Viva la Muerte!: Gun Violence And America’s Culture Of Death


It’s grimly ironic. Though analyzed endlessly, America’s epidemic mass shootings remain difficult to explain. To be sure, the heinous killings are the work of starkly disturbed individuals. But this fact is true by definition. Ipso facto, it is unhelpful beyond the most blatantly obvious levels of clarification.

               What next? Where should we now turn for more usefully comprehensive and penetrating kinds of understanding? There can be no more urgent question.

                Until now, too little intellectual attention has been directed toward the deepening fissures of American culture. Because these expanding “weak-spots” could prove determinative for explaining mass casualty firearm assaults, we should learn to look more meaningfully behind specific event details. More precisely, we ought immediately to inquire:  Is there something intrinsically wrong about the core foundations of American cultural life?

               History could be instructive.[1] It can offer this beleaguered country some timely forms of insight. In 1936, at a speech by the nationalist general Millán Astray at the University of Salamanca in Spain, the hall thundered with the army’s favorite motto, Viva la Muerte!  “Long live Death!”  When the speech was over, Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the university, spoke in a solitary defense of Reason: “Just now,” intoned Unamuno, “I heard a necrophilous and senseless cry; this outlandish paradox is repellent to me.” 

               The senseless cry that was so repellent to Don Miguel, the 20th-century Basque philosopher best known for his Tragic Sense of Life (1921), expressed the driving passion of Spain’s Falangists. Today, in a once unforeseeable kinship, it also reflects the commonly-felt ethos of America’s gun-worshiping mass murderers. But what are the true commonalities? And what can be learned from them?

               Over time, history takes no sharp turns. Macabre sentiments of different kinds can animate entire legions of distressed people. In such impenetrably corrosive human circles, there can sometimes take hold a determined will to kill assorted others, often en masse. Whatever the preferred killing venues – in the United States a church, a synagogue, a Wal-Mart, a high-school cafeteria, an elementary school, a university, a runner’s marathon, a movie theatre, etc., etc. –  there can then emerge seemingly irresistible urges to unleash violent death.

               Usually, it takes place in crowds.

               Typically, in these cases, perpetrator selections of specific targets will reflect just an operational or tactical preference.

               Here, they are not animated by ideological choice.

               Spurred on by dissembling visions from television, movies and social networks, they generally take comfort from the idea of death as a “solution.” Indeed, such visions may seem even more rewarding where they combine mass homicides with suicide.

               To fully understand these difficult ideas, science should have its place. To wit, all scientific inquiry must begin with a disciplined search for regularities. For some recurring segments of would-be perpetrators, there already exists an overriding wish to express potency. For others, the planned murders are meticulously choreographed in order to secure a pleasingly sanctified personal “martyrdom.” For still others, there will arise some conveniently “obliging” intersections of mutually reinforcing goals.

               Whatever any given reason, the gun-centered calculations employed will conclude that it is better to be remembered as a killer than forgotten as a “loser.” Best of all is to leave tangible “evidence” of some enviable personal power, even at the cost of abruptly crushed-out lives. For this group of prospective mass murderers, almost all of them young males, any perceived weakness is viewed as unendurable. In these once unimaginable cases, it is only through death, ideally self-inflicted and meted out to many others, that the American mass murderer can palpably ensure a “proper memory.”

               Usually, when he finally explodes, this murderer will disregard any more “reasonable” personal targets or “rational hatreds.” Sometimes, however, the explosion itself is just a mock paroxysm of authentic rage. In these cases, it represents less a strategy of individual justice than a diversionary pretext for personal convulsions.

                For the most part, there exists no readily identifiable connections between the American mass killer’s presumed set of grievances and the decipherable names of his victims. Yes, of course, in the past, he may have actually recorded a loathing of certain specific individuals or institutions, but the consistent object of his most genuine antipathies is destroying victim innocence. Devoid of sympathy and empathy, the death-worshiping murderer utterly despises the blamelessness of his victims.

               In part, at least, this pristine blamelessness may remind him of his own failed human struggle for personal autonomy and respect.

                Although no longer shouted out loud, “Long Live Death” remains a manifestly “living” mantra in America. We wonder, as we should, about the recurrent mass killings and the expanding locus of gun-centered defilements. Still, in candor, especially as we consider this country’s irrepressibly demeaning and vulgar entertainments, we ought not be surprised at such ritualistic bloodshed.  

               Sometimes, people, young people especially, are more afraid of being left alone or inconsequential than of anything else, including even death. Then, for a few, almost always young males, the paralyzing fears of social or professional rejection become so numbingly overwhelming that they effectively crowd out any otherwise presumed sacredness of human life. In these fearful circumstances, even the mass murder of young children– now taken as an imagined compensation for injustice – may appear altogether appropriate and “just.”

               While each individual human being normally shrinks from personal annihilation, a perversely implemented fusion of homicide and suicide can still augur deeply reassuring celebrations of death. Sinister, to be sure, but sometimes eagerly anticipated, such fusions can offer the would-be mass killers a presumptively fitting path to “revenge.” For “normal people,” this sort of twisted reasoning can make no dignified sense, but any such evident lack of coherence still remains materially beside the point.

               All that really matters in such deranging circumstances is that it makes sense to the prospective killers. Unsurprisingly, the broader American democracy in which these killers have been raised is sustained by an endlessly politicized acrimony and by a gratuitously bitter rancor. This can hardly the republic envisioned by Jefferson, Madison, Jay or other 18th century Founders.

                There is more. In increments, crime and mass murder are taking a hideous but predictable turn in America.  Whatever the source, and wherever the venue, violence and death, most notably if overtly brutish and cold-blooded, are “in fashion.”  While this worrisome development is not unprecedented, increasing numbers of tormented persons who more generally live quietly among us are drawn to anything that can beat, batter and tear apart other living human beings.

               It’s not a promising formula for national pride.

               For the tormented individual, an American gun is not just a hideous reminder of species dereliction.

               Anything but.

               Like former President Donald J. Trump’s celebrations of barbed wire, it has become a thing of beauty.[2]

               Despite our advanced technologies, we face stunningly primal queries. Is the American nation’s epidemic of mass killing really any wonder? Virtually every national hero these days is acclaimed for having power to erase another human life. Many a male superstar polishes his name as some sort of assassin, sometimes as the “good guy,” but also (at least occasionally) as the “bad guy.”

               In these particular circumstances, identifications as good and bad don’t really matter. What does matter is that killing large numbers of innocent people represents a straightforward and ego-stroking path to remembrance. In the final analysis, what matters most to the killer is that becoming a Kevlar-clothed American “hero” can seemingly create certain satisfying forms of “immortality.”

               Though meaningful gun control is long overdue and indispensable, codified legal changes won’t ever be enough. The core problem for America is not fundamentally about law, politics, or religion. It is rather that we inhabit a relentlessly imitative and dreadfully conformist society, one deeply troubled, fervidly anti-individualist, deliriously unhappy and obscenely dysfunctional.

               There is more. The sea-tide of personal addictions in our gun-obsessed United States is deep enough to drown entire libraries of a once-revered national literature and entire mountain ranges of a once-sacred national poetry. How shall we measure these “drownings?”

               In virtually all recent cases of gun-centered mass murder in the United States, mental distress and disorientation were closely intertwined with our larger national landscape of ubiquitous rancor.  By intersecting with their own personal demons, this fissured, fractionated and still-fragmenting landscape provided the operational environment within which such once-unimaginable crimes could actually be carried out.  For the United States, this environment represented a profanation of the American nation’s core ideals. It ought never be taken as fixed or immutable.

               Ultimately, the problem of people who ecstatically murder blameless others stems from a society that literally loathes the individual.  Driven by nearly irresistible needs to conform at all costs, we Americans have learned not just to tolerate mass society, but to glorify it. In consequence, functioning under carefully scripted urgings to worship almost every inane technology, we remain generally more attentive to distracting “apps” and personal devices than to the inexorable pain of others

               Social networking has become much more than a pleasing entrance to greater wealth or relationship opportunities. More a symptom than a cause, it has become a new expression of “faith,”a leavening expression of obeisance to the relentless expectations of mass. To actually act in any manner against these unchallengeable expressions is no longer merely unacceptable. It is blasphemy.

               For the most part, whether in business or education, any American who would dare to affirm personal value or merit apart from the mass is merely pushed aside. It is largely this sought-after absorption by mass that corrodes personal responsibility and empathetic community in these United States. On grotesque occasion, as we have now been witnessing daily, it can even transform cruelty and mass killing into welcome visions.

               Nonetheless, in the larger view, such transformations are unbearable and intolerable.


               To the darkly lonely ones who simply feel unable to belong – that is, to find some sufficiently sustaining acceptance in the mass[3] – an overwhelming despair can become irresistible. The “remedy” for this gravely painful condition, a sort of residual “sickness unto death” (phrase of 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) will have to be discovered elsewhere. “Better mental health” is a usually proposed remedy, but we also know that further remedies will be needed.

               Many more.       

                We ought to look more closely at the unprecedented problem. Confronted on every side by synthetic food and synthetic feelings, America’s most vulnerable people have become phobic toward anything that is deeply personal or can produce mordant personal excitement. Better to be notorious or infamous, calculates the would-be mass killer in America, than to remain “weak” and invisible. For this not-to-be ignored figure, the worst case scenario is not to become a despised gun murderer, but to be taken as “normal” – i.e., as insignificant.

                Let us look around further. Our “advanced” American society cheerfully instructs to become more comfortable with robots, videos, cell phones, and computers than with each other. But for what?

                Americans do face serious geopolitical threats originating from abroad, and now – following Putin’s belligerent remarks over US military assistance to Ukraine – perhaps even a nuclear war. Against such authentic perils, we must all remain conspicuously vigilant and solution-oriented. At this late point, nothing could possibly be more obvious.

                Still, we should not be encouraged to die in manifold and sordid ways, that is – needlessly, gratuitously, from the inside.In order to turn away from this country’s increasingly ascendant culture of death, it is also essential that Americans should first want to live, and be able to do so without suffering excruciating fears of social banishment or community exile.

                We will need to transform our crushing public universe of banal chatter and empty witticism into an environment more patently dedicated to “respiration.” For too long, there has not been enough air to breathe in America. In principle, however, and in a suitably transformed national environment, we could still learn once again how to avoid “suffocation.”  Then we could plausibly expect fewer recruits to the rapidly growing “crowd” of American gun-worshipping mass murderers.

               “The crowd is untruth,” observed Soren Kierkegaard.

               Though just a four-word assertion, it is anything but a simple phrase.

               Intellectually, it remains timeless and “on the mark.”

               Violent spasms of recurrent American gun killings are the predictable result of this society’s pervasive loneliness and its correspondingly manipulated obsessions with death. If an alien were to touch down on earth at any time and begin to seek reliable information about the human condition (from movies, video games, social media and television), its conclusions would inevitably be visceral, stark and dire.  Even a not-so-studious alien would have to conclude that our earthling days are largely preoccupied with mayhem. And such preoccupation would include every conceivable variant of politics-based mass killing; i.e., war, terrorism, and genocide.

               Somehow, collectively, and before it is too late, Americans must learn to recover variously meaningful incentives to feel. Otherwise, some living among us who are unhappy and malleable will continue to seek reassuring personal significance in carefully planned spasms of human extermination. In this regard, former US President Donald J. Trump’s “America First” could never have become a proper template for a decent and law-abiding national society. Trump’s crudely-corrosive and belligerent ethos represented the opposite of what was required for national security and criminal law enforcement.

               The exact opposite.

               Always, true feeling and empathy require good people to behave as thinking individuals, not as blindly obedient members.  Oddly, perhaps, such necessary behavior is widely viewed as mistaken, scandalous; a threatening intrusion into the compulsively deceptive worlds of raw commerce, mindless jingles, mass marketing and adrenalized competition. Nonetheless, even in civilizations on the wane, at twilight, worn and almost defeated, an uncorrupted human life is sometimes offered a second chance.

               But what shall we now do with this possible “second chance”?

               Literature can help us. “Who is to decide which is the grimmer sight,” queries Honoré de Balzac, “withered hearts or empty skulls.” It is a question that now applies directly to America’s epidemic of mass killing and gun violence. Ironically, it also presents a false polarity or bifurcation, because both identified characteristics (heart and head) feed voraciously one upon the other.

               The predictable result of all this is nothing less than an all-consuming “synergy” of death, a cumulative and intersectional American suffering that is much greater than the simple arithmetic sum of its parts.

               The unheroic wail Viva la Muerte,Long live death,” is the plea of an estranged person who has lost his or her senses. To rescue our imperiled society from its now all-too frequent confrontations with gun-based mass murder, Americans must first learn to reignite a common capacity to discover certain life-enhancing values lying within themselves. Once this reigniting has been accomplished – once we have begun to detach our vital meanings as unique persons from the besotted judgments of an always-disfiguring mass society – a navigable way toward communal safety will have been cleared.

               Already in the 19th century, prophetic warnings about such an American future were raised by Transcendentalist figures Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Today, however, virtually no one can even recognize these names, let alone understand their quintessentially American writings.

               Endless gun murders in the United States do not emerge ex nihilo, out of nowhere, without some antecedent cause. Rather, they represent predictably barbarous outcomes of any society that has been indefatigably defiling itself.In the best of all possible worlds, such witting defilements could conceivably still be brought to a tolerable end, but not as narrowly mundane matters of a tactical police response.

               It’s high time for purposeful conclusions. As in all other matters, truth will be exculpatory. In essence, there can be no anticipations of a safer life within segments of a nation that could prefer celebrations of death.

               A firearm is never a proper object of veneration; never a thing of decent admiration or beauty. Derivatively, gun violence is always just a symptom of much deeper and self-destroying communal pathologies. In the United States, these underlying diseases are not randomly distributed or ad hoc. They are centered on the afflicted nation’s grievously pervasive culture of death.

               What next? To suitably undermine this unsustainable social context, an imperiled nation must go determinedly beyond the recurrent lies and false promises of its own domestic politics. Accordingly, this beleaguered country must learn to appreciate once again the incomparable benefits of dignified human learning. To start out again on the “right road,” America must encourage its schools and universities to offer students substantially more than a lifetime of imitative acquisition and crude commerce.[4] Whatever its particularly expressed form, such a sham lifetime could represent only a vita minima, a personal existence emptied of itself, fearful, unstable, and (most insufferable of all) yearning to unleash spectacular harms upon variously innocent others.

               In a desperate nation defiled by rampant gun violence, this is no longer a complicated or controversial assessment.

               In civilized society,in any civilized society, death ought never be applauded as gainful.

               To the contrary, all should now expect to hear:

               Viva la Vida!“Long live life!”

[1] Ironically, observes Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset in Man and Crisis (1958): “History is an illustrious war against death.” (emphasis added).

[2] See, by this author, at Oxford University Press:  Louis René Beres,

[3] In the clarifying words of Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl G. Jung: “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.” See, CG Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 1957.

[4] See by this author, Louis René Beres, at The Daily Princetonian:

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


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