Wednesday, May 28, 2014

From Israel To Isla Vista, Violence Is Tricky To Explain

Last month, Israel was shocked by the arrests of four Middle School girls who planned to murder a classmate who cursed at one of their sisters and bury her body. The girls, all twelve years old, planned to wear rubber gloves and old shoes to mask their identity. Luring their victim to a wooded area near their school, they planned to stab her with two knives they had stolen from the school, bury the body, and change clothes. Had the girls not been overheard discussing the plan in the school bathroom, the plan may have gone through.

Individual violence is an inseparable part of studying politics, and Middle East politics is no exception. Scholars and policymakers have dissected the minds of suicide bombers, the motivations of various Jihadists, and the abuse of Palestinian detainees. Despite volumes of discussion and excellent online analysis (Political Violence At A Glance, for example), the question of "why violence?" remains a tricky one.

In the wake of Friday's horrific shooting and stabbing attacks near the campus of UC Santa Barbara, various camps advanced hypotheses about the reasons behind the attack. Crackpots aside, these included:

Class Politics
Gun Availability
Hollywood Movies
Ideals of Masculinity 
Mental Health
Nerd Culture 
Narcissistic Entitlement    

The bottom line is that none of these hypotheses sufficiently explain what prompted a 22-year old to murder seven people in cold blood. Elliot Rodger had guns, but also a knife and a car. He had been receiving mental health care. His misogyny was just a small part of a larger hatred towards sexually active people. And of course, there are thousands of moviegoers, manly men, nerds, narcissists, and racists who don't commit acts of lone wolf violence against college kids. On top of all the reasons we can list, the fact remains that Elliot Rodger ultimately made a choice to kill. But the social factors that framed this decision matter too.

Political science is often criticized for being overly theoretical and simplistic - a fair criticism. But the point is valid outside of academia too. As well-meaning people struggle to make sense of this senseless act of violence, the temptation to "boil it down" is high. However, It is only by embracing the inherent uncertainty and complexity of violence that such gruesome attacks can be understood and prevented in the future.