Henry Idema: Mass murders: Do we have a death wish?

On the day I am writing this article, Jan. 24, three mass murders (defined as four or more victims) have just happened — two in California, one in Washington State, and others happened relatively recently in Idaho and Texas. I just heard a reporter say that we have had more than 30 mass murders already in 2023 around our nation.

How do you make sense of all of this? Jesus says in John 10:10, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." But in the same passage he warns that there are people in our midst who may rob us of this greatest gift of all: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy."

A mass murderer, unlike a single gunman killing someone in a robbery or in gang warfare, expects to die (in most instances). On some level, the mass murderer must want to die, or at least is willing to die. So let's examine possible origins of that death wish.

Henry Idema
Henry Idema

In 1922, right after World War I, Sigmund Freud put forth his theory of a death wish in his book, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." In a nutshell, Freud postulates that all human beings have an unacknowledged death wish. This could be a boy wishing his father were dead, or a daughter wishing her mother were dead. Freud takes this a step further and theorizes that we all have a wish to return to "the inanimate," which he sums up as the universal desire to commit suicide. Even among psychoanalysts, this death wish theory is not widely shared and is hotly debated. I do believe this theory of a death wish, if not universal, at least illuminates many mass murderers and their conscious or unconscious wish to die — and their conscious wish to kill others.

Obviously, a death wish can apply outside the family or one's self. The Bible is filled with murderers, beginning with Cain murdering his brother Abel. The biblical commandment, "thou shall not kill," really means thou shall not commit murder. It does not apply to wars, which the Bible is full of. Jesus was very aware of this human impulse to kill, which is an aspect of our sinful nature. Murder is a sin. So one way of looking at the rash of mass shootings is through the religious lens of sin. However, in our increasingly secular culture, the message of sin and redemption, God's love and forgiveness, God's judgment upon evil actions, etc., are biblical themes that do not reach or touch so many of us. One could argue that all the shootings in our society can be linked to religious decline, the loss of community, and the fracturing of so many families.

A death wish is not only a theological issue, but a psychological one as well. And when so many people are motivated by a death wish to kill, consciously or unconsciously, we end up having a very sick society, which we are living in right now, as sick as I have ever seen in my 75 years of life.

Now let's look at some specific issues for us to debate:

1. America has more guns in our hands than any other country in the world, both in number and per capita.   Moreover, they are easily available by purchase or theft. We have no universal background checks for all gun purchases or laws limiting the capacity of gun magazines.

2. Our political leaders in Washington are largely impotent in addressing the problem of gun violence. Many are bought and sold by the gun lobbies and the NRA, and many fear to be voted out of office if they vote for gun restrictions. So it is up to us voters to put in power men and women who will be proactive on the issue of guns, not men and women bought and sold by the gun industry.

3. When we had an assault weapons ban, until President George W. Bush let it expire, we had less mass shootings, by far, than we have now.

4. In the 1970s and 1980s, we shut down, for the most part, our state mental hospital system. I worked and studied at Boston State Hospital in 1976 and saw for myself my patients being let out as the hospital began to be shut down, only to be murdered on the outside. I lived in the hospital for a year and ate my meals with the patients, some of whom were murderers. It was OK and even enjoyable to share a meal with them, but I would not want to meet up with them on the outside. Boston State Hospital, including the wing for the criminally insane, is now condos. The hospital is gone. So what do families do with members of the family they consider to be dangerous?

5. Putting the needed resources into mental health is not a priority of our governments or our society.

6. The internet helps make some people feel alone and isolated, even unloved. Our mass media (movies, TV, video games, Facebook, etc.) are filled with violence. Hard to believe, but murder is a form of entertainment.

For some of us, it takes all the resources we can muster from our society can offer us to combat a death wish, either in terms of murder or suicide. You can reject the religious doctrine of sin — although one my professors, Martin Marty, said it is the most provable of all biblical doctrines! And you can reject Freud's theory of a death wish, but we do so at our peril.

— Henry Idema lives in Grand Haven. He can be reached at henryidema3@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Henry Idema: Mass murders: Do we have a death wish?