At the time of the Littleton episode, I felt I had nothing to add to a discussion that, however necessary, also seemed necessarily incapable of defining the “real” problem. But seeing the other day the front page of the Los Angeles Times occupied by stories on two independent mass murderers–one in Yosemite, the other in Atlanta–makes me think again of Herostratus (see Chronicle 87), who is said to have burned down the Temple of Diana at Ephesus–one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World–in order to become immortal, and who has succeeded so well that we no longer know whether he ever really existed as a mortal human being.

Are there more mass murders now than in the past, or is the increase an artifact of journalistic attention? One feature of the phenomenon is the impossibility of defining it in statistical terms. After Littleton, Generation Xers pointed out that today’s youth is collectively less violent than in the past, that our schools are collectively safer. The rash of middle-class massacres is not equivalent to a “crime wave” provoked by a surge in criminal motivation, as with the introduction of a new drug or the loss of entry-level jobs in a recession. The murderers no doubt feed on each other mimetically, but they feed as well on the complacency of a safe and prosperous society. One can base a “critique of pure fairness” on the idea that the better and fairer things become, the more intolerable the situation is for “losers” who fail to benefit from these favorable conditions: a stock trader who loses money in a bull market, for example.

The attention we devote to mass murderers offers two lessons in human mimesis: the obvious one of our preoccupation with our greatest danger, man-made violence, and the only slightly less obvious one that killing a dozen people is the only way the average person has of making it to the front page of the newspaper. A curious mimetic relationship exists between the mass murderer and the general public. Leaving aside the unbalanced few who would follow the killer’s example, his act fulfills for the public at large something like the function of ritual sacrifice in traditional societies. Our “mourning” for his victims, whom we come to know only after their death, relieves our own aggression. This relief may be psychologized in a number of ways: as the fulfillment of unconscious impulses, the projection of hostilities, or, as I prefer to put it, the deferral of resentment. But the sacrificial model is the most parsimonious and therefore the most anthropologically valid. This “positive” function of violence–like that of the Holocaust on a larger scale–depends on our cultural ability to recuperate its effects through sacralization, purging our imaginary complicity in the murders that made them sacrificial in the first place. But this is how sacrifice has always functioned. Nor is the fact that we have neither selected nor killed these victims any stranger to sacrifice, where responsibility for killing is often avoided through the use of aleatory or collective procedures or by entrusting it to a “sacred” individual on the margin of the community.

The modern market system is characterized on the one hand by the circulation through “product-signs” of the “natural” use-values that cannot themselves be exchanged within it, and, on the other, by the recycling into productive activity of the resentments generated by the failure to obtain these signs. Mass murder brings these two features together in the most radical–and scandalous–manner. The value created by the circulation through the system of the “natural” element of death defers resentment in defiance of morality. Yet the scandal of the mass murderer is that, as the author of a genuinely (as opposed to representationally) irreversible gesture, he cannot be recuperated by the system but, on the contrary, can discount his own scandalous value within it. Herostratus serves a function within the social order and, aware of this, can anticipate, even if he does not live to see it, the reward of publicity that society cannot deny him. The naive cynicism of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers expresses the self-serving critique of an “outsider” to the system–as though the film’s portrayal of mass murder as entertainment were not the worst kind of pandering to the phenomenon it purports to denounce. The mass murderer is not a “hero”; but his ability to frustrate the system arouses a grudging admiration that, in more cases that we care to admit, is acquiesced in rather than fought against. The Unabomber, for example, is at least a semi-hero for many to whom the marginally political inspiration of his murders serves as pretext to deny, or simply forget, the innocence of his victims.

Herostratus blackmails the system by taking to an inhuman extreme the founding premise of the human social order: the primacy of the mimetic over the appetitive. Thus he sacrifices his life, in principle at least, to the pleasure of being recognized–recognized not within the standard market publicity apparatus, which offers only representations of the “natural,” but as one who, by accepting his own mortality, has turned his back on this apparatus. Like the 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicides (see Chronicle 89), he is a dandy, but one who, like Lacenaire in Carné’s Enfants du paradis, understands that the most scandalous demonstration of the dandy’s superiority comes from killing others rather than himself.

Since the classic supply curve suggests that the publicitary attractiveness of acts of mass murder would grow with their increasing rarity, stamping them out altogether would require the eradication of the Herostratus syndrome from the entire population–hardly a realistic assumption. This does not make any less clear the ethical imperative we as individuals and collectivities should follow to prevent them: act so as to defer resentment. In most private cases, to implement this ethic is simply to follow the moral model brought to the fore by the Judeo-Christian tradition. But on a broader scale, implementation is a matter of serious policy decisions. It might help just a bit if policy-makers, who read the same headlines as the rest of us, were more clearly aware of this goal.