As the Boomtown Rats once sang, the lesson today is how to die.
Call it Death by Second Amendment. Or Death by Insanity. Either way, it works out to about the same thing. Isn’t the practical definition of insanity a dogged habit of making the same mistakes repeatedly, yet still expecting a different result each time? When you follow a pattern, the outcome tends to be true to pattern. So if you follow a pattern of insanity, guess what your outcome is.
I hauled out my DVD of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine today, dusted it off and gave it a spin. This was not just some morbid fascination. I wanted to see what, if anything, can be gleaned from it now, five years after its original release and eight years almost to the day after Columbine, to apply to this latest bloodbath. I’m also poring over my old copy of Elliott Leyton’s Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer, originally published in the 1980s, to see what there is in there that might shed a light.
As luck would have it, there’s plenty. Because not much has changed in those years, except for the worse. The Virginia Tech shooter fits right into the same dreary pattern that has characterized school shooters for decades. In fact, he IS the pattern. On steroids.
Bearing that in mind, let’s now recall Bowling for Columbine.
One thing about Michael Moore–every time you see one of his documentaries, you notice something different about it. First you notice the slapstick humor. Then you notice the sadness. Then you notice how neatly he juxtaposes the two–like Kurt Vonnegut, he can make you cry laughing. Finally, you notice how intricately he ties things together. Things that you’d think had no connection, like unemployment, welfare-to-work programs, the defence contractor Lockheed Martin, the NRA, and oh yeah, gun insanity.
But as Moore points out, they do connect. And in Littleton, as in Flint, Michigan, they connect lethally. As earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes are a sign that the Earth’s tectonic plates have reached a breaking point in a subduction zone somewhere on the Pacific Rim, so school shootings are to the plate tectonics of US politics. And the far-right has made this subduction zone a pressure cooker for decades now, right in line with the number of school shooters to emerge in that time. You can start with Charles Whitman in 1966, if you like, and go from there. Every school shooter, without exception, is an apogee of all things rightardly. Liberals and leftists simply don’t snap that way.
Columbine High School isn’t the only point of eruption. Buell Elementary School, in Moore’s economically depressed hometown, is the scene of a less spectacular, but no less tragic, shooting. There, a six-year-old brought his uncle’s .32 pistol to class and shot a classmate to death with just one bullet. So much for the contention that guns don’t kill, and people do. If a first-grader can do it in one shot, it’s hard to argue against the fact that the gun is simply too easy a killer to make it so widely and freely available.
The backstory, however, is even more troubling. The boy with the pistol might never have gotten his hands on it if his mother had not been in a workfare program. She worked 70 hours a week at two minimum-wage jobs which required her to travel more than an hour and a half by bus, each way. Yet all this work and sacrifice still wasn’t enough to pay her rent. She got evicted and had to move in with her brother, the owner of the gun that killed little Kayla. Thus goes yet another mundane American tale of failure.
And who is the Great American Success Story that privatized Michigan’s welfare program, turned it into workfare, and pushed a young boy’s mother into two low-paying jobs that wouldn’t cover her most basic living costs? Who got this mother evicted for lack of money? Who is ultimately responsible for this child being in that untenable position from which he became a killer? Lockheed Martin–the #1 employer in Littleton, Colorado.
See what I mean by intricate connections?
Even worse than the use of a missile manufacturer as a welfare administrator, though, is the use of celebrities to make the unacceptable not only accepted, but desired. Dick Clark’s image is all over the American Bandstand cafe where the six-year-old shooter’s mother earned part of her workfare pittance; Charlton Heston, meanwhile, serves as the National Rifle Association’s formidable, unctuous figurehead. Like well-oiled guns, both men shoot out their all-American cultural messages, rapid-fire. Clark, whose name is synonymous with pop music and who has gotten rich almost from that alone, refuses to talk to Moore at all. Heston does grant Moore an interview, but refuses to take responsibility for helping to keep gun laws lax, Americans gun-crazy, and the culture of school shootings alive and well. In a land where messages of “personal responsibility” are constantly being dinned into the Little People’s heads, the Big People are getting off easy. It seems that if you make enough money, you can abdicate responsibility if you so choose. You can glamorize the squalid and never have to look at the mess you helped to make. You can pretend it’s someone else’s problem, made solely by them. You even have the luxury of turning your back if you are called to account by someone like Michael Moore.
I can only admire Moore’s restraint. When he went to see Charlton Heston at home, the meanest thing he did was politely ask him if he’d like to see a picture of the little girl who died. Big old coward wouldn’t look at it–just ran off, if you can call his unheroic, knock-kneed half-shuffle running. Suddenly, he’s not the guy who parted the Red Sea; he’s just a pitiful, scared old man scuttling for a curtain to hide behind. Moore quietly leaves the picture propped up against a pillar where he might see it later.
Charlton Heston is not Moses. He never was. What is he? An old actor who now plays the role of Defender of the Indefensible. A cowardly bully who waves a long rifle in his cold dead hands and makes meaningless speeches about freedom and a great land in towns where gun violence has claimed young lives, and who insists it isn’t his nut-club’s fault that kids keep shooting each other. Why? Because the Second Amendment, written before the fledgling states had a “well-regulated militia” in the age of flintlocks and blunderbusses, guarantees everyone the right to blow the shit out of each other with the latest and lethalest shit-blowing technology, don’t you know?
I’d rather have a beer with Marilyn Manson–the guy who outclassed Old Mr. Moses is all right with me, no matter what he does to piss off suburban parents. At least he cancelled his Denver concert out of respect for the grieving families. And when Moore asked him what he’d say to them, he said he wouldn’t say a thing–he’d listen to what they had to say instead. Downright gentlemanly for a so-called shock rocker!
The NRA are no gentlemen; they are vultures. They actually relished descending not only on Littleton, but on Flint soon after the shooting there. The timing was no coincidence. They were coming there to feast on the carrion, flaunting their lawlessness, and shoving their lunacy in people’s faces–reminding them, in short, who really employs the lawmakers. No, not Ye the People–’tis We, the Gun Pushers. So, what are you going to do about it?
Well, some of the parents had the guts to stand up to them. The father of one of the Columbine victims led an anti-NRA protest with his son’s photo on a placard. But still–he shouldn’t have had to! The NRA should have had the common decency to stay away, or at least apologize for the part they played in helping two disgruntled kids get their hands on assault weapons. If the anarchic Marilyn Manson could show some respect, why not they?
I suspect it is because the NRA, at heart, are just like Edmund Kemper.
Kemper, as Elliott Leyton informs us in Hunting Humans, is not a mass murderer; he’s a serial killer. His weapon of choice was a knife, not a gun. Nevertheless, he has much in common with the NRA. Like them, he subscribes to the butchest of all American ideals. He’s a fan of John Wayne; an NRA member; right-wing to the nth degree. Like them, he takes advantage of the wide-open loopholes of a society that pays lip service to rugged individualism, but only of a certain brand. Genuine dissent is less tolerated, and less celebrated, in the United States than is conformity to a right-wing ideal which is, at heart, profoundly anti-social.
Kemper also shares an anti-social outlook with the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung-Hui. Both were profoundly alienated by, and attracted to, a higher social class they considered phony. Both failed to benefit from psychiatric attention in any meaningful way. It is true that their ki
lling styles could not have been more different; Kemper took ten victims, one or two at a time; Cho took over thirty, all in a day. Juxtapose their musings, though, and you notice striking similarities of language, if not tone:
“My little social statement was, I was trying to hurt society where it hurt the most, and that was by taking its valuable…future members of the working society; that was the upper class, or the upper-middle class, what I considered to be snobby or snotty brats, or persons…that ended up later being better equipped to handle a living situation than I was, and to be more happily adjusted.” (Kemper)
“You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust funds wasn’t enough. Your vodka and cognac wasn’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfil your hedonistic needs. You had everything.” (Cho)
Both, in their disparate ways, were taking pot-shots at the American Dream, that fable of ease and affluence that supposedly comes as a reward to the diligent worker, but more often simply falls unearned on those lucky enough to be born into the “best” social stratum. However, neither one is out to change it. These are not socialists, nor are they anarchists; they were never out to reform or renounce the capitalist system. On the contrary, both operated very much from within it, and set out to carve their niches in it through violence. If they were insane, it was after a distinct pattern–the pattern of unaccountability which is the thumbprint of the far-right. Both, like the NRA, pointed the finger of blame at everyone but themselves. According to Leyton,
If the murders can only be understood as a personalized social protest, it must be emphasized that these killers are no radicals: they have enthusiastically embraced the established order only to discover that it offers them no place they can endure. Their rebellion is a protest against their perceived exclusion from society, not an attempt to alter it as befits a revolutionary. This fundamentally rebellious, not revolutionary, nature of their protest is undoubtedly why so few government resources are allocated to the capture of these killers (compared, say, to the huge police apparatus that monitors political dissidents), for they pose no threat to the established order–neither in their ideology nor their acts.
Little wonder, then, that more politicians have chosen to direct their outrage at Marilyn Manson, rather than the NRA. Manson may be no threat to society, but he looks like he damn well ought to be one. He’s an easy target. On the other hand, the NRA paints itself as apple-pie wholesome, but it is rotten and crawling with maggots. And those maggots have big, ugly teeth that, as Michael Moore has shown, routinely batten on the public’s fears–and the vast gun-industry profits that can be turned from them.
One denounces them at one’s peril. But denounce them one must, because enough is enough. There is no true safety in “same shit and more of it”; anyone who thinks the answer to school shootings is to allow students, or teachers, to “pack”, may as well be advocating public drunkenness as an antidote to drunk driving deaths.
And a surprisingly large number of Americans seem to think so too.