Unmasking the ‘Town Destroyer’: Holmes, Washington, & the Structural Dimensions of Terror

It would be a grave understatement to describe the near ubiquitous media coverage of the horrific massacre in Aurora, Colorado as dramatic. Alleged killer, James Holmes, has been scrutinized to the point of celebrity. Reports describe an orange-haired mass murderer “looking dazed, alternately bug-eyed and nodding with his eyes closing”. Latest reports from ABC News claim that he has begun “spitting at jail officers”.

 Individual portraits of this kind have been given some depth with the commentary of psychologists. Australian forensic psychologist Paul Mullen provided arguably the most illuminating glance into “the minds of mass killers”. In an ABC News interview Mullen maintained that mass murderers are “typically social isolates,” who “are angry and resentful at the world”. Mass killers, he adds, “blame the world for not recognizing their qualities,” while “ruminating on . . . past slights and offences.”

Analysis of the mental states of notorious killers is not uncommon in the aftermath of tragedies, especially in shooting sprees like that which transpired in Aurora. For example, weeks after former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was nearly killed by 23-year-old gunman Jared Loughner, Time Magazine published an article portraying him as “a quiet, normal boy who had grown into a man descending into serious mental illness”. In accord with this motif, former chief research psychologist Marissa Randazzo suggests that Holmes “may be in the middle of a psychotic episode,” if he is not “faking,” mental illness. Virginia Tech shooter, Seung Hui Cho elicited similar commentary, described in Time magazine as someone who indulged in “revenge fantasies”–a pattern of behavior that led to his “involuntary commitment to a mental institution.”

Mainstream treatment of these cases share a crucial characteristic, namely they obscure, if not reject, the sociocultural context within which these crimes unfold. Each killer is portrayed as a “lone wolf,” detached from the influences of society at large. Such explanations, while convenient, ought to come under closer scrutiny when the military and diplomatic record of the United States is considered along with its cultural implications. According to figures published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute the US commanded 41% of the world’s military spending in 2011, vastly outspending China (8.2%), Russia (4.1%), France (3.6%), and the United Kingdom (3.6%). Additionally, “The volume of the USA’s arms exports increased by 24 percent between 2002-2006 and 2007-2011,” making it the world’s largest arms exporter. This huge disparity in military might is essential to sustain myths of American exceptionalism and its cultural corollaries.

 Quite predictably, this monopoly on what Karim H. Karim called “the legitimate use of force,” has normalized state terror as a defining feature of the American “way of life,” with roots traceable to the European conquest of the Americas. The historical significance of this terror was captured perhaps most powerfully by an American soldier contemplating his role in the destruction of the native Iroquois civilization under the command of the great “Town destroyer,” George Washington. Struck by the savagery of this genocidal mission, the soldier remarked, “I really feel guilty as I applied the torch to huts that were Homes of Content until we ravagers came spreading desolation everywhere”. The soldier went on to add “our mission here is ostensibly to destroy but may it not transpire that we pillagers are carelessly sowing the seeds of Empire?” Incidentally, the “Town destroyer,” himself receives ample tribute within contemporary centers of power.

 Writing on the “20 most influential Americans of all time,” the staff of Time magazine describes George Washington as a “sensible and wise,” man who possessed “the tolerance of a landsman . . .” and “the faith that comes with witnessing the changing seasons year in and year out”. An instructive sample of this abiding “faith,” can be sensed in a letter written by Washington in 1783 addressed to James Duane. In this letter Washington observed that efforts “to drive [the indigenous population] by force of arms out of their Country . . . is like driving the Wild Beasts of the Forest which will return as soon as the pursuit is at an end and fall perhaps on those that are left there.” In his final assessment of the mass slaughter he concluded “the gradual extension of our Settlements will as certainly cause the Savage as the Wolf to retire; both being beasts of prey tho’ they differ in shape.” Time magazine encapsulated this genocidal record by noting that “Washington’s military achievements are admired for their perseverance rather than their brilliance”. It would be instructive to measure our reaction to a magazine staff that hailed the “brilliance,” of the Wehrmacht in their invasion of Poland, as the extermination camps of Auschwitz certainly present 20th century analogues to Washington’s “military achievements”.

drone operator

 Pronouncements of this kind persist in the Obama administration and serve as a strong affirmation of an idea articulated by French philosopher Michel Foucault. In his famous study of “the history of madness during the so-called classical age”, Madness and Civilization, Foucault observes that madness is “the most rigorously necessary form of the qui pro quo in the dramatic economy, for it needs no external element to reach a true resolution. It merely has to carry its illusion to the point of truth.” Is this qui pro quo not most violently embodied in the Obama administration’s assassination campaign, where international law is flagrantly violated, national sovereignty is undermined, and over 700 innocent civilians are mercilessly slaughtered? What was the assassination of Osama Bin Laden but a reiteration of Foucault’s maxim that madness “has to carry its illusion to the point of truth”. In this case the “illusion” was the notion that Osama Bin Laden posed an imminent threat to the United States while the assassination marked the brutal end of this illusion, its “point of truth,” punctuated with the President’s memorable phrase “justice has been done”.

In fact, it does not take much effort to notice that the US, in its use of terrorism as an instrument of power, meets almost, if not all, of the traits laid out by Mullen in his examination of “mass killers”. Like mass killers, centers of power within the US have also “developed a hatred for the whole world”. A graphic sample of this hatred can be perceived in the US record on the environmental front. Despite leading the world in pollution per capita, the US remains the most formidable obstacle in the way of an international resolution on climate change. In the climate talks at Kyoto the US voted against 192 other member states and effectively eliminated any prospect of meaningful action. This comes as record heat sweeps across the nation, endangering food production and animal life. MIT’s Center for Global Change and Science projected in 2009 that “without rapid and massive action the problem [of global warming] will be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago if not worse”. To be precise, the “median probability of surface warming,” is to reach 5.2 degrees centigrade by 2100, more than double the 2003 projection at 2.4 degrees.

 Also like Mullen’s “mass killer,” Washington can be observed “ruminating on . . . past slights and offences.” For example, the US is still “ruminating” on the “offence,” carried out by Cuba in 1959 when its people extricated themselves from the US-backed Batista dictatorship. Consistent with their passionate “hatred for the world,” every administration since Kennedy has made sure to vote down any measures implemented at the UN to bring an end to the economic blockade, consciously imposed for the crime of liberation. 186 to 2 (US and Israel voting against) was the final vote in the last General Assembly resolution condemning the embargo. The continued punishment of Iran for overthrowing the Shah dictatorship is yet another consequence of this rumination.

In an interview published by the Council on Foreign Relations, London Middle East Institute director Dr. Hassan Hakimian stated “Iran’s economy is facing a lot of challenges, and these challenges have been accentuated by the [US] sanctions. The main challenges are (and have been for a while) unemployment, especially amongst youth, and inflation, which is likely to get worse partially because of the depreciation of Iranian currency and partly because of the abolition of the subsidies scheme, which the government put in place about a year ago. These included some sixteen essential items, including energy and bread and sugar.” Collective punishment of this sort, in addition to depriving Iranians of these “essential items”, is a direct violation of international humanitarian law, most notably the Geneva Conventions.

These striking parallels between the “obsessional personality,” of Mullen’s mass killer and the geopolitical “interests,” of the US would lead any rational person to conclude that, apart from aberrations in an otherwise civilized society, killers like Holmes, Loughner, and Cho are symptomatic expressions of what Norman Finkelstein would call a “lunatic state”. This is not to say that these atrocities are reducible to state or corporate power but that the causes of individual acts of violence can be better understood within a larger, overarching system of structural violence (state-capitalism) which lays the groundwork for its full expression. This groundwork ranges from hailing Washington’s genocidal legacy as “military achievements,” to celebrating Gestapo-style assassinations as manifestations of “justice”.

Incidentally, the importance of structural violence is even conceded in a scientific study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Using a “nationally representative logitudinal data set,” to assess the “relationship between mental health and violence,” Dr. Eric B. Elbogen and Sally C. Johnson, MD conclude “the link between violence and mental disorder requires consideration of its association with other variables such as substance abuse, environmental stressors, and history of violence”. Furthermore, the study describes the scientific literature on this topic as “inconclusive,” seriously calling into question reductionist explanations that mass murderers like Holmes are simply “crazy”. Rather it should prompt us to revisit the possibility that these killers embody the reality that “we have become complicit and reliant on violence as a mediating force that increasingly shapes our daily experiences.”

 Imperial doctrine forbids violence to mean anything outside of isolated acts carried out by deranged individuals. Equal standards apply for terrorism. Perhaps the flaw in this logic was best summed up by Feodor Dostoevsky in his Diary of a Writer when he wrote “It is not by confining one’s neighbor that one is convinced of one’s sanity.” These words are simply inapplicable to those who continue to wield weapons with the same intensity as the “guilty” soldier “carelessly sowing the seeds of Empire”. Whether it be a drone pilot in southern California bombing Pakistanis or a petroleum industry magnate depriving “unpeople,” of natural resources, the illusions of the powerful will proceed steadily toward its “point of truth,” but there’s no reason we should leave it to the wisdom of the lunatic state to determine if “justice has been done”.

Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky
Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault
Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence by Karim H. Karim

One thought on “Unmasking the ‘Town Destroyer’: Holmes, Washington, & the Structural Dimensions of Terror

  1. I came across this blog in a search for the origin of the “Our mission here is ostensibly to destroy…” letter supposedly written by a soldier on the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign of 1779. Before I present some ideas about that letter and the Washington “Town Destroyer” epithet, I will say that, in general, I agree with your stance as written here on violence and terror.

    I am in the midst of researching and writing about the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign of 1779 and I’ve come across a much-repeated mistruth and a second one I suspect is fictitious, but it is difficult to prove a negative. First is the oft-repeated story of Washington the Town Destroyer. The specific wording of this is from Seneca chief Cornplanter’s address of Dec. 1, 1790 to Washington (as “Great Councillor”). He hails Washington as town destroyer, yet that is not the origin of the name as many people believe. As early as 1754 Washington, in written correspondence, referred to himself as “Conotocarious” (also spelled “Caunotaucarius”) which means “Town devourer (or taker)” in Iroquois. Apparently, his friend, the Seneca chief Half King (Tanacharison) had given this name to the 21-hr old Washington in 1753. At that time, GW had not “destroyed” any town, but was granted the same Indian name given two generations before to his great-grandfather John Washington (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0045#GEWN-02-01-02-0045-fn-0008-ptr). In 1790, Cornplanter knew that Washington had been called “Town Destroyer” for nearly a half-century, well before he sent Sullivan into the Iroquois homeland and was using his “Indian” name in address. Also, if one reads the series of back-and-forths between the Senecas in Philadelphia in 1790-1 and Washington, along with Sec of War Knox, one sees that Cornplanter is using several rhetorical strategies to achieve redress, first for about $800 of damage and then more broadly about illegal land “transactions.” This is not the negotiation of a defeated warrior, it’s not the supplication of a subjected man, instead it is simply Cornplanter appealing personally to Washington (mistakenly, as Washington is bound by Federal law as President and unable to personally intervene in the broader claims).

    It is more difficult to settle the matter of the supposed letter written by a solder or officer of Sullivan’s army (frequently called “Washington’s Army” on the Internet” which includes the phrases “homes of content” and ends with “seeds of Empire.” Chomsky cites the historian Max Mintz from his 1999 book ‘Seeds of Empire’ about the Revolutionary War destruction of the Iroquois homeland. In that book, Mintz repeats the mistruth about Washington being called “Town Destroyer” because of the 1779 campaign and quotes a letter from a supposed soldier, who was apparently killed on the mission, to his fiancé. In that book, Mintz cites “Anon. to Miranda ?, Aug. 30, 1779, “The Love Letters of Soldier on Battlefield,” Telegram, Mar. 10, 1929, reprint of article in Hornell Daily Times, Aug. 1879, clipping in Chemung County Historical Society Museum, Elmira, N.Y. 2.” I have not yet had a chance to examine the clipping on file in Elmira, but I will soon. Suffice to say that in August 1879, the Hornell paper would probably have an article about the Centennial of the Sullivan Campaign, and in 1929, there were many Sullivan Sesquicentennial celebrations and remembrances. However, the paragon of Sullivan primary sources, the 1887 compilation “Journals of the military expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six nations of Indians in 1779” ed. Clark, has no such letter. Here are the reasons I believe the letter is a literary fantasy:

    1. The sender is unknown. Only 41 men were killed in on the expedition, so finding the name of the sender, if it were inexplicably absent from the letter itself, should be relatively easy. It is sourced still, 220 years (now 235) later. The recipient is nearly unknown, which calls into question how the letter was printed in 1879 in the small Allegheny town of Hornell, NY (not part of the Sullivan Campaign at all). There are records of the Hornell Daily Times in Albany, I’ll have to investigate.

    2. Aug 30 is the day after the Battle of Newtown, which was the only real battle of the campaign. The “scorched earth” part was mainly in the future (though the army had burned a couple Indian villages in Pennsylvania, the majority of the destruction took place in the next three weeks). No mention of the battle is in the widely quoted excerpt.

    3. The fullest excerpt is “[I write of] the great Loneliness which is creeping into my Soul
    with every hour and every mile which separates me from you. I really feel guilty as I applied the torch to huts that were Homes of Content until we ravagers came spreading desolation
    everywhere… Our mission here is to destroy but may it not transpire that we pillagers are carelessly sowing the seeds of Empire?”

    I am an English Literature major, and have taught for 14 years. I am an expert in literary analysis. This excerpt does not match in style or tone any of the 26 journals found in the 1887 book. One of those journals was written by a Harvard graduate who was an officer under Sullivan and his writing is quite elaborate compared to some. But even that journal is clearly 18th Century in style, while this is much more 19th Century. The phrase “homes of content” appears in Thoreau’s journal in 1857 (http://blogthoreau.blogspot.com/2005/01/thoreaus-journal-06-jan-1857.html) and this piece echoes nicely the pastoral tone of Thoreau. The phrase “I really feel guilty” is completely anachronistic in context of all the other personal writing of the Sullivan soldiers. Additionally, a search of “I really feel guilty” on Google’s Ngram search (https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=I+really+feel+guilty&year_start=1750&year_end=1950&corpus=15&smoothing=50&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CI%20really%20feel%20guilty%3B%2Cc0) shows no uses in English language books before 1830. Ngram is not definitive, but offers an insight into patterns of word and language usage.

    Michael Brewster

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