talk with people who repeatedly commit such crimes, what you hear is, ‘I never got so much respect before in my life as I did when I first pointed a gun at somebody,’ or, ‘You wouldn’t believe how much respect you get when you have a gun pointed at some dude’s face.’ For men who have lived for a lifetime on a diet of contempt and disdain, the temptation to gain instant respect in this way can be worth far more than the cost of going to prison, or even of dying.”

While violence may be irrational, Gilligan suggests clear ways in which it can be prevented or encouraged. If you wanted to increase violence, he writes, you would take the following steps that the United States has taken: Punish more and more people more and more harshly; ban drugs that inhibit violence and legalize and advertise those that stimulate it; use taxes and economic policies to widen disparities in wealth and income; deny the poor education; perpetuate racism; produce entertainment that glorifies violence; make lethal weapons readily available; maximize the polarization of social roles of men and women; encourage prejudice against homosexuality; use violence to punish children in school and at home; and keep unemployment sufficiently high. And why would you do that? Possibly because most victims of violence are poor, and the poor can organize in rebellion against the rich when they aren’t terrorized by crime.

Gilligan looks at violent crimes, especially murder, and then turns his attention to our system of violent punishment, including the death penalty, prison rape, and solitary confinement. He views retributive punishment as the same sort of irrational violence as the crimes it is punishing. He sees structural violence and poverty as doing the most damage, however. No summary would do this brilliant book justice. So, instead let me complain about what it’s missing: war.

In scattered references Gilligan makes clear that he lumps war into his theory of violence, and yet in one place he opposes ending wars, and nowhere does he explain how his theory can be coherently applied. Do soldiers and mercenaries and contractors and bureaucrats feel shame and humiliation? Do war propaganda and military training produce the idea that the enemy has disrespected the warrior who must now kill to recover his honor? Or is the humiliation of the drill sergeant intended to produce a reaction redirected against the enemy? What about the congress members and presidents, the generals and weapons corporation CEOs, and the corporate media, those who actually decide to have a war and make it happen? Don’t they have a high degree of status and respect already, even if they may have gone into politics because of their exceptional desire for such attention? Aren’t there more mundane motivations, like financial profit, campaign financing, and vote winning at work here, even if the writings of the Project for the New American Century have a lot to say about boldness and dominance and control?

Where I’m most interested in applying Gilligan’s theory to war, in fact, is in the area of public opinion, the routine American public opinion that ranges from cheering for wars to failing to adequately resist them. What explains this? Common slogans and bumper stickers suggest some value in looking down this particular sewer: “These colors don’t run,” “Proud to be an American,” “Never back down,” “Don’t cut and run.” Nothing could be more irrational or symbolic than a war on a tactic or an emotion, as in the Global War on Terror, which was launched as revenge, even though the primary people against whom the revenge was desired were already dead.

Do people think their pride and self-worth depends on the vengeance to be found in bombing Afghanistan until there’s nobody left resisting U.S. dominance? If so, it will do not a bit of good to explain to them that such actions actually make them less safe and more likely to be attacked. Facts just get in the way here. But if we could persuade such people that such behavior makes the United States a laughingstock, they might be reachable. Or if we could persuade them that the US government is playing them for fools and using their money for folly, we might get somewhere. Or if Americans knew that they had all become second-class citizens in comparison with the well-off people of Europe who don’t waste all their money on wars, maybe that rivalry could be turned toward peace.


If teabagging wakes us up to the realization that our approach to war is based on a bunch of glaze-eyed drooling madmen in search of elusive self-worth, perhaps it will have done us an important service. If Americans will stop killing Afghans because they now think it makes them Karzai’s punks, then let’s stop the killing and work on thinking clearly later.

David Swanson

Republished with permission from AfterDowningStreet.

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