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The mindless allure of destruction

It seemed like any other Sunday when Bill and Donna pulled off the country road into the churchyard. They arrived a little before services began, to open the building for fellow parishioners.

When she stepped inside, Donna froze in shock and dismay. The St. Andrews Episcopal Church building is a cultural gem, small, remote, serene and beautiful. On this day, the ambience had been shattered, the sanctuary trashed.

Shards of glass lay scattered on pews and carpet. Framed pictures had been knocked or ripped from the wall. Most of the glass came from a sixpack of full hooch bottles, Smirnoff Ice Pineapple, smashed against anything that would break them. The smell of alcohol and pineapple was overpowering.

Other items had been moved, toppled, broken, or stolen. An attempt had been made to light a fire on the furnace grating. The effort was abandoned for some reason, and the fire went out by itself.

Sorrow, anger, confusion, outrage -- and most of all, a sense of violation descended on the congregation. Even as the past was assaulted, the future was compromised as well. How could any valuable objects ever be kept available on-site for weekly use, if at any time they could be destroyed? Donna says she can't taste or smell pineapple without recalling that horrible scene.

Was this incomprehensible act the work of people who hate religion, as an editorial suggested? It was a church, after all.

That's certainly possible, but the odds are against it. More likely the perps no more hated religion than graveyard vandals hate corpses.

In fact, many edifices are preferentially targeted by vandals -- churches, schools, government buildings, libraries, cemeteries, statues. Can all vandals be categorized into discrete subpopulations who specialize in destroying only the things they hate?

Or are they mostly equal-opportunity misfits who don't discriminate on the basis of subject matter? Do all these targets share any particular attributes that invite destruction?

Humans are biologically programmed for violence. Most of us seek acceptable outlets for violent impulses; many sports serve that purpose. Explosions sell movies as effectively as does sex. Kids obliterate anthills with sticks or firecrackers. What adolescent male would pass up a chance to fire a bazooka at a condemned outhouse?

Knocking down a stack of blocks is just more fun than building it. Destruction is especially thrilling to the one who choreographs it.

Indulging the violence instinct "for fun" becomes a crime when it causes the destruction or defacement of someone else's property without permission.

More likely to be males than females, teens than adults, vandals cost us billions of dollars annually. Vandalism is so common, in fact, that it's possible to identify specific categories.

"Acquisitive" vandalism involves a sort of profit motive -- the purpose is looting and theft of items for personal use or sale. Destruction is incidental. Wrecking equipment to strip copper wire is an example. Most of this is done by adults, whereas other types involve mainly teens.

"Tactical" vandalism seeks a specific outcome, e.g. a warm cell on a freezing night for the homeless person who throws a rock through a store window.

"Ideologic" vandalism furthers an explicit ideological cause, or delivers a "message" -- swastikas on synagogues, wrecking the offices of a rival political party. Trashing a specific church could represent this, but more often occurs for other reasons.

"Vindictive" vandalism seeks revenge for perceived insults or assaults. Some attacks on personal residences fit this category, as when an unpopular teacher's house is defaced.

"Play" vandalism arises from carelessness during some unrelated activity, such as country-road drinking parties or overly enthusiastic children's games. At that point, destruction itself can become the game.

Finally, "malicious" vandalism is a violent tantrum sparked by diffuse frustration or abrupt rage, often occurring spontaneously in public settings. This is just an extreme version of "slamming the door on the way out."

There are overlaps. Sometimes non-ideologic vandals add insult to injury by leaving offensive messages which only seem ideologically specific -- "666" sprayed on a church wall, for example. It would be a mistake to assume that using that number necessarily betrays a Satanic affiliation. Anyone who's seen one of the "Omen" movies knows it's just what'll rattle religious cages.

Psychologists identify numerous contributing factors underlying such senseless violence. One is boredom, if boredom is properly understood.

It's not the result of a lack of things to do, but rather an inability to connect with a specific activity -- we're prevented from engaging in something, forced to engage in it, or just lack the ability to do it. Attention deficit frequently plays a role -- hard to engage in something when you can't concentrate on it. Psychiatric illnesses such as Conduct Disorder often drive vandals.

Anger is there too. Not just vindictive anger, but a free-floating, unfocused anger that directs violence toward any handy target.

Anger can in turn result from perceived powerlessness. When one has little control over his environment and events, deep frustration ensues. Now we can glimpse those common themes shared by many targets of vandalism.

Stability. Commitment. Symbols of power and control. Responsibility. Order and structure. All the things that the powerless envy in the powerful.

And sometimes, just opportunity and anonymity. That's why we lock car doors and turn on yard lights. Vandals literally shun the spotlight.

Vandalism is ancient, but modern culture has reinvigorated it by estranging us from each other -- and from ourselves.

Put that in your iPhone and text it.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net