The Number Of Mass Killings Has Exceeded The Number Of Calendar Days

[Editor’s note: The following is a 2016 commentary from Notes From Disgracedland’s Bjarne Knausgaard  who regular readers will recall pens some of the best political/economic color around. We are featuring it here this weekend in light of the events that unfolded in Pittsburgh on Saturday]

The Tropic Of Chaos

Three years ago (in 2013), I came across an interesting book, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts. The original (The Summer of the Century) and its English version title (The Year before the Storm) give a complementary summary of its importance for the rest of the century. There has never been a year like 1913, a true big-bang for arts and culture. Vienna was the cultural capital of the world and Berlin was just emerging on the scene. Everybody was there, Freud, Schönberg, Wittgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, Egon Schiele, and Alma Mahler, while young guns, Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and Tito made a brief appearance on the scene. Elsewhere in Europe, things were happening as well, although somewhat less concentrated. The first and second Balkan wars were over, the Ottoman Empire had been driven out of nearly all of Europe, King George I of Greece was assassinated. On the New Continent things were developing fast. The Mexican revolution started in February, and the US made its voice heard in the art world with the Armory show, while, at the same time, undergoing significant institutional and political transformation with an Amendment to the US Constitution authorizing the government to impose and collect income taxes and the creation of the Federal reserve System. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin had their first public appearances. The first assembly line as well as the Camel cigarette brand were introduced , stainless steel invented, MDMA (aka ecstasy) synthesized for the first time, and the all-purpose zipper patented. The world was buzzing. Creative forces were building up together with (positive) political tensions. Things could hardly look better. The world appeared to be in balance, only to fall apart a year later. The rest was silence.

While reading the book, a short paragraph caught my attention commenting on the only two mass killings that took place in that year. This is the factual summary of the two events:

  • The Bremen school shooting occurred on June 20, 1913 at St. Mary’s Catholic School. The gunman, 29-year-old unemployed teacher Heinz Schmidt, indiscriminately shot at students and teachers, causing the death of five girls and wounding more than 20 other people, before being subdued by school staff. He was never tried for the crime and sent directly to an asylum where he died in 1932.
  • On September 4, 1913 Ernst August Wagner, killed his wife and four children in Degerloch and subsequently drove to Mühlhausen an der Enz where he set several fires and shot 20 people, of whom at least 9 died, before he was beaten unconscious by furious villagers and left for dead. After several psychiatric assessments diagnosed him to suffer from paranoia, and thus becoming the first person in Wüttemberg to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, he was brought to an asylum in Winnenthal, where he died there of tuberculosis in 1938.

Mass murder has become so commonplace that having only two such occurrences within a year strike us as odd. For comparison, in 2013 there were close to 80 mass murders (they had to be alphabetized by the place of occurrence – on the average about three for each letter of the alphabet).

Intrigued by this comparison, I collected the data on mass killings in the last 100+ years looking for some clues about the trend. The data reveal a rather disturbing pattern. Since WWII, the number of mass killings (defined as an idiosyncratic, not state-sanctioned, killing spree with multiple victims) has been growing exponentially at a rate of 5% every year. This means that every 20 years or so, the number of mass killings triples (1.0520 = 3). For example, between the 1970s and 1990s, the average number went from 10 to 30, and between the 1990s and 2010s it went from 30 to 90. In 2013, when I looked at the numbers for the last time, we had around 80-90 mass killings, or one for every third business day. Allowing this trend to continue would take another 20 years for this number to triple, which meant that by the mid 2030s there would be one mass killing every business day.

The arrival of 2015 has announced something new! We have achieved this rate in less than two years: from 90 in 2013 to over 350 in the last year. The number of mass killings in 2015 exceeded the number of calendar days — every day somewhere someone’s fuse went off! This was not supposed to happen before the 2030s. This is how crazy the world has become. The future came too soon — we have already reached the point of self-intoxication when inner contradictions of the system, which previously could have been ignored, are taking over. The destabilizing forces are becoming stronger than those responsible for restoring the equilibrium.


But, nothing surprises me any more after subjecting myself to the ordeal of watching the republican debate in the last weeks, something I had never attempted before (and am unlikely to repeat again). The obscene spectacle of this year’s presidential elections is a real game-changer, a true political big bang that will set the template for future public discourse everywhere. Its consequences will be studied for years to come. The political landscape will never be the same. Are these men really the best this country (of 350 million people) has to offer?

For several decades now, modernity has been operating between two fatal modes: Carnival and Cannibal — it has been transfixed by the spectacle of its own creation and self-annihilation [1]. The current republican campaign is a culmination of of this trend which has finally reached alarming proportions where the system can no longer bear it and which, by the force of its own absurdity, has made an illegible long-running process instantaneously legible by the sheer power of the event.

Current political discourse no longer has a solid empirical backbone. Nothing is binding. Politics exists mostly in the kingdom of words. It creates parallel narratives and fragmented reality. As a consequence, society has become disoriented and confused due to the gradual loss of all frames of reference and distorted cognitive coordinates. It suffers from loss of shared reality and a chronic inability to form consensus, which becomes its main cultural dimension. The political body is afflicted with split personality – collective mental disorder in need of shock therapy. This collective “mental instability” becomes its intrinsic cultural determinant and enters the center stage of public life.

Watching this bizarre orgy, this unabashed display of vulgarity I am beginning to converge towards the realization that the biggest collateral damage of this century has been empathy – not really a natural emotion but a cultural concept and a psychological condition that is cultivated and refined and which, in the absence of cultivation or under ideological pressure, can disappear or be completely extinguished [2]. Most certainly, there can be no room for it in the winner-takes-all environments.

Early attempts at creating conditions for social atomization started in the 80s with sustained camping to turn material poverty and absence of luck in general into something shameful and repellent. The anti-war movement, pacifism and public empathy together with conditions nurturing these currents had to be eliminated and replaced in all areas with culture of aggression and violence. Through the appropriation of public spaces and resources into the logic of the marketplace, individuals were dispossessed of many collective forms of mutual support of sharing. A simple and pervasive cooperative practice like hitchhiking, for example, had to be transformed into a filled act with fearful, even lethal consequences [3].

The result of this state of affairs, and its purpose, if one wants to attribute it to a particular ideological design, is to prevent us from hearing each other, sharing our pain and expressing our underlying discontent through a single voice that can be heard. The net effect is anger, frustration and withdrawal of libidinal energy. Depression becomes the only adequate emotional response to this state of affairs, a privileged position of anyone capable of reflective thinking.

Since the beginning of the crisis I struggled to understand why in the times of epochal crisis, when change appeared inevitable, trillions of dollars have been spent on preventing change. The escalation of violence, which gained new momentum in the last years, is not due to reaction of the oppressed (e.g. revolution), but is the flip side of the resistance to change. When change is as necessary as it is politically impossible, rage capital becomes the new political currency and the systemic rise of violence becomes the price to pay for forcing the acceptance of the unacceptable. Mass killing becomes a suicide in displaced mode, a somatic response, a reaction of the physical body, to increasing precarity, hopelessness and fragmentation of the social body. A depressed and desensitized subject, no longer burdened by empathy, transforms personal lack of courage required to pull the trigger of the gun pointing at his own head into a high stakes video-game type spectacle with the practical certainty of being killed in the end.

It is not easy to kill another human being. It is a deeply traumatizing experience, for a killer, of course, especially if it is his first kill. 100 years ago, mass murders were result of an idiosyncratic mental disorder – killers always ended in an insane asylum. In contrast, 21st century mass killings have acquired strong systemic overtones with high degree of commonality across different occurrences and individuals, and have become an integral part of the spectacle. Contemporary mass murderers, when seen in hindsight, show a strikingly similar pattern. Depending on the vantage point, they can be seen both as heroes and as antiheroes. They are all ticking time bombs whose trigger could have been anticipated and possibly prevented were it not for the lack of resources. Unlike their early 20th century peers, contemporary mass murderers are largely rational individuals or people on a planned mission (murder or suicide), perfectly aware of what they are doing at the time of killing. For the most part, their behavior can be argued, reasoned or explained by underlying social factors.

102 years later, we are undoing the cultural big bang of 1913 with a cultural collapse and symbolic annihilation — a continuation of the general debasement that has dominated the political landscape of the last four decades. This is a full blown explosion of Carnival & Cannibal, a cultural mass murder and eventual cultural suicide. It is depression externalized through aggressiveness, a typical male reaction (we are yet to see the emergence of female mass killers on the scene). Collateral damage? A split on the political right, fascisization of the political body and the barbarization of the social landscape.

If some 20 years ago I saw a sci-fi movie with these images of the future, I would have walked out of the theatre. Today, I want to do exactly that, to walk out of the spectacle, only I wouldn’t know how to find my way home.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Carnival and Cannibal, Seagull Books 2010

[2] Franco Berrardi, HeroesLondon, Verso 2015

[3] Jonathan Crary, 24/7 – Terminal Capitalism and the End of Sleep, London, Verso 2014

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6 thoughts on “The Number Of Mass Killings Has Exceeded The Number Of Calendar Days

  1. Under the directions of Big Brother the Fourth Estate is achieving it’s goals at the expense of it’s own citizens. MOAB killed about 300 innocent people and Westerners gloated. A case of selective Empathy.

  2. Big brother? The fourth estate? What is the end game? Human beings, with all their lofty proclamations and delusions of grandeur, are basically savages in dress. Unlike other dominant species, long extinct, man possesses the ability of logical thinking and reason. We have discarded the best of ourselves for myth, fairy tales, and group-think. Like all past, dominant species on this planet, humanity will perish, but unlike the dinosaur, it will be our own hubris that relegates us to a footnote of cosmic history.

  3. In the 1960s a French mathematician named Rene Thom originated a new branch of dynamical systems theory, which he dubbed Catastrophe Theory, to explain how dynamical systems will occasionally bifurcate and change their state abruptly. Thom dubbed this abrupt change a catastrophe. Most dynamical systems, those systems whose states fluctuate constantly with changes in the environment in an attempt to maintain their stability, are subject to abrupt changes. One of the first societal systems to be studied using this new theory was the US and how it changed abruptly from a society in broad support of the Vietnam war to one which suddenly demanded an immediate end to the war. For many observers this change was quite unexpected. The societal pressure caused by this sudden change of attitude served to force a quick end to the conflict. Prison riots occur in much the same way. A seemingly controlled environment suddenly erupts into chaos. The key to understanding these events is to discover what catastrophe theorists call the “splitting factor,” the variable, which when it reaches a certain point, causes the system as a whole to change its state abruptly. Stock market crashes beg to be studied with this framework.

    Reading the post above I was struck by the fact that two questions arise when applying the idea of catastrophe theory to the growing violence in our global society in general, and in America in particular. One is: what will be the nature of the abrupt change when it occurs? Will it be that society suddenly abhors the exponentially growing violence so much that it forces change to a more normal state of humanity? Or will it be that the violence takes off to such an extent that it reaches an apocalypse from which there is no return? The other question is what is the spitting variable that will be the catalyst for the inevitable abrupt change in the state of our fragile human system in either of its two optional directions?

  4. Interesting idea to apply Catastrophe Theory to human behavior – normal and or pathological. However, not mathematically probable to be accurate – due to a general lack of accurate human emotional and pathology variable measurements.

    In my opinion, historical references (below) and my memory of the Viet Nam War – it would be a non-supporting Catastrophe Theory analogy. Unless one uses inaccurate historic observations. There was nothing abrupt or sudden about the US society or politics being pro-war and then anti-war – it was a long and gradual process.

    As a multi-national war the Viet Nam war lasted from 1941 (technically from 1888 when the French started it.) to 1975. The US involvement lasted from 1955 to 1975 (19 years, 5 months, 4 weeks and 1 day). Hardly a quick ending conflict. The US involvement in Viet Nam (by historic reference) lasted longer than its involvement in WWII (US involvement – 6 years and 1 day). However, WWII technically had international involvements and instigations from 1923 to 1946 – 23 years). Additionally, there are those that argue WWII US involvement had many MIC economic motivations and a political/economic tool to end and exit the effects of the Great Depression – also arguably not completely different from the Viet Nam War.

    The Viet Nam War was a war arguably created by the MIC (military arsenal supply contractors, oil industry, and other resources) and its political (anti-communist paranoid – “Domino Theory” ideologues) bed fellows. Its actual popular support was debatable and dubious from the beginning. Its end came slowly – not so much as popular opinion shifted, but as opposition to the war became much stronger, much more publicly visible to voters. Mounting political pressure from the increased media attention focused on college students protesting the war increased. There were defining moments as the political (not public) will to continue the war slowly changed (as an unpopular military draft’s boomers came of voting age, less restricted historic changes in war and protest media coverage, and perhaps the Kent State massacre). The TV viewing voters’ mental patriotic image of their “benevolent” government changed – to an image of a more sinister, violence prone and politically self-interested government. I don’t see any accurate and or knowledgeable description that would support that public opinion suddenly changed – or a measurable point of “bifurcation” occurred – and or the Viet Nam War supporting Catastrophe Theory well – if at all. Additionally, it could be argued that Nixon’s economic and political interest in opening up China, required our ending of the war with its ally – Viet Nam. The greater economic interests – winning out over paranoid political anti-communist ideology wing of the Republican Pary.

    Using the Viet Nam War to support Catastrophe Theory – seems more of a case of a poor or selective knowledge of history – being force fitted to support the Catastrophe Theory. While the Catastrophe theory might well describe physical systems, trying to fit mathematical theory to most complex human behavior and human observations of same – would seem a stretch to start with.

    Trying to fit Catastrophe Theory to a mass shooting and something as broad and mathematically unmeasurable as human emotions – sex/love, frustration, rage, greed, and or the progression of human mental pathologies – surely exceeds Catastrophe Theories inherent need for the precise mathematical input of required variables to accurately determine any point – or existence of – bifurcation.


  5. Hyman Minsky has something to say about stability as well…

    I think American society has been rewarding narcisists and sociopahs for far too long. Those afflicted or ‘blessed’ with these pathologies have learned to manipulate enough of a cohort in representative democracy to destabilize an equilibrium that appeared stable.

    I hope the next stability comes faster than many in the past. Some thinkers are forcasting an entirely new system of monetarism in the coming decades. That can only occur with a major trauma. It will take immense pain to properly begin pricing externalities like atmosperic carbon. I suppose we have to hang on tight. Turbulence ahead. Let’s hope and work on keeping the wing attached and a return of rationality and empathy.

  6. When a very massive star exhausts its fuel, it explodes as a supernova. The outer parts of the star are expelled violently into space, while the core completely collapses under its own weight. If the core is very massive, no repulsive force inside the core can resist gravity, which causes collapse into the black hole.

    The intrinsic problem of capitalism lies in its endogenous self-destructibility: It contains the endogenous mechanisms of systematic self-sabotage and undermines itself by being overly successful. That is the Minsky’s message (which never sat well with macroeconomic orthodoxy). And we are seeing the first signs of capitalism’s collapsing under its own weight. There is no force on hand that could be expected to reverse the three downward trends in economic growth, social equality, and financial stability, and end their natural reinforcement. However unpleasant it may be, the system must be allowed to collapse spontaneously, and this process must run its course as an autoimmune failure, without interference and bailouts of various kinds.

    We’ve seen the communist supernova explosion some 30 years ago. At the time, it was unimaginable, but it was over within weeks after it started.There were casualties and black holes (there still are), but the wings did not fall off.

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