The long shadow of massacre

Photo: Glowing Red Sunset Over Mountain.

On the eve of World War I, Carl Jung had a vision:

“I saw a blood-red glow, like the flicker of the sea seen from afar, stretched from East to West across the northern horizon. And at that time someone asked me what I thought about world events in the near future. I said that I had no thoughts, but saw blood, rivers of blood.”

Jung was not alone in his vision; apocalyptic images were also found in the works of artists and writers. Many intuited the troubled times before they ruptured into awareness—and before the machinations of war marched irreversibly into history.

I thought of Jung’s dream in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. His vision resonates with the darkness that spreads over our collective minds and hearts following this senseless act. There have been so many massacres in the US, and like natural disasters, their numbers are increasing. No place—nobody—seems safe from random, senseless acts of violence. We are united in grief, fear, as well as the images of the aftermath of an event itself too horrific to imagine.

The Newtown shootings pierce deep into the shadows of our psyches and collective unconscious. What kind of person, we wonder, could kill a classroom of children? The thought is incomprehensible and the reality unbearable. The assumption that the killer was mentally ill is a natural one to make. Only an insane person would commit such a heinous act. Yet most people labeled mentally ill could never imagine such profound disregard for life.

Placing the blame on one person also fails to satisfy our collective moral outrage and despair. We sense there must be something greater afoot, and rightfully demand enforced gun control and the availability of affordable and effective mental healthcare. And yet the violence still feels to have deeper implications, and suggests a sea change in the very fabric of our society.

Jung wrote in his autobiography:

“A collective problem, if not recognized as such, always appears as a personal problem, and in individual cases may give the impression that something is out of order in the realm of the personal psyche. The personal sphere is indeed disturbed, but such disturbances need not be primary; they may well be secondary, the consequence of an unsupportable change in the social atmosphere. The cause of disturbance is, therefore, not to be sought in the personal surroundings, but rather in the collective situation. Psychotherapy has hitherto taken this matter far too little into account.”

Intuitively, we know this is true. It’s difficult not to wonder what lurks in the collective psyche of a country that fears siege by its relatively younger members—for many of the perpetrators are young. Like Jung before us, we too may become vulnerable to apocalyptic visions, although the enemy may well be within us—not as a deep-seeded evil that threatens our human nature, but rather something more banal—an oversight really, to recognize how complicated and delicate the process of raising vulnerable, underdeveloped minds actually is.

There is a lot of research on the minds of mass murderers—their childhood histories, what their parents were like, how well they got along with their peers, how intelligent they were, the stressors leading up to their violent outbursts. All of this evidence tries to help us understand what contributes to violence and the disregard of human life.

I think there is also an intangible factor that needs to be considered—one that has to do with the unconscious itself—the so-called “seat” of the imagination and fantasy—the seat that becomes an auditorium when it binds us in our collective horror.

I recently read an article in Newsweek by Lee Siegel titled “The Kids Aren’t Alright.” Siegel is concerned about Facebook’s announced plan to allow kids under 13 to use their social-media site. Of course, Facebook is not to blame for this massacre—or any other social media site. But Siegel does bring up some important concerns about the impressionable developing mind that seem relevant to understanding mass murders, especially given that a significant number are committed by young men whose mental development deserves scrutiny.

Siegel argued when kids are constantly interacting with the web they fail to develop the “inner resources” that contribute to resilience and perseverance in the face of setbacks, disappointments, and stress:

“The process of maturing is a movement from a rich yet defensive inner space to the outer reality of pleasure postponement, setback, and perseverance. But the Internet offers one recessive chamber after another of inwardness; it is a place where distraction and immediate gratification become cognitive tools in themselves.”

Siegel also quoted Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner:

“It’s often the case that today’s youth ‘don’t know whether they’re online or not.”

Such observations may seem a bit nebulous. Certainly, one might argue, the web is incapable of having a causal impact great enough to lead to mass murder—except, of course, in someone already mentally unstable for more tangible reasons—or so the argument would go.

But such reasoning would reverse the order of things. We must first ask: What in our individual psyches and collective unconscious led to the rapid acceptance and proliferation of the web? What is so appealing about a technology that deliberately blurs the distinction between conscious reality and virtual awareness? For is this not the nature of dissociation, one of our more evolved traumatic defenses? Dissociation has been identified by Peter Levine as “the escape when there is no escape” that is available for just those times when something is psychologically overwhelming and yet their is no way to flee or fight the danger.

Last week I blogged about dissociation. When we dissociate, we are defending against overwhelming emotions. And emotions connect us to others. They are the basis of our humanity and the wellspring of empathy. We are not capable of empathy in highly dissociative states.

In a world overwhelmed by stress and reminders of both personal and collective traumas, regularly “checking out” and activating dissociative states is a reasonable survival strategy—that is, until too much checking out happens. Then the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy becomes a risk. We might wonder if at some point the need to habitually dissociate leads to reality and fantasy losing their distinctiveness. At such times and in such minds, there may be limited opportunities for reality testing and gauging the impact of actions.

If we create a culture of young people who not only fail to develop the inner resources needed for difficult times, but also create a world where their most reliable psychological defense is dissociation and the state of not feeling—and then to make matters worse, we entertain them with violence—they may have no internal method for distinguishing between fantasy and reality during times of acute stress. For such minds, there may be no moral compass, only identified sources of intense emotions that are dealt with through destruction and escape.


Jung, Carl G. 2009. The red book: Liber novus. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Jung, Carl. 1989. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston. Edited by Aniela Jaffé. New York Vintage Books.

Levine, Peter. 1997. Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).


    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Yes, exactly. And I think that all of us, especially when acutely stressed, are more likely to blur fantasy and reality — although only a rare few to the point of massacre or mass murder.

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