We must face the truth of violence in America
Friday 05 November 1999
I don't suppose he himself understands fully just how tolerant other countries are becoming of American violence, either. In April, when the world woke up to news of the Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colorado, commentators across the globe began theorising hysterically over what it could all mean and how it could be curbed. Now, in November, after news of more shootings has broken every few weeks, few people bat an eyelid, let alone bat a cultural conclusion around.
Why is it that in the space of only seven months, the news of repeated mass murder in the world's most powerful democracy and dominant economy has become so uninteresting? While our general appetite for information about all things American remains insatiable, our reaction to these stories has become as lip-serving as the news of any supposedly insignificant tragedy in the developing world. American deaths are usually considered to have news value second only to British ones. But the serious matter of the US's burgeoning ability to breed battalions of lone gunmen seems to be something we feel we can no longer usefully comment on.
It is partly down to America's own stubborn paralysis. While, clearly, the easy availability of guns isn't the only thing that's wrong with a culture in which people regularly feel the need to massacre a bunch of work colleagues or schoolmates, it doesn't take a genius to work out that the right of every American to bear arms is a right for which many innocent people are paying the ultimate price.
What is the point of any further soul-searching, when the world's most powerful democracy falls at a hurdle as simple as this one? While Top- Man-on-the-Planet bleats that what he needs to see is sensible gun legislation from Congress, the rest of us marvel at how monolithic, and how utterly unable to generate positive momentum, the land of the free has become.
And if even this symptom can't be treated, what is the use of attempting to identify and combat the deeper causes of this awful malaise? Let's all just sit back and hope this madness all around calms down a bit after the turn of the millennium, seems to be the attitude of Congress. I'm sure the residents of Seattle are finding that pretty easy to do, as they muse about on whose back porch the man who walked into a boatyard and shot four men may be lurking.
But there are other conclusions, just as banal, that can be drawn from this spate of killings. Yet they are hardly worth mentioning, so unable are we to transform our knowledge into action. It's hardly worth pointing out that all of these killers have been men, and that it would therefore be uncontroversial to suggest that the sex divide is alive and killing.
Equality among the sexes is not a goal worth fighting for. But a far- reaching and honest critique of male behaviour - and not just towards women - is long overdue. So far it has been left to women to provide this, but really, they're the last people qualified to do so. Get a grip, guys, and start taking a good look at yourselves and the kind of world your freedom creates. Or rather, don't.
Since the guys can't even get together and apply enough self-analysis to come up with the conclusion that maybe not all of them are entirely to be trusted with vast armouries just for fun and pleasure and good times, then the idea that they might be able to undertake a vast evaluation of what masculinity is, and how it can be utilised most creatively, is as likely as the media deciding to leave Chris and Geri quietly to get on with living happily ever after for a few months.
Another trend among these killings, which again is gently played down, is that while all sorts of motivations, from anti-Semitism to white supremacism to hatred of religion, have emerged as the moving force behind various sprees, the most common scenario is revenge attacks from those who feel excluded from school or from work.
A sacked 34-year-old killed three former colleagues in Alabama, after having been fired. He walked into his old office and shot two former workmates, then drove to the headquarters of another previous employer, where he claimed a third victim.
These murders came just a few weeks after Mark Barton had beaten his wife and children to death and then gone on a killing spree at two brokerage houses in Atlanta, Georgia, where he had lost almost pounds 100,000 as a day- trader. He shot nine people.
In California a former employee at a small software company returned to his office to shoot and kill one former colleague, and threaten many others at gunpoint, before shooting himself.
Then, of course, a couple of days ago in Honolulu, Byron Uyesugi, worried about losing his job as a photocopier repairman with Xerox, calmly went into his office and murdered seven workmates before giving himself up to police after a five-hour sojourn in the company car.
As for the Seattle killings, no one seems to know the motivation for the murder of two men and the maiming of two others. The killer was not a former employee, but it seems unlikely that the incident was totally random, and entirely unconnected with their work. If this sounds far-fetched, consider that in America murder is now the second largest cause of work- related deaths after car accidents. Now, while it is true that this may not be surprising - guns and cars are dangerous, and ubiquitous in US society - the fact is that although the vast majority of these killings were perpetrated by outsiders committing robberies and assaults, just over 60 were the result of "office rage".
This doughty little statistic might be easy to dismiss if it were not for the reams of evidence suggesting that it is the tip of a monumental iceberg composed of work-related stress, office bullying, rudeness and bad temper among employees, and rampant exhaustion through overwork.
While in this country we're not actually taking pot-shots at each other - well not that often - the degree of unhappiness and dysfunctionality in the workplace is running high, too. Once more the blindingly obvious can be stated - that Western patterns of work, now being duplicated across the globe, make people miserable and societies destructive.
Except that again, just as in the case of US gun control, the vested interests are too powerful for us to feel that self-examination is appropriate for them. It is easier to dismiss increasing numbers of people as lone nutters than to consider that maybe you can usefully judge the health of a society by the proliferation and mind-set of its psychopaths.
It is easier, too, to accept the sacrifice of more and more people, not necessarily to violent death but just to cripplingly hard lives, than to try to assail the tough and leathery carapace of political process and work out different strategies for society. In America the gap between rich and poor is even wider than it is here in Britain. In both countries it makes for dangerously disgruntled, unco-operative and destructively lawless citizens.
In some respects this trend appears to be on the turn in the US, with important indices of dissatisfaction such as crime rates and drug misuse finally on the decline. That is not yet the case here, although it is fervently to be hoped for.
But if the price of this kind of progress is a more virulently nihilistic tendency among a smaller but more heavily terrorising minority, this would continue to suggest that the societal model isn't quite right. Or maybe everything will just calm right down after the turn of the millennium. Better not ever bother with tending to the most obvious of symptoms until this one's ridden out. After all, the juggernaut of Western progress has never been for turning.
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