I have always been interested in the psychology of lynch mobs.
How did the people in these mobs – made up mostly of white men in the American accounts I’ve read – rev themselves up to peak barbarity? At what point did their humanity go dormant and bloodlust consume their beings?
I have stared at the pictures of glassy-eyed men and boys (and sometimes women) standing beneath dangling bodies or standing above charred ones. I have read the histories of communities consumed by the desire to not only kill, but to mutilate.
In 1893, Henry Smith, a Black man accused of killing a white girl, was lynched in Paris, Texas, before a crowd estimated at 10,000 people. As The New York Times reported at the time in a story headlined “Another Negro Burned”: “Officers saw the futility of checking the passions of the mob, so the law was laid aside, and the citizens took into their own hands the law and burned the prisoner at the stake.”
Smith was paraded through the streets on a carnival float, then tied to a scaffolding. His body was burned with “red-hot” irons “inch by inch until they were thrust against the face.” His eyes were burned out and the hot irons shoved down his throat. The scaffolding was doused with kerosene and set ablaze.
Afterward, clamoring for souvenirs, the crowd took ashes and pieces of bone.
This sort of ghastly scene isn’t anomalous. I grew up in Gibsland, Louisiana, just north of the spot where Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down. For most people, I would imagine that’s where their understanding of the story ends – but not for us locals.
We know that after the killing, the car was towed, with their bloody bodies still in it, and stopped in front of a segregated white school. Children ran outside and gawked at the corpses.
When the car was towed to the neighboring town of Arcadia, a mob descended. People again sought relics, taking Bonnie’s shoes and pieces off the car.
I grew up around people, or at least the children and grandchildren of people, who had been quickly converted from gentle shoppers in downtown stores into a school of piranha, hacking at the flesh of the dead.
Why does this kind of thing happen? The sentiments expressed in one of Tucker Carlson’s text messages may offer a window.
The Times reported Tuesday that one of the texts that most likely contributed to Carlson’s firing from Fox News was one he sent to a producer, describing a video of a street fight in which “a group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid” and beat him. “Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously,” Carlson continued. “It’s not how white men fight.”
He then confessed: “Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it. Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: This isn’t good for me.”
That’s a lot to unpack.
To start, Carlson attempts to racialize the idea of dishonor in combat, exempting white men from it, which is ridiculous. Human beings behave both honorably and dishonorably, regardless of race.
But more important to me was his description of his immediate descent into sympathizing with the savagery, and how that kind of descent is a mental progression that has, in so many instances, fostered or tolerated all types of violence in this country and around the world.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative – which operates a national memorial for lynching victims in Montgomery, Alabama – told me we make a mistake when we think of all the people who participated in lynchings and other types of mobs as akin to Klansmen.
As he explained, “The people who participated in mob violence were teachers and lawyers and police officers and ministers and journalists. In fact, the media facilitated much of this violence by characterizing it as righteous.”
And “rooting for the mob against the man,” as Carlson described his feelings, is a passive form of participation. It is encouragement. It is license.
There is an entire body of research around mob violence that helps to contextualize Carlson’s response. As Stuart Stevenson, a lecturer at the University of East London, wrote in 2021, “A lynch mob gives its members a sense of intoxicating power; a promise of safety from the most persecutory and primitive anxieties.”
He explains, “This is the driver for the essential dehumanization required for lynching that enables ‘a stone to be made of your heart,’ and an omnipotent and intoxicating sense of triumph and grandiosity over who is lynched.”
The incident Carlson was describing was a street fight, not a lynching in the classical sense, but by his own account, at least briefly, he wanted the attackers to take their attack to the ultimate end. In that moment, Carlson wanted the taking of the life of someone he described as an “Antifa creep.”
He pulled back from that instinct, realizing that hating someone for his apparent political views was wrong, and that the people who loved “that kid” would be “crushed” if he was killed.
Make no mistake, though: What Carlson could “taste” in the heat of that moment he recounted was the power to assign death.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.