From THE AUTOMATIC EARTH
Fast forward to July 20, 2012, and we find ourselves confronted with a very similar tragedy. Police have identified James Holmes, a 24 year old studying for a P.h.D. in neuroscience at the University of Colorado, as the gunman who killed 12 people and injured 40 others at a Dark Knight movie premier in Denver. Should we chalk this horrendous incident up to the homicidal delusions of an abnormal person in an otherwise “normal” society as well, and then forget about it next week? Is there any connection at all between the actions of Holmes and the societal institutions and ingrained culture that surrounds us?
Perhaps it is time we, as individuals living in such a society, really start to ask ourselves why these incidents are apparently becoming more common throughout the developed world, mainly in the West but also in the East. What’s happening in our economies, our corporate sectors, our banking systems and our socipolitical environments is not independent of what’s happening in our movie theatres and our schools and our workplaces. Something deeper is happening than just chemical imbalances and misfiring neurons here; something more sinister, and something more widespread. I dare say we owe it to the victims and their families to not only offer them our thoughts and prayers, but to offer them our deeply considered reflection on what just happened.
In that spirit, I would ask readers to consider the following summary and review of the book “Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion” by Mark Ames, written in 2007 by Ed Vulliamy for the Guardian. In the book, Ames compares modern shooting sprees to the murderous outbursts of slaves against those around them, including but not limited to their masters – acute episodes of backlash against a culture of severe oppression and alienation. In the review, however, Vulliamy takes it a step further to suggest that perhaps what we are experiencing through these acts IS our culture, and what it has been for many years now. People like Holmes are not victims, rebels or exceptions – they are the metastasized cells of a cancerous culture.
Once again, I don’t want to use this incident as a platform to convince anyone of anything, but simply to present ideas that deserve our consideration in these trying times.
Rage against the American Dream
It came as a shock, but then seemed suddenly inevitable: another news bulletin, another school massacre. Almost exactly a year before, I had been in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to report the gunning down of four girls at Westside Middle School. Now, in April 1999, it was a town called Littleton, Colorado, and a school called Columbine High: hardened SWAT officers wiping away tears; bereaved parents, their faces crippled with sorrow; another little town with its soul torn out by yet another ‘rage killing’. ‘Where’s your God now?’ the teenaged killer Eric Harris had jibed – with what one girl I spoke to called a ‘dumb giggle’ – before opening fire and killing her friend Cassie Bernall.
Then came the excavation into the world of Columbine’s ‘Trenchcoat Mafia’, its immersion in guns, rap music, Marilyn Manson and violent computer games, and the acclaimed film Bowling for Columbine (2002) by Michael Moore. Now comes a book about the history of ‘rage killing’ in America that takes its title not from the school massacres that inspired it, but from an expression every American knows. ‘Going postal’ entered the language after a spate of shootings in the US Postal Service facilities that began in 1986 with a murderous spree by Patrick Sherrill in Edmond, Oklahoma. Ames explains how the shootings coincided with ‘semi-privatisation’ under Ronald Reagan that turned working for the USPS into a corporate experience like many others in postmodern, post-industrial America. But Ames goes further.
There followed many more workplace massacres, the histories of which he traces meticulously, and which he posits as acts of enraged rebellion against a new system of stress, layoffs and impossible expectations which are ‘making the world a crueller place’ in the new American factory – the office – and at places of supposed study. It is an apolitical insurgency by people who are, he insists, ‘sane’.
In the education system, the stress endured by pupils’ parents ‘doesn’t so much trickle down, it rains down from parent to child, like acid rain’. Ames draws a direct line between slave rebellions and rage killing, arguing that ‘the modern American work culture derives from the same sources that defined slavery’s official work culture’.
But the idea that developing forms of modernity and postmodernity devour, reduce and alienate their pawns to the point of violence is as old as modern social analysis. And other problems arise in Ames’s argument, among them the fact that there have not, so far as I know, been many, if any, cases of ‘rage massacre’ in the sweatshops of Asia or indeed along the chain of Mexican export assembly plants, or maquiladoras, on the United States’s southern frontier, where conditions are far worse than those in the US itself.
What Ames is writing about is a largely American phenomenon, and mostly a white one – with black ghetto gun killing another, though related, matter. Ames scorns the way ‘Americans wanted to blame everything but Columbine High for the massacre’ – citing ‘a violent culture, Marilyn Manson, the internet’ and the gun lobby. He wants the mainstream to be responsible, not its bogeymen.
Of course he has a point when it comes to the alienation, stress, pressure, bullying and loneliness endemic in modern America – imitated all over the world, markedly in Britain and Asia – and the violence they detonate. But what could be more quintessential to establishment America’s perversion of its own culture than the factors Ames dismisses: violence in the media, on the internet, in mass music, all of it highly lucrative?
Is there really such a distance between the hardcore rap lyrics that incite violence and the entertainment industry that nurtures them? Or between Hollywood violence and extreme violence on the web and in computer games designed along Silicon Valley? What if rage killing were actually an affirmation of – not a ‘rebellion’ against – American culture?
The mediocre genius of postmodern mass culture is that it creates what appears to be dissent, in order to absorb it at a profit. A more interesting volume would collate these outrages, as Ames has done, and demonstrate how they were actually inspired by creatures of that same, highly established, mass and new digital media, that same postmodern, post-industrial culture against which Ames thinks they were directed.
This was pointed out to me, a year before Going Postal was conceived, by David Grossman, a former army psychologist who had tutored soldiers in the psychological art of killing in Vietnam, and had come to live in Jonesboro. By the time of the massacre there, he was a college tutor in ‘killology’, and he told me how what he called the ‘continued stimulus and conditioned response’ to ensure that a soldier would kill were ‘manifest all over mainstream American civilian society, on television, in the rap music, in computer games’. During his experiments, children accomplished at cyber-killing became eager and skilful marksmen on a clay-pigeon shoot.
But how far do we want to go in ‘understanding’ rage killers, and defining their rampages in terms of ‘rebellion’? We in Britain tend to regard American rage killing as something of a video game in itself – a passage in that fantasy mental screen narrative we call ‘Americana’. But what if we bring it home? Covering Jonesboro and Columbine were coloured for me by the unforgettable honour of having previously met an extraordinary man called Mick North, whose daughter was killed, along with 15 other children, at Dunblane primary school in 1996 by Thomas Hamilton, who had a grudge against the local scouts, against parents of children at the school and against the local police, all two of them. Do we really want to ‘understand’ what Hamilton did in terms of ‘alienation’ from our admittedly rotten and ‘postal’ society? And if we don’t, does that make us ‘Outraged of Tunbridge Wells?’ No, it doesn’t. Closing Ames’s book and trying to think of Hamilton as any kind of revolutionary or victim … sorry, it just doesn’t work.