On the John
Public Shootings…a thing of the present
Originally completed May 4, 2008
Right now, somewhere in this great country of ours, the next public shooting is being planned. The psycho-asshole is out there somewhere, feeling sad, taking or not taking his meds, plotting against the big jerks who teased him, the community that did not understand him, the society that never helped him. He will get his guns, (they always do), and he will organize a plan that will enable him to murder as many of his ungrateful, uncaring, Godless, soulless tormentors as his aim will allow. He will then kill himself.
We will follow the story as it develops. 24 dead, 15 wounded, 28 dead, 11 wounded, etc. Websites will feature BREAKING NEWS! links, news stations will go Round-The-Clock, and by the time we lay our heads, we will have all of the facts. We will know his name, where he collected his arms, what medications he was on or should have been on. In the morning we will see the screaming headlines, newspapers that wonder in big, bold, front-page print why anyone would commit such a horrible act of newsworthy violence. A Wikipedia page will be created to document the incident. The President will say something important. Candlelight vigils will be scheduled and well-attended. We will mourn.
And then we will Search For Answers, an angry stretch of time that rekindles debates on gun control and public safety and serves to spin us all into an ideological tizzy. “We must do something!” we will shout. “Yes, let us do something!” we will shout back. And off we will march, determined to do something. And when the story fades and we run out of energy, we will sit down and shake our heads in sadness and return to our regularly scheduled program.
This we know.
I am always a bit tickled when we claim shock at mass public shootings. Sadness? Certainly. Anger? You bet. But surprise? Confusion? Are we serious?
Most recently it was Northern Illinois. Following that shooting, the Sun-Times ran this headline in big, bold letters: Why? That one really got me. Why did that shooting happen? You mean, that particular shooting? A total mystery…but not really, because the Sun-Times knew the answer just as well as I did, just as well as you did in fact: that particular shooting happened because it is 2008 in America, and shootings happen.
Can we honestly still look ourselves in the face and say that we don’t know Why? We’re good at that in this country. We excel. Most solutions are simple, provided that you fulfill the two requirements of reaching them: declaring something a problem, and deciding it must be solved. Sounds easy enough, but many problems in our country go routinely unsolved because of that very lack of action. That is the climate we have built for ourselves—that has been built for us, yes, but “they” are part of “us,” and we are back to ourselves once again.
But fine…let’s indulge Why? for a moment, just for the doing. Why did NIU happen? Guns for sure, right off the bat. If you want to kill a slew of people with minimal effort or training, guns are gold. Easy to obtain, easy to use. No argument for or against the 2nd Amendment from me on this. The fact remains: in our country, guns are available for those who seek them.
So that’s one reason, and the other big one has to be the public response to these incidents, the public being a mixture of the people and the media. We all know the drill, as does the perp: if you kill a bunch of people all at once in a white, public setting, you will be known. Your story will be heard. We will acknowledge you. Indeed, a day after asking Why?, the Sun-Times ran a full-page shot of the psycho-asshole’s face opposite five boxed, yearbook-style photos of the victims. The headline this time was THE FACE OF THE KILLER. And in smaller text: And the lives he took.
What gets me is that television stations now have a policy that if a fan runs onto the ball field during a game, they will keep the camera off him so as not to encourage other publicity-minded folk. And yet if you walk into an auditorium and spray round upon round into the chests of your classmates, they will put your picture on the front page. Why? That’s why. That’s one query that answers itself, and to say otherwise is to completely ignore the effect that the prominent style of news coverage has on the mindset of potential perpetrators. Who doesn’t want to be famous? Who doesn’t want a highly-publicized revenge?
Once upon a time, the suicidal among us simply committed suicide. Now they take us with. Not all of them, not even most, but some do, and some is enough. Depressed and bipolar thirty years ago, you may have been more inclined to just off yourself and be done with it. Perhaps if you were particularly angry you would have killed some family members as well. But now the act is known. Through repetition and increased visibility, the idea of the mass shooting/suicide has become publicly viable in a way that it did not seem to be even ten years ago. What stirs me is the personal transformation, because there must have been a moment at which each perp finally realized: “This is an appropriate option. This is something that I can do.”
Because it has to be appropriate. The Northern Illinois shooter did not walk out onto that stage with a bomb strapped to his waist, nor did he lob hand grenades into the crowd. What he did was fire a gun. Accessibility went a long way towards making that his weapon of choice, but look also at how guns make us feel. Guns possess a direct power and immediacy not present with bombs, which are impersonal with their 1-to-many ratio of action to death and require either the patience for a delayed “credit” or an immediate self-sacrifice with no time allotted to observe your creation. Assuming it is not attached to your body, a bomb is something you set up and leave. The bomb does the work. But a gun needs you if it is to work. It has no power without human touch. You place it on your palm, place your finger on the button, place the barrel at your victim. Hold a gun in your hand, and you hold power over everyone who is not holding one in theirs. Bombs are for societal deconstruction and Making A Statement. Guns are for momentary chaos and blowing off steam, for an artificially inflated sense of power in which your target is not a large region that contains people, but rather the people themselves.
These are not murders as political statements. They are not business-related. They are not personal attacks on specific people who have wronged them. And since the shooter’s only option following the act is suicide or prison, they are not strategic shootings in which the shooter will stand to gain. Rather, these are violent fantasies of misplaced anger in which strangers are deemed personal enemies, murders made possible by the availability of guns and encouraged by the media-fueled martyrdom and hero-status that follows.
And this is where the public reaction kicks in. It is where the state of our nation kicks in. I do not feel good about what I am about to say, but I cannot shake the feeling that it is a large part of the problem, and so I will say it: public shootings happen because we as Americans want that possibility to exist. Somewhere beneath the sadness and anger we all rightly feel towards the shooter and his deed, there is a fantasy, however brief, in which we can imagine ourselves behind the gun. Maybe not in a Columbine or Virginia Tech-type rampage, but maybe in something fleeting like what happened at Northern. The suicide part may not be appealing, nor the reality of a person being dead forever at our hands, but as Americans, I feel that the rest of the act has pull. That “going crazy” for five or ten minutes and killing with impunity has pull. That feeling powerful by trampling upon the faceless people that may as well represent everyone who has made your life difficult has pull.
Ultimately, this is what upsets me most: the thought that the public shooting is a uniquely American act, and that though the vast majority of us will never commit it or even seriously consider it, what prevents us from doing so is not a lack of interest.
We live in a country that was simultaneously founded on freedom and oppression. As such, the American mindset is one of perpetual frustration. We have reached a place where we expect individual freedoms even to the point of self-serving excess. Isn’t that what we are expressing when we get angry with police who nab us for speeding? We know it’s illegal. We know it’s dangerous. And we know that we are guilty. Yet we get angry and personally offended when it happens, even showing contempt towards the officer. Speeding? You can’t ticket me for speeding! This is America! I pay taxes! I can drive however damn fast I please!
We live in a country where citizens exhibit a bare minimum of respect for strangers. We have all been on the receiving end of that disrespect. We live in a country where blacks have been given little chance to succeed; where whites are raised to believe that blacks (not to mention Mexicans and most foreigners) pose an immediate threat to our physical and financial well-being; where everyone is encouraged to suspect the worst from others; where many Americans suspect that our government and law enforcement—the very structures sworn to protect us—are not worthy of the trust they ask us to place upon them; where that very government seems to expect more of us than it gives in return.
There is a tension in being an American, and it stems from the every-man-for-himself society that we have created and bought into. It is a tension that leaves all of us—all of us—burdened with a constant nagging that “they” are the enemy, that “they” are standing between us and happiness, and that “they” are everywhere.
And when that tension mixes with personal anger, stress, and depression, mixes with a diagnosed emotional disorder, mixes with the availability of guns, mixes with the high-profile media response that is sure to follow, is it so surprising that every so often, one of our fellow Americans starts shooting at us? The odds simply favor it. It might not happen every day, every week, even every month, but we don’t get pulled over every time we speed either.
This is not to excuse the shooter. He alone is personally responsible for his actions, as no amount of external pressure can ever justify murder. This I believe as strongly as anything else, and I have little sympathy for a person’s own pain when they choose to alleviate it by spreading even more outward. They are guilty, but once they are guilty they are usually dead, and we are right back where we started, back with ourselves. The individual shooter is not our problem. He is merely the person who happened to shoot.
That’s that, and these are just the quick, narrative-friendly shootings. They do not include military actions or black city shootings or even public bombings, all of which seem connected.
So yes, somewhere right now in this great country of ours, the next public shooting is being planned. Duck.
Copyright 2008, jm silverstein
From September 19, 2003: ‘Bowling for columns’
From April 23, 2007: ‘Oh, what a sad time it is.’
From March 20, 2009: ‘A call to [set down] arms’