The Lonely Man with a Gun

Another lonely man with a gun has murdered innocents. Whether you call it mass murder or terrorism or a hate crime, it doesn’t matter. And as a Jew, I am deeply concerned about the rise of antisemitism. But there is something that cuts across these all too frequent acts of violence. It’s almost always a lonely man with a gun. Understandably, there’s a lot of focus on the gun part. But I want to think about the lonely man.

There is a debate in economics about our standard of living in the United States and a debate about the relationship between happiness and material well-being. What is missing from these conversations among economists and non-economists is the importance of meaning in our lives, our longing to belong, our desire to be important and to matter. These urges are not fulfilled by material goods. They never can be.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost all of the acts of mass murder and terrorism are committed by men, mostly lonely men, disaffected, alienated from modern life, alienated from the standard of success our culture aspires to, disconnected from those around them. No one pays much attention to them until people are forced to pay attention at the point of gun. No one pays much attention until the headlines that scream that these lonely men have finally achieved something people are going to have to notice.

One of the glorious things about American culture in our day is that people leave you alone. There is more freedom than ever before. You can be who you want to be, and judgment rarely comes. You can dress the way you like, eat what you want, be the you you want to be, and much of the time, if you live in the right cities anyway, your choices will not be just tolerated but celebrated. We are free in so many dimensions to mold our identity as we see fit and there is something incredibly beautiful about this opportunity.

And yet, one of the most horrific things about American culture in our day is that people leave you alone. You can sleep on the street, be mentally disturbed, use the sidewalk as a latrine, medicate yourself into oblivion and no one will say a thing. They will simply avert their eyes and give you your privacy. Oh, you might get a dollar or two from a sympathetic passerby, but no one will tell you to clean up your act. Few will actually try to connect with you in any meaningful way. In the right cities, no one will arrest you for vagrancy, and certainly no one will force you into what we used to call an insane asylum and medicate you against your will. There are many glorious things about this tolerance. But there is something horrific about it, too.

It goes well beyond the homeless. The merely lonely despite having a roof over their heads struggle too. Our paternalism in America ends at trans fats and smoking and some of the words we use to talk about each other. There is no taste to rouse people into sociability or connection. We live and let live. It’s glorious in so many ways. And we honor our ignoring of people around us as a form of tolerance. But sometimes it is laziness or distaste or simply selfishness, this failure to reach out to people who are having a hard time, who cannot find ways to feel good about themselves, to feel important, to matter. Our tolerance comes at a cost.

Adam Smith said “man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely.” By loved he meant not just romantic love, but honor and respect and praise and the feeling that we matter. By lovely, he meant earning honor and respect honestly. Being praiseworthy. Worthy of esteem. Smith understood something deep about the human condition. He was writing in the 18th century so I think by “man” he meant men and women.

But men struggle with this issue in ways that women do not or at least it seems to be so. Maybe men have a stronger need to be respected and honored. Maybe they have different ways of earning respect and honor that are less available today. Maybe men struggle to connect to other human beings in ways that come more naturally to women. For whatever reason, men are more likely to be driven to make a mark on the world, a dent in the universe and being a mass murderer is one way to do that.

There is nothing new about existential loneliness. Thoreau said “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They did then and they do now. The increase in violence by lonely men is not just coming from increased access to an AR-15. The difference is also that we have moved into a more lonely culture of individualism where there is less opportunity, especially in an urban environment, to connect to other people, to feel loved, to satisfy the sense of belonging. Yes, the internet lets you live in an echo chamber of hate. That is certainly part of the problem. But I think the more damaging part is that our modern world of information helps spread the infamousness of the murderer in ways that never happened in the past.

The wall-to-wall 24–7 media coverage that mass murder provokes is probably unavoidable. But it is the unintended reward we give these pathetic cowards who murder unarmed innocents. I don’t see a way that a free press can supress that coverage.

And so we will continue to debate gun laws and look for ways to improve security in our synagogues and schools and elsewhere. But there is a sickness and a sadness that is a deeper underlying cause behind the tragic rise in killing sprees. Until we find a way to connect with each other and repair that sadness and despair, I fear all the policy fixes in the world will not make much difference.

I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

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