Mobs, Lynchings, and Psychos

You tell me: is the attempted killing of a member of Congress for the first time in thirty years a reflection of the violence of our political rhetoric or a reminder of the remarkable peacefulness of modern life? 

Our liberal friends like to think of the United States as uniquely violent, primarily because of its racist gun culture.  That's what the recurrent liberal meme of "Violence in America" is all about.  But in A Secular Age, liberal philosopher Charles Taylor offers the idea that Western culture has been rapidly reducing violence over the last millennium, in particular between 1400 and 1800.  At the beginning of the period, he writes, things were pretty violent.

Young nobles were capable of outbursts of mayhem, carnivals teetered on the thin line between mock and real violence, brigands were rife, vagabonds could be dangerous, city riots and peasant uprisings, provoked by unbearable conditions of life, were recurrent.

You only have to sample a couple of Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses plays to realize just how violent and just how bloody things used to be.  Back then, leading politicians did not merely make speeches using battle metaphors; they fought each other to the death in real battles.  Now we live in the disciplined society, channeled and regulated by rules rather than the passionate tides of aristocratic pride and dynastic feud.  We've gotten to the point where postmodernist Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish makes the disciplined society into something banal and second-rate.

It was the Church that led the move away from violence, according to Charles Taylor.  It wanted to upgrade everyone's commitment to Christ, and that meant taming the more violent sectors, in particular the warrior nobles and the bloody-minded peasants.

Even as late as the American revolution, the patriots could stage a pretty good riot.  In the aftermath of the 1775 Boston Massacre, when British soldiers fired on New England colonists, enraged patriots in New York City decided to take the law into their own hands and teach the Tory sympathizers a lesson.  So on May 10, hundreds of protesters descended on King's College (today's Columbia University), ready to tar and feather the college president, Myles Cooper, a Tory.  But the young Alexander Hamilton, a 20-year-old student at the college, held off the crowd on the front steps of the college with a patriotic harangue while Cooper made his escape out of the back door.

The most notorious form of mob justice in the United States in the years since the revolution was the lynching.  The Tuskegee Institute kept statistics on lynchings in the U.S. starting in 1882.  As you can see from the chart below, back in 1882, about half the victims of lynching were white, and half were black.



Whites being lynched?  Who knew?  Lynchings of whites went down to single digits per year by 1910, and black lynching went to single digits per year by 1940, a generation later.  Something must be going right when mobs no longer short-circuit the justice system.

Of course, maybe this reduction in violence has nothing to do with a moral movement to reduce violence, but instead with merely the fact that, in this prosperous age, few people are desperate enough to resort to violence. 

These days we are transfixed -- not by the thousands of ordinary murders of nobodies by nobodies, or even race murders, but by spectacular murders committed by disturbed loners.  Michael Knox Beran confirms that the awareness of psycho murder is a new phenomenon.

There have been murderers throughout history, but the phenomenon of the lone psychopath intent on cruelty as well as bloodshed seems not to have been remarked until the 1860s. 

Horror fiction began with Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s, and detective fiction with Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone in 1859.  The question arises: does the interest in the macabre and in the implausible murders of detective fiction -- now dominated by female writers -- represent a middle-class appetite for vicarious violence to fill the gap left by the reduction in real-world violence?  Is the huge media response to rampage killings a response to the low level of violence in the lives of the educated middle class?

It's interesting to speculate on this.  I suspect that it is only the pacification of society in the last millennium that has allowed the psycho murderer to emerge from a background of ubiquitous violence and become noticeable.  It is telling, for instance, that lynchings became a national political scandal at the time of the civil rights revolution when, the Tuskegee numbers show, the incidents of racial lynchings had already declined by over 90 percent.

After all the scapegoating of the last week is done, the question remains.  Is the occasional rampage shooting in a society of 300 million persons a scandal or a wonder?

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.  See his usgovernmentspending.com and also usgovernmentdebt.us.  At americanmanifesto.org he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.
You tell me: is the attempted killing of a member of Congress for the first time in thirty years a reflection of the violence of our political rhetoric or a reminder of the remarkable peacefulness of modern life? 

Our liberal friends like to think of the United States as uniquely violent, primarily because of its racist gun culture.  That's what the recurrent liberal meme of "Violence in America" is all about.  But in A Secular Age, liberal philosopher Charles Taylor offers the idea that Western culture has been rapidly reducing violence over the last millennium, in particular between 1400 and 1800.  At the beginning of the period, he writes, things were pretty violent.

Young nobles were capable of outbursts of mayhem, carnivals teetered on the thin line between mock and real violence, brigands were rife, vagabonds could be dangerous, city riots and peasant uprisings, provoked by unbearable conditions of life, were recurrent.

You only have to sample a couple of Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses plays to realize just how violent and just how bloody things used to be.  Back then, leading politicians did not merely make speeches using battle metaphors; they fought each other to the death in real battles.  Now we live in the disciplined society, channeled and regulated by rules rather than the passionate tides of aristocratic pride and dynastic feud.  We've gotten to the point where postmodernist Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish makes the disciplined society into something banal and second-rate.

It was the Church that led the move away from violence, according to Charles Taylor.  It wanted to upgrade everyone's commitment to Christ, and that meant taming the more violent sectors, in particular the warrior nobles and the bloody-minded peasants.

Even as late as the American revolution, the patriots could stage a pretty good riot.  In the aftermath of the 1775 Boston Massacre, when British soldiers fired on New England colonists, enraged patriots in New York City decided to take the law into their own hands and teach the Tory sympathizers a lesson.  So on May 10, hundreds of protesters descended on King's College (today's Columbia University), ready to tar and feather the college president, Myles Cooper, a Tory.  But the young Alexander Hamilton, a 20-year-old student at the college, held off the crowd on the front steps of the college with a patriotic harangue while Cooper made his escape out of the back door.

The most notorious form of mob justice in the United States in the years since the revolution was the lynching.  The Tuskegee Institute kept statistics on lynchings in the U.S. starting in 1882.  As you can see from the chart below, back in 1882, about half the victims of lynching were white, and half were black.



Whites being lynched?  Who knew?  Lynchings of whites went down to single digits per year by 1910, and black lynching went to single digits per year by 1940, a generation later.  Something must be going right when mobs no longer short-circuit the justice system.

Of course, maybe this reduction in violence has nothing to do with a moral movement to reduce violence, but instead with merely the fact that, in this prosperous age, few people are desperate enough to resort to violence. 

These days we are transfixed -- not by the thousands of ordinary murders of nobodies by nobodies, or even race murders, but by spectacular murders committed by disturbed loners.  Michael Knox Beran confirms that the awareness of psycho murder is a new phenomenon.

There have been murderers throughout history, but the phenomenon of the lone psychopath intent on cruelty as well as bloodshed seems not to have been remarked until the 1860s. 

Horror fiction began with Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s, and detective fiction with Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone in 1859.  The question arises: does the interest in the macabre and in the implausible murders of detective fiction -- now dominated by female writers -- represent a middle-class appetite for vicarious violence to fill the gap left by the reduction in real-world violence?  Is the huge media response to rampage killings a response to the low level of violence in the lives of the educated middle class?

It's interesting to speculate on this.  I suspect that it is only the pacification of society in the last millennium that has allowed the psycho murderer to emerge from a background of ubiquitous violence and become noticeable.  It is telling, for instance, that lynchings became a national political scandal at the time of the civil rights revolution when, the Tuskegee numbers show, the incidents of racial lynchings had already declined by over 90 percent.

After all the scapegoating of the last week is done, the question remains.  Is the occasional rampage shooting in a society of 300 million persons a scandal or a wonder?

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.  See his usgovernmentspending.com and also usgovernmentdebt.us.  At americanmanifesto.org he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.

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