Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

The tragedy in Nebraska has barely resonated beyond the state. For many, such crimes are simply an ineradicable facet of modern life
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The Independent Online

How many people do you have to shoot dead to become famous? Eight, it would seem, is hardly enough. That was the number killed by Robert Hawkins, the disturbed young man who opened fire in an upmarket department store in a shopping mall, in America's latest shooting rampage. Yet the national reaction to the slaughter has been as notable as the slaughter itself.

The number of victims was above average, yet America has greeted this tragedy with a weary shrug of the shoulders. Gun crimes of this sort are now accepted as an ineradicable facet of modern life in the US. No new debate has begun over the need for tougher gun controls, and by the second day many newspapers did not even run a follow-up story. There simply seemed nothing new to say.

Not, of course, in Omaha, Nebraska, itself, where the tragedy unfolded. The 19-year-old Hawkins entered Westroads Mall and the Von Maur department store one of a chain of 22 across the Midwest owned by the same family around 1.30pm on Wednesday, went up to the third floor, and opened fire with an AK-47 rifle. In the fusillade, six Von Maur employees and two Christmas shoppers were killed before Hawkins turned his weapon on himself. These were local people, with local lives. It will be a long time before Omaha forgets, if ever.

But for the rest of the country, each new detail only reinforced the awful, numbing familiarity of the event. Hawkins was a misfit who suffered from depression. His parents had divorced when he was very young; thereafter he had been a ward of the state and had been placed in a series of foster homes. He had dropped out of high school and had been charged with a minor drug offence.

Of late, however, things had seemed to be going better until the last fortnight, when Hawkins lost first his girlfriend and then his job at McDonald's. When he died, he was living at the house of two of his teenage friends. Debora Maruca-Kovac, the mother who took him in, described him as "kind of like a [dog] pound puppy that nobody else wanted". According to those who knew him, he seemed relatively cheerful, and gave no sign of what he planned to do.

But on the final day of his life, he exchanged text messages with his former girlfriend, and half an hour before entering the Von Maur store, rang Ms Maruca-Kovac to tell her he had left a note at home. "It's too late," he said, when she asked him what it was about.

When news of the shootings came in, she said later: "I had a feeling it might be him." In his brief note, Hawkins said he was "sorry for everything", but would no longer be a burden to his family and friends. And, he added, "Now I'll be famous."

If so, fame will not long endure. It is the mundanity, the utter pointlessness of such crimes that make them so poignant. In Hawkins's case, no one knows exactly why he chose the Westroads Mall. The victims too are utterly random, people with no personal connection to the killer, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. To all but those who knew them or knew of them, their names are meaningless. The same goes for the killer, even for the crime itself.

To be remembered, a shooting rampage must have a distinguishing feature; either the circumstances for instance the execution-style murder of the six little girls at an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania in October 2006 or the sheer number of victims, as was the case with the 32 people shot dead on the campus of Virginia Tech university last April. Even so, few can recall the name of the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho.

This time, there was no such feature, apart from the fact that the shootings were captured on video by the mall's surveillance system. Pictures released by Omaha police on Friday afternoon showed the gunman in a tracksuit walking into the store, and then with rifle aimed, ready to fire. Audio tapes of 911 mobile phone calls to the emergency authorities have also been made public, with shots going off the background, sounding like fire-crackers.

The weapon was an AK-47, which Hawkins may have stolen from his stepfather. It is among a range of assault rifles banned by the then Democratic Congress in 1994, despite fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association, which claimed such weapons which reload automatically or semi-automatically from an attached magazine were responsible for very few crimes. But the law, passed with a 10-year "sunset" clause, lapsed shortly before the 2004 election. At the time, President George Bush said he favoured extending the ban. But, concerned not to upset the pro-Republican gun lobby when he was seeking a second term, he did not lift a finger to do so.

The argument, however, is moot. There have been no angry editorials urging Congress to reinstate the ban, just as there was no effort made to tighten gun laws after Virginia Tech, the deadliest such event in US history. The talk is not of banning guns, but rather of installing metal detectors, airport-style, at the entrance to shopping malls.

As for the broader gun control argument, a pointer will come from the Supreme Court, when its judges rule in the next few months on the legality or otherwise of Washington DC's gun laws. The strictest in the country, these effectively prohibit ownership of handguns, and require rifles and shotguns in private homes to be kept dissassembled.

Some hope. Despite the laws, the DC murder rate is once again soaring, and guns thanks to next-door Virginia, which has among the laxest gun laws in the country are ludicrously easy to obtain. A conservative court may decide that the ban is not just impracticable, but also unconstitutional.

The irony is that in all but one respect, Hawkins's crime matched the scenario that keeps US homeland security officials awake at night. It happened in the heartland, in a city whose inhabitants, in outlook and accent, are considered so typically American that Omaha was the country's telephone call centre capital (at least until that industry was outsourced to India). It happened in a shopping mall regarded, like sporting stadiums, as an ideal "soft target" for anyone out to cause mayhem. In short, the Von Maur store would have been a perfect spot for the second foreign terrorist attack on domestic soil, long feared but which for whatever reason has not happened since 9/11.

So just suppose last Wednesday's eight victims had been killed, not by an AK-47 wielded by an American misfit, but by an Islamist terrorist's suicide bomb. The pandemonium and paranoia can only be imagined. If such a thing could happen in Omaha, not even the great US heartlands could be considered safe. At that point, the clamour for security checks for shoppers too might become irresistible.

Only one question would be left: would the indefatigable American consumer, so vital to the US and global economy, put up with such an indignity before carrying on shopping?

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