The Roots of Killing in America

“Nearly 1 of every 200 children born today will be murdered,” writes Randolph Roth in his new book, American Homicide.  He adds that, ever since the early 19th century, we have been the most homicidal country in the West.  The statistics are not in dispute, but what about the reasons?

A professor of criminology, Roth offers this answer: “What matters,” Roth writes, “is that [citizens] feel represented, respected, included, and empowered.” If an individual feels secure in his social standing, it’s easier to get over life’s disappointments. But for a person who feels alienated from the American Dream, the tiniest offense can provoke a murderous rage. (See Newsweek, “Why Politics Makes Us Kill”)

Envy, in short, is the culprit.  As a psychoanalyst, I am familiar with the powerfully destructive force of envy.  Jealousy drives those who suffer from it to idealize the other, relentlessly devaluing themselves.  That’s bad enough.  But envy drives them to destroy the other.  They have to maim and kill because the other serves as an intolerable reminder of their own failure and inadequacy.

The truly interesting suggestion here is that envy could operate so broadly and powerfully on a national level.  Unfortunately, it makes sense. In general, we believe that our competitive system encourages talent and rewards effort.  It spurs achievement and innovation.  But what about those who do not succeed?  If America is the quintessential land of opportunity, inevitably some must fail for others to succeed. Can it be that the dark side of our highly successful economic system is the vengeful hatreds and homicides that have plagued us for two hundred years?

Certainly, we do seem to punish those at the bottom of the scale.  The growing disproportion between the rich and poor, our frayed social safety nets and failing public school system, all suggest a lack of concern for those unable or unwilling to climb the ladder of success on their own.  Our tendency to reward or blame individuals contributes to this pattern. The palpable indifference and neglect we show towards those who do not succeed can only exacerbate their bitterness and despair.

Clearly it takes more than social conditions to drive someone to murder. Alone, that could not account for any one particular homicide.  But it certainly could be one of the underlying factors that wears away patience and restraint, adds frustration and anger, preparing some of us to give way to the surge of rage that leads us to the ultimate crime.

What we don’t know we know is the extent to which the invisible bonds of our social acceptance and belonging help to keep us in check.