A glance at the news suggests that it might be getting easier for Americans to kill each other. As of Dec. 8, we have witnessed 17,834 gun homicides, up from 15,208 the prior year. And amidst the indeterminacy and anxiety of the pandemic, Americans are flocking to gun stores, contributing to a 41 percent spike in sales from the prior year. Many gun sellers have reported a surge in first-time buyers.
How did the capacity to kill become so popular? One answer might lie in the spread of civilian interest in the teachings developed over the past twenty-five years by retired Army Lt. Col. David Grossman. Grossman calls his approach “killology.” It was originally used to train military personnel for combat.
The core principle of killology is the “warrior mindset”: a mental preparedness for killing. While it is natural to experience misgivings about taking a life, Grossman has made it his post-retirement career to teach people how to overcome them. On video, he sometimes looks apprehensive, describing in earnest tones how his hands shook when he first realized he might have to shoot someone. He shares the ways he learned to contain his unease.
The warrior mindset has made its way into self-defense trainings for civilians, including church congregants. It’s type kind of do-it-yourself security, where ordinary citizens learn to “fight violence with superior, righteous violence.” They practice picturing themselves as a last stand between peace and anarchy.
The influence of killology has done at an individual level what demagogic leaders do in politics: Stoke fear, and then offer you just the thing you need for protection. Except in the place of a demagogue, killology offers to make you into a sheepdog.
According to killology, a population can be sorted metaphorically into moral extremes. At one extreme are dangerous “wolves” who “feed on the sheep without mercy.” Wolves are destined to remain what they are: evil. Their opposites are peace-loving “sheep” defined by their naïvete. Unaware of the threats that surround them, sheep are incapable of protecting themselves and their loved ones. What they need are sheepdogs to confront the wolf and protect the flock. The point of killology is to convert oblivious sheep into vigilant sheepdogs.
Its broad cultural influence suggests that for killology’s followers, the warrior mindset is essential for living in U.S. society. Consider the Sheepdog Mamas: a FaceBook group of nearly 20,000, founded in 2011 to provide space for mothers to discuss strategies for armed self-defense. The Mamas share tips for safe gun storage, such as how to keep weapons handy in case of home intrusion but inaccessible to kids. They compare notes on which holsters are best for pregnant, nursing, or baby-wearing Mamas. They discuss how to conceal weapons in public, where dangerous strangers are thought to lurk.
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Sheepdog Mamas experience killology as empowering. They take pride in their self-reliant, responsible motherhood, with no need to depend upon men for safety or security.
But for the Mamas, killology is more than personal empowerment. It is a tool of actively democratic self-governance. By keeping careful watch over their children and their homes, they take themselves to model good democratic citizenship.
Their commitment to active self-governance places the Sheepdog Mamas in a long tradition of American philosophy - up to a point. From Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century and John Dewey 100 years ago to Harvard philosopher Cornel West today, many American theorists have held that democracy depends primarily on the attitudes and actions of ordinary people. As West puts it: “democracy is more a verb than a noun.” Democratic freedoms depend on people’s active participation. They are not maintained by governing structures alone. Instead, democracy is an ethos, measured by its consequences for people’s lives.
What does democratic self-governance mean? For the American philosophers, it means that citizens collectively curb the power of governing elites. For civilian killologists, it means that individual citizens each stand ready to overpower threatening strangers. That’s a big difference. And it raises a crucial question: which ethos is the truly democratic approach to self-governance?
Personal security is a basic democratic freedom. If we measure an ethos by its consequences, do we find that this basic freedom is maintained by killology’s defensive approach to stranger-danger?
No, we don’t. The sheepdog ethos has failed to build a democratic public. If a sheepdog mistakes someone for a wolf, she mistakes herself as someone with political privileges over another member of society: the very opposite of democracy.
Killology assumes an ability to judge in an instant which people are threatening. Yet the metaphor of wolves and sheep offers no assistance in identifying actual threats. By portraying the threat as unspecific and unmotivated, killology exaggerates fears, distorting its followers’ ability to tell which situations are truly dangerous. Fear comes to guide perception, when it should be the other way around. Recent controversies in Kentucky and Minnesota have shown the correlation of killology and police killings of unarmed civilians, many of whom are Black and Brown, and some of whom are white. Think of the spectacular errors in such killings over many decades, each episode forcing more people into a state of precarity where they, too, or their loved ones could be mistaken for the wolf. A remark at the turn of the 20th century by the journalist and political commentator Ida B. Wells-Barnett is apt: Let us be skeptical of approaches to security that lead to “hurling men into eternity on supposition.”
The sheepdog ethos has failed in another domain as well. It fails to secure protection in intimate spaces, where most violence against women and children takes place. Our distribution of civilian-owned firearms is vast: more than one for each person. But it is not serving women’s safety, or anyone else’s. In spite of a growing embrace of armed self-defense, firearms are rarely used to kill criminals or to stop crimes. Women who were murdered were more (not less) likely to have purchased a handgun in the three years prior to their deaths, and the U.S. remains the most violent western nation for women.
Killology may feel empowering for those seeking sanctuary amidst political and economic chaos. But despite its promises, its emphasis on ‘stranger danger’ misses the mark. By far, most homicides are perpetrated by someone the victim knew, and even more so for women. In 2018, 92 percent of female homicide victims (1,606 out of 1,748) were killed by a male acquaintance.
By teaching us to decide whether certain people are fit for society, killology replaces care and discernment with baseless fear and misdirected aggression. The challenge facing us as civilians sharing a peaceful society is to unlearn all forms of the “warrior mindset” — lest we become the wolf we were primed to kill.
Caroline Light teaches gender and ethnic studies at Harvard University. She is the author of “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.” Follow her at @carolineelight. Susanna Siegel is a philosophy professor at Harvard. Follow her at @siegel_susanna. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.