When those intrepid 15th century Portuguese sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and headed across the Indian Ocean to the Spice Islands they stumbled across a bizarre phenomenon among the Malay people. Every so often a man who up to then had been perfectly normal would undergo a change of mood. He would become withdrawn, then begin to brood. Finally he would pick up a knife or an axe, run into a crowd and proceed to hack and stab total strangers or animals, maiming and killing them indiscriminately until finally committing suicide or being killed by the crowd. The Malays and Indonesians called this meng-amuk ‘making a desperate charge’ and the person doing the killing was an amuko. Westerners called it ‘running amok.’
If this sounds familiar, it should. Suicide bombers in the Middle East are a variant of this sort of madman, delusional fanatics who believe the Creator of the Universe smiles to see them reduce a crowded marketplace to a bloody tangle of body parts. In the United States the news is full of people running amok, mentally ill people who snap and explode with rage, taking the lives of the innocent in a few murderous seconds. There are some differences from the old Spice Islanders, however. The big one is that our amukos have their fingers on a trigger instead of a hilt so the numbers of the victims can be very large. Also, the attacks are often planned and their targets known to the attackers. It might be bosses who they feel slighted them, or members of groups they dislike, but the result is the same with innocent strangers dead or wounded. There is one other important similarity: they are always men. Psychologists have speculated that running amok may be a way for unsuccessful males to prove that they are, after all, real men, because what do real men do? They wield weapons and are able to kill.
It is said that the Malay people accepted running amok as part of their culture, and did not hold it against the amuko. It is our tragedy that running amok has become a regular part of our culture too, and while we do not forgive the assailant, over the years shock has yielded to a helpless sigh and a shake of our heads as we wonder how we ever got to this place.
What would it take to change that? As a prelude to an answer, let me suggest as others have that the tone at the top has an enormous influence, and currently we have some very angry men in leadership positions. You can’t help thinking of the old verse of Solomon: A wrathful man stirreth up strife, but he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife (Proverbs 15:18) . Has there ever been a time in recent memory where so much strife has been so vigorously stirred up and so little attempt at appeasing it?
So what do we do to make running amok a thing of the past? There’s plenty.
1) Congress: make it much more difficult for people with mental problems to get a gun
2) Health professionals / insurance companies: improve the care of people with mental problems
3) Media : reduce the frenzy around mass murders and he who stirreth up strife
4) All of us: foster a healthier Spirit—yes, with a capital S. If the zeitgeist is currently one of taunts and trolls, anger and angst, invective and paranoia lets work to undo that. Get off of social media, that slough of conspiracy theories, that echo chamber or hostility! Be slow to anger and stop stirring it up. And as far as Solomon’s “appeasement” goes, it has been an unpopular word since 1939, but in the sense of “reconciliation” it’s one of the most important aspects of communal life, an essential part of the Sacrament of Forgiveness. Let’s call it “getting along with others” and then it becomes something everyone can accept and work toward. So let’s get started.