National News

From 200 Years Ago, a Lesson About Mass Killings

Posted December 10, 2017 7:06 p.m. EST

The scene as described is painfully familiar. Someone snaps, for whatever reason, and sets off on an “aggressive, homicidal, frenzied attack.” In short order, “a lot of people lie dead, and there’s blood everywhere.”

Those words could have readily applied to the American cascade of shooting rampages. But the speaker, Geoffrey Robinson, a professor of Southeast Asian history and politics at the University of California, Los Angeles, was instead offering a glimpse of what life was sometimes like two centuries ago in lands that are the modern Malaysia and Indonesia.

A man — it was almost always a man — would feel he had endured an unbearable indignity. After a period of brooding, he lashed out by attacking everyone in sight with knives or other sharp weapons, hacking away until fellow villagers or the authorities finally killed him.

This was the true meaning of running amok, a word derived from the Malay “mengamok,” which roughly means making a furious, desperate charge. For Robinson, there are unmistakable parallels between those long-ago “amokers” and today’s mass killers in the U.S., and also possible lessons to be learned. Behavior patterns are not immutable, he said. By the end of the 19th century, Malay men mostly stopped running amok.

For now, the picture is unquestionably grim. Hundreds of mass shootings occur every year, most of them receiving little or no national attention. Gun Violence Archive, an online tracker of the mayhem, defines that type of shooting as an assault in which four or more people are killed or wounded. The archive recorded 324 such incidents nationwide this year through November, with at least 415 people killed and 1,725 wounded.

Our society is, obviously, heavily armed. So were the Malays of the past, with daggers, swords and spears. There was even an honorable quality to a man’s running amok, knowing that it would almost surely end in his own death. “He would become part of the story of that village and the story of his family,” Robinson said. There was, he said, a certain “aura” to it, not unlike the notoriety that many of today’s mass killers seem to seek.

That aura faded during colonial rule in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. The authorities changed tactics, discouraging villagers and the local police from killing a man who ran wild. Instead, Robinson said, they arrested him or packed him off to an institution. That drained the rampage of heroic quality. “Eventually,” he said, “it loses its appeal.”

Whether comparable tactics can work in the U.S. is in question. For starters, some mass killers turn their guns on themselves right after their carnage, so prison or a mental hospital is out of the picture. And the British and Dutch colonialists had no Bill of Rights to obey. The Second Amendment complicates any attempt to confiscate the arsenal of even a man known to be deranged, and the First Amendment makes it virtually impossible to stop news organizations from writing extensively about a mass killer — and possibly creating copycats in the process.

Nonetheless, a reason to study the Malay experience for Robinson is to learn how perhaps the past might be prevented from dictating the future. Mass killing, he said, “is not an irreparable kind of problem of the American psyche or American society. These things change.”