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Violence and Humiliation in Arizona
“…his recent years have been marked by stinging rejection — from his country’s military, his community college, his girlfriends and, perhaps, his father…” NYT, Jan. 16.
Why did Jared Loughner shoot Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen others? If he is anything like the 200+ cases of multiple killers in Websdale’s study (2010), he would have a history of humiliation like theirs: so ashamed of his humiliation that he would hide it not only from others, but also from himself. Humiliation is painful but harmless when it is acknowledged; it becomes lethal only if it is kept secret (Gilligan 1997).
What does acknowledgment look like? A tiny example occurred in one of my own marital spats. My wife yelled at me about something I did or didn’t do. Instead of yelling back, my usual response, I said: “Ouch.” She said: “Ouch?” I said: “That hurt.” We both laughed, quarrel over. It lasted about a hundred seconds.
Can a quarrel last a hundred years? Yes, if one party is so secretly humiliated that it refuses to negotiate, because it wants to humiliate the other party in return. The problem with this strategy is that humiliating the other party for revenge sets up a chain reaction, revenge breeding counter- revenge.
The three wars that caused the most casualties in human history seem now, in retrospect, to fit this pattern (Scheff 1994). The French felt humiliated after their defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War (1871), so plotted revenge for 43 years. They were able to involve Russia, England and the US on their side. In the months between the assassination of the Archduke and the beginning of the war, there were NO negotiation meetings between the two sides. After losing the resultant war (WWI), the Germans, in turn, felt humiliated, which led to the rise of Hitler and WWII. 1871 to 1945: almost a hundred years and more than a hundred million casualties.
9/11 and the Iraq war may be a more recent example. In a broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV on Oct. 7, 2001, Osama bin Laden said:
“What the United States tastes today [9/11] is a very small thing compared to what we have tasted for tens of years. Our nation has been tasting…humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years. “
Bin Laden is referring to the final fall of the Ottoman Empire (1918) when the Allies dismantled it after WWI. Predictably, Bin Laden’s vengeance against the US touched off what may have been counter-revenge by the US. The official reason for the invasion of Iraq was their supposed attempt to develop nuclear weapons, even though the administration knew that there had been none, and that Iraq had not been involved in 9/11. One of several reasons for the invasion may have been the humiliation the regime suffered because 9/11 occurred on their watch.
Why is secret humiliation sometimes lethal? There are two patterns. Some of the multiple killers in Websdale’s study merely swallowed their humiliation until they could stand it no longer. After being fired, one of the men would pretend to go his now non-existent job until the day he shot his family members and himself. All of the women killers followed this pattern.
However, much more frequently, the cases involve men with a history of anger and/or aggression. Their pattern was to cover over their humiliation with anger. Fortunately, although most of us seldom acknowledge our humiliation, the cover-up with anger is much less frequent than simply swallowing the painful feelings, often resulting in silence or even depression, but not violence.
What can be done to stop the humiliation-vengeance pattern? The next part will consider approaches to acknowledgement.
Gilligan, James. Violence – reflections on a national epidemic. 1997.New York: Vintage Books
Scheff, Thomas. 1994. Bloody Revenge: Emotion, Nationalism and War. Westview Press (Reissued by iUniverse 2000)
Websdale, Neil. Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Style of 211 Killers. 2010. Oxford: Oxford University Press