A Massacre for Our Times
Mass murders, that periodic subset of American entertainment, lost their innocence fourteen years ago. Until then the mass killers were the solo mad-whirl variety: Andrew Kehoe, the Michigan school board member who took out his anger at higher school taxes by bombing schools in 1927 and killing 45 people, most of them second, third, fourth and sixth graders; Howard Unruh, the decorated World War II tank veteran whose name means “unrest,” and who walked out of his Camden home one day in 1947 to shot 13 people dead (“I had been thinking about killing them for some time,” he’d written); Charles Whitman, the former Marine, who took to turrets in the University of Texas tower on August 1, 1966 and killed 15 passers-by two weeks after Richard Speck killed eight nurses in Chicago after metronomically raping and stabbing each of them; Julio Gonzales, the arsonist of the Happy Social Club in the Bronx, who may or may not have the lives of 87 people on his conscience as he awaits parole in 2015.
But all those killings were the home cooking of American extremism, explained away by clever-clacking hacks as “the home cooking of American extremism” or by stuffy editorialists who, as the Times did in a two-paragraph editorial about the Texas killings in 1966, were reduced to this: “The mystery of the defect in humanity that permits such things ever to happen remains elusive.” That’s what I mean by “innocent”: The heinousness was indisputable, but so was its Americanness, lending the proceedings a familiarity that could be reduced, isolated and shrugged off to “the defect in humanity that permits such things.”
Then came the 1993 World Trade bombing and its trail of Arab smoke. The shrugging stopped. Since then every shooting spree in the United States, every bombing, every chatter about bombings, elicits the same initial bias-jerk whether we admit it or not: Arabs again? The question was posed and answered affirmatively in the immediate moments after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, to the shame of the media—and the continuing shame of the likes of Jayna Davis, an Ahab of a television correspondent who can’t let go of cash-cow conspiracy theory that Timothy McVeight had an “Iraq connection.” The shame was persistent enough that by the time of the Columbine killings in 1999, the immediate assumptions were mostly, thankfully muted. Not so the subsequent rejoinders: schools are now routinely barricaded and locked down at the sound of backfire on the assumption that “terrorists” are always a sleeper cell away, terrorism being the modern synonym of Arabs.
But the times are such — the violence is so pervasive abroad and at home, the prejudices so feebly latent, as the likes of Don Imus, Bill O’Reilly,Glenn Beck and Tommy Thompson remind us routinely — that none of us is immune. When I lived in Southern West Virginia I used to hang out in Blacksburg, the town, and the Virginia Tech campus, being the closest thing to a cosmopolitan interruption of Appalachia’s lush hollowness. Cousins and friends attended the school. As I remember it, its engineering department attracted its share of Lebanese. My immediate thought of Monday’s killing spree was an inversion of prejudice: Could it be that some crazy hillbilly is going after Arabs?
My second thought was that it could be the job of yet another veteran returning from Iraq or Afghanistan with a screw loose, like Howard Unruh returning from the Italian and French campaigns in 1945 after taking pride in methodically recording the details of every one of his kills, down to the description of corpses, or Charles Whitman, whose mental trip-wires had naturally earned him acceptance in the Marine corps and promotion to lance corporal, though he never made it to Vietnam. (Last month in Daytona Beach, during spring break, an Iraq veteran went up to the motel door of a few partying kids, knocked, and shot dead the man who opened the door after recognizing him as the man he’d had a brief argument with in the parking lot.) And wasn’t Perry Smith, the mini-mass killer of Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” a decorated Korean War veteran? The connection isn’t spurious. When this country goes to war, murder sprees follow. It happened in the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1970s. It’s happening now. The killers don’t necessarily have to be veterans of war. Only of America. I’m not sure this second thought of mine is such a prejudice so much as a demonstrable consequence of this country’s variations on a theme of violence.
Throughout the afternoon at the newspaper one of my colleagues kept me informed of the latest possibilities and allegations—he may have been Asian, it may have been over a girl. Who knows. He could yet turn out to be a distraught Lebanese engineering student, which should give the reactionary blogosphere six months’ worth of conspiracy grist (although police have said that he wasn’t a student). As I’m writing this news has it that the killer has been identified (it took a while because the shot that ended his life, apparently self-inflicted, disfigured him, and he carried no identification but the two guns he’d recently bought in Virginia’s circus-like gun culture) but that the police aren’t releasing his identity yet.
By Monday morning, the university president had announced that the killer was a student at the university (of Korean extraction acording to Washington Post sources), and a resident in one of the dorms. As always, it doesn't really matter what those details amount to—Lebanese, Korean, Kansan, student, non-student.... The killings are over. They could study the case and the man until the next century. It won’t reverse the clock or prevent the next mass killing. The country can’t escape from itself.
Not that it’s trying to, or trying to hide its perverse lusts for gunnery: Astounding as this sounds, one of the first reactions out of the White House, besides a cursory note of regret for the families, was President Bush, speaking through a spokesman, reaffirming his commitment to gun rights. This, on the day of the single-bloodiest massacre on any school campus in American history. The reactionary blogosphere is doing him one better: if students had been armed, they could have defended themselves and none of this would have happened. They make those Times editorialists sound like W.H. Auden reciting “Funeral Blues.” And they remind us why we are so exultantly at war, and not just “out there,” as Perry Smith called his little personal Iraq in Holcomb, Kansas.